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Faith Blindness

San Williams

March 25, 2012
John 12:20-33

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Last Sunday evening the television program Sixty Minutes aired a segment about people who are afflicted with prosopagnosia, or face blindness.  On the program, Leslie Stahl interviewed a number of people who have absolutely no ability to recognize faces. A child suffering from face blindness can’t tell whether the woman standing before him is his mother or a total stranger.  A person with face blindness doesn’t know whether the individual saying hello is an old friend, or a person she’s seeing for the first time. The afflicted can’t even tell whether the face in the mirror is his or her own.  Face blindness is a severe handicap, because it makes it difficult to relate to others, make friends, negotiate social situations, or even love other people.  Well, the Gospel of John introduces all sorts of people who cannot recognize Jesus.  Technically speaking, these folks don’t suffer from face blindness, but rather from a kind of faith blindness. That is, they are unable to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

Starting with his prologue, John acknowledges that the world’s true light came into the world but the world did not recognize him.  Two chapters later, John introduces Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus in the darkness.  Nicodemus engages Jesus in conversation, but he ends up scratching his head and muttering, “How can these things be?”   Next, John introduces the Samaritan woman.  In a drawn-out conversation with Jesus, the woman first identifies him as a kind man, and later perceives that he is a prophet. Finally, just before she exits the Gospel narrative, we read that she asks, “He couldn’t be the Messiah, could he?”   Of course, in numerous episodes in his Gospel, John pictures the leaders of the religious establishment as the epitome of faith blindness.  These religious leaders are so taken with their own authority and power that they see Jesus only as a threat, a heretic and rebel.  John tells us that even some of Jesus’ own disciples turn away from him when he no longer fits their description of how God’s Messiah is supposed to act.  So person after person parades across the pages of John’s Gospel, and all are unable, or unwilling, to see Jesus as God’s chosen servant through whom God is reconciling the world.

Well, this general theme of faith blindness that weaves its way throughout John’s Gospel comes to a head in the episode we read today. Our reading opens when some Greeks approach one of Jesus’ disciples and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  We know nothing about these Greeks.  Many have assumed that they are Gentiles and that their presence signals that the Gentile mission is about to begin.  But it’s just as likely that they are Diaspora Jews, which might explain why they would be coming to Jerusalem to worship during Passover.  In any case, they appear in the opening sentences of the episode, make their request, and then disappear from the narrative. Their wish to see Jesus goes unfulfilled.  When Philip and Andrew tell Jesus that there are some Greeks who wish to see him, Jesus ignores the request and launches into a sermon about the meaning of his death and about what it means to be his disciple.

Now we’re puzzled.  Why does John depict Jesus as giving these Greeks the cold shoulder?  He ignores their presence, as well as their request to see him. I don’t know why John introduces and then dismisses the Greeks so abruptly, but I do have a hunch.  My hunch is that John’s concern lies elsewhere. Namely, with those of us who will never have an opportunity to see Jesus in person.  Consider the suggestion that the Greeks’ comment, “We would see Jesus,” foreshadows the encounter between the risen Christ and Thomas, which takes place at the very end of John’s Gospel.  Recall how, for Thomas, “Seeing is believing.”  Thomas declared, “Unless I see with my own eyes, and touch his wounds with my own hands, I will not believe.” Jesus responds to Thomas:  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

So friends, Jesus’ final blessing is aimed at us.  If Jesus were sitting in the sanctuary this morning, we would have no way to identify him.  His face is not recognizable to us. But John’s point is that we don’t have to see Jesus to believe that in him—his life, death and resurrection—God is reconciling the world unto himself.  John declares that in Jesus the world is judged and the ruler of the world driven out.  By “world” John doesn’t mean God’s good creation. Instead he is referring to that fallen, distorted, misshapen, and rebellious world that rules through violence, injustice, and oppression. But through Jesus, John declares, God is overcoming evil and drawing all people back to one another and to God. That’s good news for all of us who without seeing, believe.  We believe that Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection are the means through which God is putting the fractured creation back together.

What’s important, then, is not seeing Jesus but joining with Jesus in God’s mission to reconcile and set right all that is wrong.   Jesus calls disciples of every age to become part of God’s compassion reaching out into the world.  “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”  Servants of Jesus are those who are trying to shape their lives around Jesus’  command to love and serve our neighbors. Such service often go unnoticed. The mother who is up all night with a sick child; the husband who cares tenderly for his wife whose Alzheimer’s is so advanced that she no longer know his name; the sister who prays for and seeks to help her alcoholic brother; the office worker who risks her job by speaking out against racial injustice in her company; the father who proudly takes the hand of his autistic son and walks with him to the first—frightening—day of school. . . .Wherever people in need are treated with compassion, the  Jesus is there.

In a moment you’ll be invited to the Lord’s Table.  Bread will be broken, wine poured and held up for all to see.  To the untrained eye the bread is just bread and the wine only wine.  But to the eyes of faith, when the bread is broken and the wine poured out, the crucified and risen Lord is recognized. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, his life continues to shape those of us who believe in him and who join with him in his ministry of reconciliation. “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”