Sermon for Williamstown
30 March 2014
This morning we heard a wonderful tale of light and sight and blindness, in which faith is born and faith is lost. The story begins with a question of theodicy, of God’s justice. It’s a common problem for Jews and Christians. We believe that God created everything. But if everything is made by a good God, why do bad things happen? How can any baby be born blind? One explanation sometimes offered, not one that I subscribe to, is that such tragedies are the result of our sin. So the disciples ask Jesus, when they see a man born blind: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus says that it was neither, no one sinned, and he immediately begins to heal the man.
The healing isn’t a response to any faith on the part of the man, the man doesn’t even ask for healing. The initiative comes from Jesus – just as Josephine’s baptism later in the service is Jesus’ initiative. This man was born blind, his creation from the dust of the earth was incomplete. So Jesus completes it, spitting on the ground and making mud with the dust and the saliva, and sending the man to wash the mud off. Then, for most of the story, Jesus disappears while the once blind man must face the repercussions of his healing.
Naively, we might believe that the healing of someone once blind would be a cause of great joy. Sadly, it’s not. We might think that it would lead to praise of God. Instead it leads to schism. At first, some of the man’s neighbours don’t even believe that it’s him. Later his parents come close to disowning him, trying to avoid being involved in a controversy that might get them put out of the synagogue. Finally, the religious authorities get involved, and we all know that that’s not going to end well. But this is ultimately a story of joy, because the man’s physical blindness is not the only blindness to be healed.
Over the course of the story, the faith of the man born blind gradually increases, as he has to work out for himself what has happened. To his neighbours he describes his healer as ‘the man called Jesus’. Later, when the Pharisees talk to him for the first time he tells them that Jesus is a prophet. Then there’s another interrogation, in which the Pharisees try to lead their witness and have him declare that the one who healed him is a sinner. Their attempt backfires, the man points out the wonder of his healing and declares: ‘If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ From describing his healer as the man called Jesus, to describing him as a prophet, to now describing him as someone who comes from God, the man’s faith grows as it has been questioned and challenged. Finally, when the man born blind meets Jesus again, he is willing to believe in him as the Son of Man: ‘He said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him.’ It’s a wonderful description of one path to faith; not an instant and miraculous conversion, but a slow journey taken thoughtfully over pondering stages. No Christian need worry about not having a conversion moment when we read stories like this.
But sadly, at the same time, the truth of the other side of Jesus’ words: ‘… those who do see may become blind’ is being proved. As the faith of the man born blind is increased over the course of his conversations, the faith of the Pharisees is destroyed. When they first discuss this miraculous healing, the Pharisees are divided; some arguing that Jesus could not be from God because he healed on the Sabbath, others asking how a sinner could heal. They attempt to solve this division by arguing that the man was never blind to begin with, calling on his parents for evidence. Finally, unable to make sense of this healing in the context of their own religious world view, the Pharisees turn on the man: ‘They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.’ The Pharisees are so sure that they know everything necessary that they cannot accept that God can bless someone they think unworthy. From seeing, they have become blind.
(It’s worth noting in passing that the once-blind man was healed, blessed by God, and as a result his neighbours ignore him, his parents reject him and he is no longer welcome to the synagogue. Contrary to some popular theology, being blessed by God, coming to faith in Christ, does not always make everything better or make life easier.)
This story presents an extremely negative picture of the Pharisees and the Jews, rigid in their orthodoxy and unable to see in Jesus the new things being done by God. They believe that they have had their definitive revelation. We can only understand the passion of John’s portrayal if we understand what was happening to the community for whom John was writing. In this story John tells us of the fear of the parents of the man born blind that they would be put out of the synagogue, and then says that the man himself was driven out. No such thing happened during Jesus’ lifetime. But it would have been happening to the members of the Johannine community – and it would have been agonising. John writes in passionate rejection of the Pharisees and the Jews because he’s first been rejected by them. Stories like this are no excuse for pride that we Christians got it right while the Jews got it wrong. We too can falsely believe that we have the complete truth, that we can put God in a box, that revelation can only come in certain ways. For the disciples, who asked that first question about sin, for the man himself and his parents, for their neighbours and the Pharisees, the coming of the light of the world meant a new way of understanding God. The same is true for us.
We do not know everything about God. We see the truth only dimly, as if in a mirror. There are still questions to which we, like the blind man, can only answer ‘I don’t know’. There are still tragedies that might lead us, like the disciples, to ask ‘Rabbi, who sinned?’ – needing to be reminded that people’s tragedies cannot be explained away by their sin. But we can have faith that ultimately, like the man born blind, Jesus will find us and that, with our blindness cured, we will be able to see him face to face. Thanks be to God. Amen.