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Now We See

San Williams

April 3, 2011
John 9:1-41

In the prologue to his Gospel, John identifies Jesus as the Light of the World, which enlightens everyone. But, as the episode we read this morning vividly demonstrates, whenever the Light of Jesus is present, people tend to get defensive, or become confused, or even feel hostile.  This morning Jesus gave sight to a man born blind but, oh my, did you note the reactions from the disciples, the neighbors, the parents and the religious authorities?  Okay, Jesus is the light of the world, as John declares, but why does that light stir up such controversy? 

Well, our reading this morning suggests an answer. Light can be threatening because it reveals the truth about things.  The light of God that shines in Jesus exposed the world’s darkness. In other words, in his light, the shadows of our own lives become visible.  Certainly this was true for the cast of characters in today’s reading.

Take Jesus’ disciples.  Their response to the man born blind is set against the light of Jesus’ response.  When the disciples see the man born blind, they begin a theological discussion. “Rabbi, who sinned?” they ask. “Is it this man, or his parents?” So here again we read the tired old theological question about the relationship between sin and suffering. The disciples are looking for someone to blame. Whose fault is that this man was born blind? 

But Jesus sees the matter in a totally different light.  He rejects the causal connection between sin and suffering, and he changes the subject from whom can we blame, to what is God doing, and how can we share in God’s work?  To the disciples, the blind man represents an abstraction, a theological problem to be solved.  But to Jesus, he is a human being need of help. I admire the disciples for sticking with Jesus, because throughout their time with him, their own lack of understanding, shallow faith, and fickle commitment kept coming to light.

And look at the reaction of the neighbors.  When they learn that the man born blind could now see, they become confused and curious. They huddle together and ask, “Isn’t that the Smith boy who lives down the street?  But he’s supposed to be blind! Maybe he had a twin brother we didn’t know about,  Let’s asked him again about all this.”  Friends, this is amazing!  These are the man’s neighbors. You’d assume that, when they saw their neighbor’s misfortune had been reversed, they would rejoice with him.  Our neighbor was blind but now he sees. Time to throw a party, kill the fatted calf, strike up the band.  Yet hold their cool, remote response up to the light of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  In the light of Jesus’ unfailing love of neighbor, our own lack of empathy, our own failure to love our neighbor, comes painfully into view.

Even the boys parents are seen is a less than flattering light.  When confronted with the threat of being put out of the synagogue, they equivocate and back-pedal out of fear.  In their defense, we should realize that a major issue for John’s Christian Community was the increasing tension between the Jewish authorities and the followers of Jesus.  Those Jews who identified with Jesus were threatened with excommunication. So the parents fear is understandable.  Still, this parent is no Tiger Mother. She tries to weasel out of any culpability. The light of Jesus illuminates our reluctance to stand up for our convictions, defend our faith in the face of opposition, and hold firm when threatened with rejection.

But perhaps most disturbing of all is that the light of Jesus exposes the dangers of religion—all religion.  Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the celebrated atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote an article in the British Guardian.  The article contained the words, “Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense. It can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakable confidence in their own righteousness.”   Dawkins probably thought his critique on the dangers of religion was something new, but in fact, such a critique is at least as old as the Hebrew prophets, and the view is aired openly in the Gospels.  Today, for example, we saw the dangers of religion in the attitude of the Pharisees, who were more concerned about Sabbath observance, rule-keeping, and strict adherence to Law than about human suffering.  All their responses to the healing of the blind man are buffered with unshakable confidence about their own righteousness—“We know and you don’t,” they might have said. “We’re right and you’re wrong.  We see but you are blind.” They represent the dangers of any religion that uses its convictions to denounce others. Because the Pharisees believe themselves to be unassailably right, they remain blind.

As Christians we can’t say—though Christians often have—that we are not like the Pharisees. With a triumphant voice, Christians sometimes declare:  “We are the ones who see.  We know the truth. We are right.” Writing in the 4th century, Augustine issued a warning that applies to every religious group that grasps after, and clings to,  its own righteousness:  “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” (“If you think you understand, it’s not God you’re talking about.”)  Jesus throws an uncomfortable light on every religion that insists on its moral and doctrinal certitude.

In an essay on Jesus as the light of the world, Barbara Brown Taylor examines why Jesus was rejected by so many.  She concludes that it’s because he was like a mirror in which all those around him saw themselves in God’s own light.  She writes: “He is the light of the world. In his presence, people either fall down to worship him or do everything they can to extinguish his light.”

So the question that this episode addresses to us today is the same one the formerly blind man asked the Pharisees:  “Do you also want to be his disciple?”

Haven’t we been washed in the water of baptism?  And in these waters we see not only our own sins and failures, but also the life that God gives us in Jesus Christ. We see that we have died to ourselves and been joined to Christ’s life—his ministry of love, peace and justice. In the waters, our eyes are open.  Now we can join with the formerly blind man, saying, “I once was blind, but now I see.”  I once thought life was about getting what I want, but now I see it’s about giving what I can.  I once thought I could kill my enemies, but I now see that I must love my enemies.  I used to see the poor, the outcasts and homeless as those “other people” but now I see them as my neighbors.   I once saw no purpose for my life, but now I’m walking in the light and love of God.

Friends, we have been exposed to the light of the world.  Given what we now see, do we also want to be Christ’s disciple?  Let the answer of this congregation be a resounding, “Yes!”