Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sermon for April 3rd: John 9:1-41

‘Open our Eyes’

A very good friend of mine who claims to be an agnostic once said to me, “Christ makes much more sense to me as a man than he does as the Son of God. I can understand him as a man – a very good man, in fact - but not as some sort of supernatural being”. This immediately reminded me of the saying of Gandhi that he could accept Jesus “as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept”.

I suspect that many today would agree with Gandhi and with my friend. There are many people today who have a great admiration for Jesus as a man, but can’t accept the idea that he is in any way special or unique, the Messiah or Son of God. I suspect that the majority of people in our tolerant and multi-cultural age have a frame of reference that goes something like this:

‘All religions are simply human attempts to understand the mystery of human existence. Human beings look at the world around them and try to make sense of it, and in order to do so they create God - or gods – in their own image, to explain why the world exists. There have been many such attempts to understand reality, and good and wise teachers have come and gone throughout history and all over the world. Their teaching is by and large a hit and miss affair: they’ve got some things right and some things wrong, which just goes to show that what they are sharing is merely human wisdom, not any sort of divine revelation. Jesus is one of these teachers: he’s altogether admirable, but he’s not in any way unique, he’s not ‘the Son of God’ (whatever that means), and the stories of his resurrection are probably legends, as is the idea that he is, in any sense, God’.

I would suggest to you that this way of looking at religion is very widespread in our society today, and it’s certainly the majority view amongst the cultural elite. If you accept this view, the world around you will not give you any trouble at all; it will see you as harmless and inoffensive and not worth worrying about. And because we Anglicans are polite, mild-mannered people who don’t like to cause trouble, we tend to quietly go along with this way of looking at religion, even though it is totally contrary to what our scriptures and our creeds say about Jesus and who he is. What can it possibly matter who we think Jesus is, so long as we love our neighbour and do unto others as we would have them do unto us?

The answer to that question, of course, is that if it’s true, then it really does matter. It may be true, on the one hand, that all religious traditions are just human attempts to understand God and reality. On the other hand, it may be true that God actually has taken the initiative to reveal himself to us, and has even taken the step of coming to live among us as one of us, to show us what he is like and to live and die and rise again to save us. To assume, without any evidence, that the second view is impossible is to beg the question; in fact, it looks suspiciously like willful blindness: ‘I know that God couldn’t possibly come and live among us as a human being, because God just wouldn’t do that sort of thing, so any claims that he has done so must be wrong’. But how do we know this is impossible? Surely we need to at least be open to examining the evidence before we make a decision? If we’re not willing to do that, then we are indeed being willfully blind.

Today’s gospel reading, from John 9, talks about blindness and sight. In this chapter we’re introduced to a man born blind, and John tells the story in such a way that, by the end of the chapter, we understand that this man represents all of us. In a spiritual sense, we are all born blind; until the Light of the World comes, we all walk in darkness. In this chapter, the blind man experiences a physical healing and is able to see for the first time in his life. But this isn’t the only way his eyes are opened; he also experiences a new spiritual vision, and gradually he comes to see that the man who has healed him is not just a man, but the Son of Man, the Messiah, the one who is worthy of our worship and total commitment.

On the other hand, the Pharisees can’t, or won’t, see this. This healing takes place on the Sabbath day, the day of rest. Jewish law says that work is forbidden on the Sabbath day, and this is one of the most important commandments in the book: it’s one of the commandments that clearly sets the Jewish people apart from the rest of the world and shows them to be God’s chosen people. Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, and healing is work. Therefore Jesus is breaking God’s law, so he can’t be a man sent by God: he must be a sinner.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the blind man and the Pharisees both experience exactly the same event – the healing of a man who had been born blind – but they interpret the event in entirely opposite ways. It’s often said, ‘Seeing is believing’, but in fact this is not true. We never just ‘see’ something: we see it, and then we interpret it according to our personal philosophy or frame of reference. We think that personal philosophy is a lens helping to sharpen our view of what we see, but we also have to be open to the possibility that it might be a blindfold, blinding us to the reality of what God is doing.

So let’s take a closer look at this story. It starts with Jesus walking in the Temple and seeing a man who was born blind, and in an act of pure grace he reaches out to heal the man. There is no record that the man knows who Jesus is at the beginning of the story, or that he asks Jesus for a healing. Jesus simply makes a paste out of mud and spittle, spreads it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash it off. The man does as he’s told, and he comes back able to see. People notice what’s happened to him, and a furious controversy erupts about this. They ask the man, ‘What happened to you?’ and he replies, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash”. Then I went and washed and received my sight’ (v.11). Note how he describes Jesus here: ‘the man called Jesus’. Keep that at the back of your mind.

The Pharisees and the rest of the religious establishment get wind of what’s happened, and the man is brought before them. Now we are told for the first time that this healing had been done on the Sabbath. As soon as we hear this, we just know in our bones that this is bound to lead to trouble! In the gospels, whenever Jesus heals people on the Sabbath the religious authorities are annoyed. And so it is here; the Pharisees ask the man how he has received his sight and he explains again: “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see”. The Pharisees immediately observe that this was done on the Sabbath, and so their belief system kicks in: the one possibility that cannot be true is that this has been done by the power of God, because if Jesus was truly sent by God, he wouldn’t be healing people on the Sabbath. But on the other hand, how can a sinner perform such amazing signs? The Pharisees can’t find the answer, so they ask the man, “What do you think?” and he replies, “He’s a prophet!” Notice that he’s moving in the right direction: he no longer sees Jesus as just ‘the man Jesus’.

The Pharisees, however, are moving in the opposite direction. They can’t accept that Jesus is a prophet; there must be another explanation for what appears to have happened, so the next possibility they raise is that the man was never really blind in the first place; he must be lying. So they call in his parents and ask, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he come to be able to see?’ They reply, ‘We know he’s our son, and we know he was born blind, but we don’t know how he came to be able to see. Ask him; he is of age, but don’t involve us’. Obviously what’s going on is that they don’t want to get into trouble with the authorities, and indeed John tells us that the authorities have said that anyone who acknowledges Jesus as Messiah will be excommunicated.

So again the leaders call the formerly blind man back in, and they put him on oath: “Tell the truth, now – we know that this man is a sinner”. In other words, “What you claim has happened is impossible, so own up: you’ve been lying all along, haven’t you!” But the man replies, ‘I don’t know whether or not he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see’. In other words, ‘I don’t understand all your theological arguments, but I can’t deny the reality of what has happened to me’.

Ridiculously, the leaders ask him to tell the story yet again, as if they are desperate to find one little loophole that they can exploit. ‘What did he do? How did he open your eyes?’ ‘I’ve already told you’, the man replies, ‘and you didn’t listen, so why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples?’ This makes them furious with rage: ‘You may be one of his disciples, but we’re disciples of Moses; we know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know anything about this fellow or where he comes from’. ‘How astonishing!’ he replies. ‘You don’t know anything about him, but he gave me my sight back! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but only to those who worship him and do his will. To open the eyes of a man born blind is unheard of! How could this man possibly do it, if he wasn’t sent by God?’

This all seems plain as can be to the blind man: if his sight has been restored, it must be a gift from God, and the man who did it must have done it by the power of God. Moreover, since God doesn’t listen to the prayers of sinners, Jesus can’t be a sinner: he must be a godly man, a man sent by God. But the leaders see the world through a different lens: working on the Sabbath is sin, healing is work, therefore if Jesus heals on the Sabbath he is a sinner and is not from God. Once again we see how seeing is not necessarily believing; to truly see what God is doing requires not only open eyes, but also an open heart and a teachable spirit. But the leaders do not have a teachable spirit; they are utterly closed to the possibility that this uneducated simpleton might have any valid insights for them. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And so they drive him out.

But now Jesus seeks out the man and asks him, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ (in other words, the Messiah). The man of course doesn’t recognize Jesus, as he’s never seen him with his eyes before. So he asks, ‘Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ ‘You have seen him’, Jesus says, ‘and the one speaking with you is he’. ‘Lord, I believe’, the man replies, and he worships Jesus.

Have you noticed the progression in the blind man’s views of Jesus in this story? In verse 13 he calls Jesus ‘the man called Jesus’. In verse 17 he says ‘He is a prophet’. In verse 25 he says, ‘I don’t know whether he is a sinner’, but in verses 30-33 he has moved on and says that Jesus can’t possibly be a sinner, because God wouldn’t hear the prayer of a sinner; he must be a man sent from God. But now in verse 38 he accepts Jesus’ testimony that he is the Son of Man, the Messiah, and he worships him – a very strong word.

As I said, this passage is not just about healing; the imagery of sight and blindness, light and darkness, is leading us deeper than that. Can we see the reality of who Jesus is, and what God is doing in him? The key to that seems to be a teachable spirit, a willingness to let go of preconceived ideas of how the scriptures are to be interpreted and to open our eyes to the good things that Jesus is doing.

The leaders have a rigid interpretation of reality, and so they are unable to see what God is actually doing in Jesus. The blind man, on the other hand, is open to whatever new thing God may be doing. Understandably, the healing of his eyes makes an enormous impact on him; he can see for the first time in his life, and he knows this is a wonderful thing. It’s plain as day to him that this can’t be evil, so it must be a gift of God. So he is open to the possibility that Jesus is more than just a man or even a prophet.

And that, of course, is the real issue at stake here. In their blindness the Pharisees refuse to see who Jesus really is. He’s not a sinner; he’s not just a prophet; he’s not even just a man sent by God. He is the Son of Man, the Messiah. Of course John, the author of this gospel, wants to lead us even further than this; he wants to remind us who it was, at the very beginning, who brought light out of darkness: God himself. Our modern scientific lens refuses to accept that this is who Jesus is: ‘It’s impossible for a human being to be God; God can’t be in heaven and walking the earth at the same time. It’s impossible for one person to be uniquely the Son of God, above all other prophets and people sent by God’. And so we cling to our comfortable worldview, which brings stability and predictability to our world.

So let’s ask ourselves: are our eyes open or closed? Are we seeing Jesus as he really is, or as our culture around us tells us to see him? John challenges us to open our eyes. Jesus is not just a good man or a prophet; he is the Son of Man, the Messiah, the true Light of the world. We are called to confess him as Lord, to worship him as God incarnate, and to follow him without reservation. As we do that, our eyes are opened and we see reality as it really is, as God sees it. And in that light, the light of Christ, the world becomes a very different place.

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