Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Lent - John 9:1-41

Jesus' encounter with the man born blind is dear to my heart.  In fact, it's my favorite story in the Bible.  I like that Jesus does not heal this man born blind out of pity or compassion.  Jesus heals this man so that the works of God might be revealed in him.  This man born blind comes to sight and faith in the Son-of-Humanity, while the religious leaders move deeper and deeper into blindness.  In a church that for so long has looked upon persons with disabilities as people who need to be ministered to and not ministers, I take both comfort and pride in the movement of this story.

The notion that God inflicts people with a disability as punishment for sin, whether their own sin or that of their parents, should shock us.  Yet, we are not so far beyond it.  When the disciples ask whose sin caused the man's blindness, they articulate an “everything happens for a reason” theology. This theology of “reasonableness” is the only consequence of a God that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.  So we say:  God doesn’t give us anything bigger than we can handle.  When God closes a door, God opens a window.  God needs children in heaven, too. And we read tragedies as divine judgment.  After all, everything happens for a reason.

But Jesus doesn’t go there.  Jesus answers the disciple’s question about the man born blind’s sin the way my seminary professor responded to some of my queries.  Jesus says, in effect, "That's the wrong question."  Jesus denies the presumed causal relationship between sin and disability and disease.  Rather than the consequence of sin, Jesus labels the man’s blindness as an opportunity for God to be revealed. 

Spittle and mud are standard treatment.  Sending the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam is significant.  Washing in the pool of Siloam echoes the prophet Elisha's command to Naaman in 2 Kings. There, Naaman is cured of leprosy.  Evidently, the water of Siloam was used in the ceremonies of the feast of Tabernacles; rabbinic sources identify Siloam as a place of purification.  Understanding Lent as the season committed to preparing candidates for baptism at Easter, the Church has traditionally lifted up the connection between the baptismal font and the pool of Siloam. Baptism is understood to be a washing that leads to new vision, that is, to seeing with the eyes of faith. 

For both the writer of John's gospel and the early church generally, the sacraments are understood to be the continuation of the power that Christ manifested during his ministry.  In our reading, Jesus includes the disciples in his task of working the works of the one who sent him, so that the presence of the light of the world and the revelation of God will not be limited to the historical life of Jesus.  In this same way, the Church through the sacraments is the way Christ continues this same work.  What Jesus did for the man born blind in the pool of Siloam Jesus does for us in the baptismal pool.  And so we preach that baptism leads to enlightenment, to new sight, insight, and perspective, when persons in darkness are washed in obedience to the command of Jesus, the light of the world. 

Immediately after the miracle, everyone is confused.  In John’s Gospel this generally happens after Jesus performs a sign.  Neighbors and onlookers wonder if the man healed is really the man born blind who used to sit and beg.  And so, like Congress entering into a scandal, the leaders of the synagogue launch no less than three hearings before the Pharisees.  In two the man born blind is interrogated.  In the third his parents are grilled. 

With each subsequent trial, the Pharisees become more and more confused and closed to God's revelation.  They do their best to label Jesus a sinner because he works on the Sabbath by making mud.  They also deny the identity of the man born blind in order to discredit the miracle. In so doing, the religious leaders move farther and farther into darkness. 

Called to testify, the parents are afraid of being "put out of the synagogue."  Their fear reflects a later time when Johannine Christians had already been kicked out.  The man born blind, however, is not intimidated.  Originally referring to Jesus "the man," he argues that only one who is "from God" can perform such a miracle.  He then confesses that Jesus "is a prophet."  In the end the man is labeled a sinner and expelled from the synagogue. 

This sequence of events may reflect the experience of the Johannine community as it learned the consequences of confessing faith in Jesus Christ. Raymond Brown believes that a group  of "crypto-Christians" were allowed to remain in the synagogue as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves.  Brown sees the confession of the man born blind that "He is a prophet" acting out the experience of the Johannine community, which had little tolerance for those who refused to make the difficult choice between the community of Jesus and the community of the synagogue. From the perspective of this gospel, refusing to take a public stand on Jesus' behalf is equal to not believing in him. 

John’s Gospel has little room for a personalized religion and a privatized faith. In an age where we have so excluded the language of faith from public discourse that society is held together by the values of the marketplace, this story proclaims that to be baptized into Christ means to boldly bear witness to him. Thus, Jesus finds the healed man, who immediately believes in Jesus as the Son-of-Humanity.  In this same way, Jesus challenges us who have been healed in the waters of baptism to publicly confess our faith in the healer. 

In verses 39-41, a section that reads like a later addition, the theological implications of blindness and sight are spelled out.  Double meanings abound, with blindness pointing to denial and eyesight to faith.  The challenge is to get beyond "seeing is believing."  Faith in Christ calls us beyond hard evidence and scientific certainty to see through the eyes of faith.  For if we seek proof, we will find ourselves closed off in darkness.  But God's gift of faith leads to spiritual sight.  For the ways of God confront and challenge our standards and expectations.  Jesus brings nothing less than a radical reversal of the usual, human view of the world.

In preaching on this reading, we might consider the “blinders” that we wear.  Think about   the personal, social, cultural, national, and theological issues that confuse us. Consider the things that cause us to despair.  Examine the knowledge and assumptions that lead us to overlook God working in our midst.  The opportunity is to find in these issues the good news that God is turning things upside down (or right side up) so that our judgments and reasoning are reshaped in a way that leads to greater vision of who God is and who we can become.

Craig Satterlee, a member of The Liturgical Conference Board, is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

No comments:

Post a Comment