Lent 4A 2017
This year, one of the Lenten studies is the book, Being Disciples by Rowan Williams. Quite a few of us are reading it, being challenged by a very thought provoking author and also by each other in the groups. The gospel of John is also a treatise on “Being Disciples”- it is one of John’s prevailing themes all the way through the Gospel but it is not always immediately apparent in the way we have read it and thought about it. Often the narratives have been read and taught as separate from the discourse that surrounds them, so that we end up looking at events in splendid isolation. The “miracle stories” or “stories of signs” as we should call them when reading John’s Gospel, are concrete signs of the things that Jesus was teaching his disciples and the people around him. Sadly, our lectionary has here, as in other places, divorced the interesting narrative from the discourse that follows. We should have read all the way to Ch 10:21 if we really wanted to understand the point that Jesus is making to his audience.
The audience for this particular sequence is an interesting one. We begin with Jesus and his disciples and a man, blind from birth. Later on, when Jesus is disputing with the Pharisees and then giving his teaching discourse, there are the man, the disciples and the Pharisees. The other audience who are significant players are the first hearers/ readers of this gospel, who are living in a Christian community struggling with the fact that they are divided from their families and wider circle by their decision to be disciples of Christ. And that is the context into which this is written. And, of course, there is us- sitting here two thousand years later, still struggling to make meaning from this passage of a story that we now consider to be holy because it deals with the God that we have chosen to follow.
This passage is full of active verbs. Jesus sees a man who cannot see, he spits and spreads, the man washes and sees. The neighbours talk but do not hear. The Pharisees question but also do not hear, and then they do not believe. The parents fear and the man is driven out. Jesus finds him and he both hears and sees, and then believes. The man who was born blind chooses to follow, that is, he becomes a disciple. And then in the explanatory discourse Jesus says that the sheep will follow the shepherd when they hear and know his voice. Jesus has come so that they may have life and have it abundantly.
The verb, ‘to believe’, as we translate it in English, is not one that we think of as being active in quite the way that Jesus uses it. We think of “belief” in terms of cognition or in terms of dogma- it is an act of thought, or a proposition that we assent to. The Greek word is “pistouo” which means something much more like “I have faith in you”, than “I believe” for us today. Marcus Borg says that we should replace the words “I believe” with “I belove” because that is much closer to the meaning of the original, and also, he claims to the phrase’s original meaning in English. Since the enlightenment we have thought of things in increasingly intellectual, or perhaps cerebral, terms. We talk about thinking, rather than feeling, but this “I believe” is not “I understand and assent” but rather, “I have faith in you and the relationship between us”.
And this passage, perhaps not obviously, is all about relationship. This is flagged right at the beginning. Jesus sees a man who has been blind from birth and the disciples ask him who has “sinned” this man or his parents. Jesus’ response, which again is slightly misleading in the English, makes it clear that the disciples have misunderstood. In fact the disciples ask, “Whose life was so errant that a baby was born blind? His or his parents?” This reflects a kind of superstitious view that persists even to the present day. Jesus’ answer makes it clear that it is not something that someone has done that has “caused” the man to be born blind. He replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Jesus then goes on, “But in order that the works of God may be made apparent in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one having sent me while it is day. Night comes when nobody is able to work.” The suggestion that the man was born blind in order to show God’s glory is a major misrepresentation, in my opinion created by someone inserting a comma instead of a full stop. And then he says, “I am light in the world!” Jesus is describing himself as “light” incarnate. And of course, light is very significant when you are talking about someone who has been blind all his life. Jesus is light for this man, just as he is light for each one of us. Light is to be found in relationship with Jesus, and sin is the absence of light, sin is choosing to be in the void of darkness. Jesus has to do the work of healing, which is fundamentally bring the person into relationship with God.
Right at the end of today’s passage we come back to the business of sin and judgement. ‘And Jesus said, “Into judgment I came into this world, in order that the ones who do not see may see and the ones who do see may become blind ones.” The ones out of the Pharisees who were with him were hearing these things and said to him, “We are not also blind are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind ones, then you would not be having sin; but now you say, ‘We see;’ your sin remains.’ This business of judgement seems to be about revelation of truth. Each person judges themselves by their response to truth, so some choose to see and some choose blindness. That is the judgment that Jesus brings.
If you read this passage with an understanding of belief equating to relationship you see that it is we who choose our own paths and therefore our own judgement. Some of us choose to see and to be drawn into the light, and then to follow. This is the choice that this man makes, born into perpetual darkness and then exposed to light, he chooses to be a disciple. His choice means that he is not only a disciple but he is cast out of the gathering, chucked out of the synagogue, and separated from his family in the process. This is also the fate of the first auditors of this gospel. They are coming to terms with the cost of being disciples of the Son of Man, and weighing it against the blessings. Of course this man was always a social outcast, just as was the woman at the well so neither of them has as much to lose as did Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night.
This narrative has many interesting things about it. First the man is seen by Jesus- and without asking is made whole by the application of the soil from which Adam came, and the spittle of God God’s-self. He goes and dips himself in the water- the water of baptism, the water of life. He is recreated with another of the references to creation that run right through John’s gospel. Jesus then fades out of the story and we have all the toing and froing about whether he is indeed the man, the questioning of neighbours and the repeated statement of it being Jesus that has caused this change in the man. It is interesting that he grows in his knowledge of Jesus, just like the woman at the well, even when Jesus is not there in person. I have always enjoyed these repeated questions but it was only reading some of the commentators this time that I became aware of how significant is the loss of relationship with the man’s family. They abandon him when his commitment to Jesus becomes clear.
The other thing that is clear is that the discourse about sin makes clear that real sin is not about doing things, whether or not they are on the Sabbath day but the refusal to see that means in its outworking separation from God. Once the man has made his choice, not just to physically see, but to see Jesus for what he is, Jesus himself reappears. He seeks the man out, finds him and confirms their relationship. Jesus talks in the parables about seeking and finding and here we have a practical demonstration. He helps the man to grow further in his realization of who he is. Once again he affirms that it is he who is speaking, and the man worships him. And that is the right response to the one ‘who is’ from before all time. This man, no longer blind, has chosen to be a disciple, to follow Jesus, to walk in the light, and he grows into that, and of course will continue to grow.
And what about us, the twenty-first century disciples? If we choose to be see-ers and hearers, if we choose the light of the truth, or the truth of the light, if we follow, where will Jesus lead us? Are we following to the places where the outcasts dwell? Are we prepared to take the risk of living in the light? Are we disciples who not only strive to go deeper and deeper into relationship with the God who calls us, but also to love others in God’s name? Are we prepared to have life and have it abundantly? My prayer is that as we journey together on this path of discipleship we will encourage one another as we strive to do God will in our world.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton