Nowhere in the gospel record is it more clear that things are not what they seem than here in the ninth chapter of John. Here is a man who was born blind. He has never seen a thing in his entire life. It turns out, however, that he sees a good deal more than those who have been seeing any and everything they have wanted to see all their lives. The sightless one sees; the seeing ones are blind.
The story is not so much about a healing as it is about a controversy kicked off by a healing. The controversy is really about Jesus: who is he, what is he, and what right does he have to be abrogating God’s laws, like healing on the Sabbath? Well, it is even more than that. One of my favorite questions is, “What are we talking about that we are not talking about?” This is a classic instance of people talking about the Sabbath, for example, when the truth is that the Sabbath’s sacredness is only a slice of what is they are talking about. What really has people all upset is that nothing Jesus does fits into their ready-made grid of possibilities and permissions.
Let’s look at that more closely. Nothing Jesus does fits into people’s—our—ready-made grid of possibilities and permissions. I suspect that you might not be ready to agree with that. Of course, you’ll say, Jesus meets our expectations! Of course he fits right nicely in our view of the world and reality. And that is just the problem. Nothing Jesus does is surprising because most of us already have Jesus figured out. Even many non-believers, indeed atheists, have their minds made up about who and what Jesus was and was not. We lose the edginess of a story like this because we assume that if Jesus did it, it must be right. With such thinking we tame the Good News, tamp down objectionable dimensions of things, make sure that nothing God or Jesus is up to is apt to upset us too much, fix it so that if there really is any radical element in something Jesus said or did, we convince ourselves that he couldn’t actually have meant to be uncomfortable or disturbing.
If all of this sounds a little grim for a Sunday morning, even in Lent, allow me to explain. There is something quite astonishing, surprising, disarming about this story, and if we are to hear what eventually we will know as very Good News, we need to shed a few preconceptions and clear our minds to think a bit outside the box. Play around with this question: who are you in the story? Are you the man born blind? Are you one of his parents? Are you Jesus? One of the puzzled onlookers? One of Jesus’ disciples who might not know quite what to make of the whole firestorm? Or are you one of the religious leaders who is quite adept at making and keeping and playing by the rules? True, you might be more than one of these characters; but since you are in fact in a church on a Sunday morning, the chances are raised that you might be one of the religious leaders. Think for a minute what you would do if I were to come in this morning and, instead of celebrating the Eucharist, decided to have a healing service bringing with me a half dozen or so mentally ill or physically incapacitated people, and took up the whole morning with them instead of getting to the business of worship as we know it. I would be surprised if no one challenged me. And if no one did, it is a cinch you would go home and hit the telephones and computers and the parish would be all abuzz about this priest who upset the Sunday morning applecart. And that is a poor analogy to what Jesus was doing. He was messing with people’s minds. He was fiddling with their world-views. He was overturning the applecart, spilling what was sacred on the ground and letting the most prized ideas just roll right down into the gutter. He was shining light, the very light that came from himself, into the dark places that people didn’t even know were dark. Are you beginning to get the picture?
So if we are going to get the full impact of the gospel, we need to imagine ourselves in the place of these religious leaders who are so thoroughly angry at what Jesus did. Why? Because about the best thing imaginable to keep us from really hearing and thus following the Truth is for us to say, “We see. We are not blind. We see. We know what’s what.” Grace has to be something of a surprise, or it isn’t grace. And if theology—or faith—is worth anything at all, it must be something that takes us beyond the borders of safety. That is what Jesus does, and more that that, that is what Jesus is. He cracks open our views of reality like the force that cracks open a planted seed, so that new life can emerge from us. And that cannot happen if we are busy protecting ourselves, running no risks, or running scared, defensive of whatever life we are comfortable with.
This story, you see, is a resurrection story. It is? Resurrection is not fundamentally about somebody dying and going to heaven. It is about life cracking open whatever tomb we are in, life shining in whatever darkness we are in, and giving us sight where we are inly (and perhaps outwardly) blind. That is why Jesus’ whole life was a resurrection—a trampling down of death, ultimately by death itself, and giving life to those in the tomb—the tomb of whatever sort and dimensions.
Do not be mistaken. Not only does dispensing New Life lead Jesus to the cross, it makes for a good bit of difficulty for those whose blindness he heals. When the story tells us that they “threw him out” meaning the religious authorities cast out the formerly blind man, it means that they turned him out of the synagogue, or the Temple, since this took place in Jerusalem. They excommunicated him, in other words. That makes the scene all the more touching when after being expelled the man encounters Jesus, who asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, Sir? Tell me, that I may believe in him.”
“You have seen him,” says Jesus.
“I once was blind, but now I see,” wrote John Newton, slave trader, when he awoke to the enormity of the horrors he was party to. “You have seen him, and the one who is speaking to you is he.” That is the nubbin of resurrection. If we are fortunate to have our blindness healed, enlightenment comes to us when we are sent again and again to the water of New Life in which we first bathe in baptism. Little by little the mud is washed away and we wake up to realize that this mysterious stranger who has encountered us is none other than the Author of Life. To believe in him is to give our hearts to him, to fall in love with him, to recognize that there is nothing more wonderful than to give our hearts, our love, our loyalty, our worship to the one who delivers us from the darkness of tomb and death.
In Ursula Le Guin’s story The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar was taken as a little six-year-old girl and dedicated to serve the Nameless Ones as priestess in the tombs on the island of Atuan. She grows accustomed to living in the dark, freely roaming the labyrinth beneath the tombs where these nameless ones live. Gradually she realizes how much of a captive she is, ironically seeing in the darkness more and more truth about the evil that enslaves her. Into her life comes Ged, a magician who is searching for part of a sacred ring to complete the half of it he already has. Tenar debates about whether to kill Ged or not, but finally allows herself to put her hand in his. She leads him out of the tombs with the other half of his ring, and he leads her out of her dark life into freedom. You do see, don’t you, that that is the same story as the gospel story you heard today? Christ enters the world of blindness and darkness where he meets the human soul—you—me—the blind man in Jerusalem—and together we walk hand in hand into the clear light of day. “Who is he, Sir,” that I might give my heart to him?” He answers, “I am he. And you have seen me.”
If you are looking for a very simple, quantifiable gospel that you can box up like a little take-out meal, all ready to be consumed and enjoyed, this will hardly ring your chimes. If, on the other hand, on some level you realize that there is more to this venture with Christ than meets the eye—a strange, difficult, even dangerous journey beyond the safe boundaries of conventional religion—then perhaps you get it that this story set in Jerusalem long ago is very much about you. It means claiming and owning your own ignorance, your blindness, your poverty, your need, realizing that to pretend you can see clearly is to miss the biggest thrill of your life, namely being set free to be once more the little child you were before the forces of blindness overtook you and began to shape you till they squeezed all joy out of your body and all light out of your eyes. It is your choice. You can say, “We see,” do nothing more, and live the rest of your life in the illusion that you already have everything you need and know everything that you should know. Or you can embark on a journey with the one who delivers you from the tombs you may be living in.
Frankly, it sounds to me as if we have reached the stopping place. But I am dissatisfied to stop here. If you are like me, you are wondering how this all works, what it looks like, and perhaps why you should allow your somewhat stable and comfortable world to be disturbed by the entrance of Jesus the Great Adventurer who will send you on strange errands like, “Go to the Pool of Siloam and wash.” The very point of it all is that we don’t really know—can’t know—how it works (religion is quick to tell us exactly what we must do, but that usually is how we become religious, not necessary how we come to true insight or seeing). But there is one thing of which we may be very sure. And that is the trustworthiness of the Guide himself, the healer, the Son of Man, and the God that he embodies. And that is he is the Light of the World. He did not and does not come to keep us in the dark or to send us to the dark, but precisely to give us light. And it is in such things as bathing, eating bread, drinking wine, touching, tasting, kissing, holding, that we little by little come to life in these our bodies, until what we claim and pray is indeed true: we live in him and he in us.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014