Sunday, March 19, 2023
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
BUT NOW I SEE
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
Where to start on this extended passage from John’s gospel. We have the healing and the question about why the man was born blind. Then there is the whole dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees about what happened and was it right for Jesus to heal on the sabbath? Then there is the final conversation between the man and Jesus and finally Jesus tells the Messiah that the man now sees, but they are the ones who are blind. As always, the theme of light and darkness, blindness and vision, play their parts in John’s gospel.
“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” This concept of sin and its consequences has been one that had bothered me for a long time and still concerns me. I got started on this line of thinking as I prepared for both the Tuesday bible study and the Wednesday Healing service. Most of the year the readings for Sunday are used at any Eucharists during the week. However, in Lent each day of the week has a specific set of readings. Wednesday’s involved Moses speaking about the law in Deuteronomy and Jesus saying that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
The culture of the first century, whether Jewish or pagan all believed that when bad things happened it was because God or the gods depending on your religion were upset. Blindness or illness meant the person had done something wrong and they were being punished for their sin. That was after all what the whole temple worship system was about. Sacrifices either as a thank offering for something good or a sin offering because you had messed up. An obligation something that had to be done to put you back in right relationship with God. I have in my library a copy of the Tanach, which is the complete Jewish Bible. Inside the front and back cover is a list of all the sacrifices that could be made.
This is what Jesus is upset about when he enters the temple and turns over the tables of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. He’s trying to tell people that a relationship with God is not just a business transaction. That is what the temple system was. Sin was defined by a set of laws and actions that were forbidden, like working on the sabbath. BTW the argument about what can be done on the sabbath is still going on among rabbis today and in some cases among Christians. There are 615 commandments in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Sin was either breaking one of the 365 thou shalt no laws or failing to do the other 250. This is the “law” that Jesus refers to.
This theology is still out there today! “That hurricane hit them because they are sinful people.” “I prayed the hurricane away to protect the people of Virginia Beach” was actually said by a well-known TV evangelist who lived there. Well if you prayed it away from one place to save the good people, that means you sent it somewhere else to destroy someone else. Of course to this person it meant that the people where the hurricane hit obviously had sinned. I’ve heard this said to people in hospital, ill with cancer or grieving a death. “Well you must have done something to deserve this.” Honestly, I really have heard this said and more than once. Well bad theology has bad consequences, and this is bad theology. It is very difficult for people to believe that God is a god of love when most of the times it seems he has his finger on the smite button and can’t wait to punish us. This is not my image of God.
Countering this image of God is one of the unique things about the gospel of John. For Jesus in John’s gospel the only real sin the counts is unbelief, lack of faith. Please remember by the time of John’s gospel his community has been kicked out of the synagogue, excommunicated in our terms. They have lost their business, family, and social connections. So of course they are upset with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders.
So that the Pharisees seem to be blind to who Jesus is one of the big issues for John. The consequence of their blindness is that they are then not in a right relationship with God and of course even for us that is the very definition of sin.
That the Pharisees have great power and are feared is made clear by the man’s parents who duck the questions about their son. “He is our son but he is of age, ask him.” They are terrified because “it was already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” That wasn’t true during Jesus’ life but was the reality for John’s community. So again, we have this mixing of what was true during Jesus’ life with the reality for John’s community in the year 100 CE.
The healing of the blind man is simply a vehicle for Jesus’ pronouncement that the Pharisees are blind. He refers to their blindness several times. Even the man born blind says how can it be that I who was blind can see, but you (the Pharisees) are blind and cannot see who Jesus is? Their ultimate response is that they drive the man out.
An overall theme of John is this light and dark tied to his concept of sin which is unbelief. Characters in John’s gospel are invited to come into the light or they can choose to stay in the dark. We saw this two weeks ago with Nicodemus. He comes out of the darkness, but then returns. Afraid of what his fellow Pharisees will say or do if he chooses to believe and follow Jesus. Ultimately, he does come out of the dark when according to John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus claim the body and Nicodemus provides the spices to prepare the body after the crucifixion.
Then last week we have the Samaritan woman by the well who meets Jesus in the bright noonday sun and openly proclaims him even though she and her whole village are considered “other” “unclean” by the Pharisees. Now we have the blind man who sees and proclaims Jesus set next to the Pharisees who are called blind because they will not acknowledge who Jesus is.
The important point in all of this is for the writer of John’s gospel, faith and belief are the critical factors. Sin is not about breaking a list of complicated rules. These are human constructs especially the complicated Deuteronomic law code. Salvation comes for those who believe. Jesus in John’s gospel is showing us Christ at work, even before the crucifixion. Jesus is portrayed in John in all his resurrected glory and power. He is far more than the human Jesus we see in the synoptic gospels. John’s gospel is all about the eternal, the cosmic Christ who was and is and is to come. That’s the big difference in John from the synoptic gospels. John is worried about who Christ is not an orderly account of the life of Jesus.
In the gospel of John the wait is over the kingdom has already come. We do not have to wait for the end of the world but may enter the kingdom now. All that is needed to be in the right relationship with God is belief in a God who expresses love by sending his son to change our minds about God and God’s love.
Brene Brown in a video “Love made flesh” I showed the vestry said, “I believe that God is love. It’s that simple and that complicated. So, if you tried to express that love to human beings and just came down and said “I am love, love each other.” We automatically, because we are afraid of hard things, we would automatically go to unicorns and rainbows and so you would have to send someone to show what love in the flesh looks like…. otherwise, we would romanticize it. We would make it easy. Because that is who we are as people……and so Jesus comes and says, I am love. I sit with the people you are not allowed to talk to. I do all the hard things. I love the people who are unlovable. I feed the people who are not supposed to be taken care of. I don’t tolerate shame. I don’t tolerate attacks. I am love.”
You see the problem with all this is following rules is easy, it’s clear cut. What Jesus came and showed the Pharisees in the world was that love is what God is about and you can follow all the rules and still sin. You can still be distant from God safe and secure in your little rule bound world. Jesus shatters that image and ended up on a cross because of his radical message.
So how do we go about internalizing all this. Well, it is Grace. Jesus offers to help us see, to lose our blindness just like the man born blind. We need to believe and accept God’s love, God’s offer of Grace. Then our eyes will be opened.
As the famous hymn says, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” AMEN