After the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Pharisees were the only Jewish religious group to survive into the new era – and by the time the gospel of John was written, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were being shunned, sent out of the synagogs, sent out of their communities. Jews wouldn’t do business with them, eat with them, marry them, protect, socialize, or worship with them. So Christian Jews were much more vulnerable to being labeled as traitors to Roman rule. There was some protection for Jews in the Roman world because of their numbers and their traditional standing – they were a known entity. But Christians were seen as upstarts, innovators who refused to worship Caesar as god, and were losing the cover of their Jewish communities.
It is this threatened, marginalized community that John is trying to support and bolster. He uses night and day imagery, these sharp distinctions to keep it clear, to show the risks involved in claiming Jesus as God. You believe or you don’t believe. You have seen the light of salvation or you are condemned by the darkness. John calls the Jewish authorities, The Jews, as a derogatory term for those who refuse to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In truth, they would all consider themselves Jews – even into this time, a Christian was a subset within the Jewish faith. But it is beginning to change. And so we get stories that are written as though they are at the time of Jesus, but come from a perspective, through the lens, of the political and social realities of this schism 60 years later.
The language of John’s gospel reflects the tension and polarization between religious groups in a way that might sound familiar to us given our political and American Christian polemic. Many of us react against John’s black and white treatment of faith because it doesn’t fit with our modern, more liberal, inclusive tendencies. John’s description of God’s mission is very inclusive – it was for the world, for all people (Jews, Gentiles, Romans, Samaritans… enemies and neighbors, all), but it is narrow in it’s claim that Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life….the face of the living God.
It is okay, I think, for us to consider, even question this.
Today’s story is about blindness and healing, sin and sight – but who is really blind?
As Jesus and his disciples walked along, they saw a man who was blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but, in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” Then he went, and washed, and came back able to see.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “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.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought the man who had formerly been blind to the Pharisees. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. The Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This Jesus is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
They did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man Jesus is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
But they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.
You can’t get away from sin and judgment in the gospel of John. They are difficult concepts to sort out in our lives and world, but they are straightforward categories in John – as crisp as day and night, life and death, black and white.
But, what if we don’t believe that? (she asks with hesitation). What if the rest of the biblical witness both convicts us in judgment and frees us from the punishment of sin in grace? What if we consider the value of morning and evening, for example – the hours of light that are not yet day (hat hour when birds of spring sing their hearts out), and the gloaming of dusk that is not yet fully dark (when fireflies come out to mate)? What about those of us who may believe God is bigger than narrow terms of black and white (given the full spectrum of created light), that God is present to a day that is longer than the holy hours of noon and midnight?
Judgment and sin (and the nature of sin, and what constitutes sin) are things I think about – quite a lot; worry about, to some degree. I’ve been the pastor here for a number of years now and my interpretation of scripture, my ideas are what you hear. Maybe you don’t pay that much attention to what I say, and if I go off on some weird tangent of heresy, you’ll ignore me, but still, I don’t want to preach and teach wrong information.
The thing is, there are so many conflicting messages, images, passages in the Bible concerning sin and truth, God’s love, God’s desire for us, and God’s judgment of us. When they differ or contradict one another, which are we to give weight to? Which image of sin is correct – things we do wrong (bad deeds) – as in the 10 commandments – or lack of belief in Jesus, as in the gospel of John; or the tribal greed, selfishness, and injustice of our lives individually and collectively that the prophets and gospel of Luke warn against? If it’s all of those things (plus more), how can we possibly make it through that narrow gate of salvation?
Is it possible for love to be the ultimate category that sweeps all things into its embrace even if the gospels say it differently? Is it okay, is it allowed, to expand the exclusionary claim of ‘faith in Jesus alone as the path to God’ given that the earth has turned (some 2000 times)? Is the “revelation of Christ” an on-going construct of life within the presence of God? Or not?
Lutherans are known for embracing paradox and mystery. That’s why it’s difficult to evangelize – how long does it take to explain your faith in the mysteries of God? We believe it is more complicated than John 3:16 — as John 3:17, 3:18 and 3:19 – and the whole of even that one chapter – will attest!
My best shot at this is to see it as one of Donna Mae’s quilts. Beautiful, interlocking, distinct pieces of cloth – each possessing it’s own pattern, color, visual texture. The quilt is a thing of beauty and warmth because those different pieces are attached to each other; they are sewn together, often in contrasting blocks or clashing colors. Seen as a whole, those differences are what give it depth and interest, and artistry, and imagination. Its function is other than its parts. And then there is that quilting stitch that rides over the top of all the blocks, uniting them in glory. I believe the biblical witness is like that. I believe we are given the depth and breath of Scripture so that we don’t take any one image or exclusion or gift too seriously, or take them for granted. It’s a hard line to walk – to take them seriously, but not any one as ultimate: To see them as an absolutely free gift, yet not casually given.
We do know sin when we see it, when we do it, when it’s done to us. We know the lasting consequences of evil – how it even spills out into the next generation and the next after that. We can consider a place like Syria, where the children of this generation will know nothing other than deprivation, hunger, loss, death, hatred, for a whole generation – how long will it take for those brothers and sisters of ours to plant and grow a peaceable kingdom in the craters of their devastated land and lives? How long? Approximately 10% of the Syrian population is Christian – various forms of Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and Protestant. Most of the Christians live in what once was Aleppo, where Jafra is from. What would their vision of sin be, do you suppose? Who is their enemy? How might they interpret the man born blind? What would Judgment look like? How about Grace? Is Forgiveness a concept, a category? Does it belong only to God? And where might God be, exactly, if you live in Syria?
Sin – as conceptualized by white, northern, middle-class modern American Christians is likely not the norm by which God judges. And we are not the victims.
It was to the survivors of a place like Aleppo that the gospel of John was written. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Survivors filtered out, finding their way to little communities in widening ripples. Jews who used to protect them became too fearful of losing their own protected status under Rome’s malevolent eye. Safe harbor in the transitional communities of Jewish Christians and Christian Jews was becoming an ever more perilous option. For the Christian faith to survive, people had to take a stand. There were no longer lukewarm, both/and nuances, so the severity of ‘choice and consequence’ presented by the gospel of John makes sense. For them.
But what about for us? Jesus is the way, the truth, the light… But is Jesus the Absolute and Only way, truth, and light? Is Logos, the Word, the Light who was from God and of God and through whom not one thing came into being, only Jesus? Or is Jesus the Christ for us? …the One in whom we see and experience and follow into God? In Hebrew scripture King Cyrus of Persia was called the Christ – the one who brought them back from exile, it was Woman Wisdom in Proverbs, the one who was with God in the beginning who called them to rational and right living. Can it not be whoever brings people to faith in God? Can that not be Christ for them? I’m not questioning your faith, I only ask the question. However, I am not willing to diminish the reach of God’s love, to limit it to those who believe in just my way. I believe in God, I believe in the power of Love and forgiveness, and hope. I find that in Jesus. But I am not Jewish. I am not Muslim. I’m not Buddhist, or Native. What if you were born and raised in Yemen, into a good and faithful Muslim family? What if you prayed 5 times a day, practiced the rituals, held to the fasts and feasts, gathered under the beautiful mosque domes whose tile ceilings raise you off your knees in awe. Is God not One? Is God, who brought sight to the man born blind, not able to reach through other traditions, other cultures, other Christs?
I have three children. I love them each – completely, differently, uniquely, but not one more than the others.
I can get myself pretty tangled up in these topics – often seeing too many sides of any given issue to find clarity in any one of them – and I welcome you into my tangle. I am truly interested in your thoughts and questions and disagreements. A community of faith is not meant to be homogenous – at least that’s not the biblical model. Even the Pharisees in our story today were divided, and recognized the conundrum Jesus embodied. “Some of the Pharisees said, “This Jesus is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.”
So may we be. That is how faith grows… honesty, doubt, questions, trust… the Samaritan woman kept asking questions, and in the end she believed, and engaged others through her questions to decide for themselves.
I believe not only in Jesus as Christ and Christ as One with God and God’s free spirit, but also in this blindness the Pharisees are found to have. I think we, too, often see and yet don’t see God standing in front of us, see and don’t see our sin, see and don’t see the truth of Jesus. But sin, spiritual blindness, is not finally the category that defines us, nor limits God’s reach. The Christ, the bearer of Love and peace and forgiveness expands that. The Holy Spirit binds us together in stitching over the top of the separate and distinct pieces of cloth. We are one in God, because God is One, not because we have homogenous or unified faith. We are one as we allow ourselves to enter the love that sometimes judges and sometimes comforts and sometimes asks us to work, to bind together and not to rend.
One thing I like – well appreciate- about the gospel of John is that there are about 4 really good ending places…. and then it goes on. Jesus keeps coming back, letting Thomas poke his finger into the wounds, making another breakfast for his friends on the shore, saying one more thing. In the midst of black and white, night and day, seeing or sin, I’m grateful for those “let me try this one more time” moments of resurrected grace. I think God just isn’t willing to give up on this human enterprise.
The gospels tell the truth. Love tells a larger truth. And in that, we live and move and find our being.
Thanks be to God.