A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) — John 9:1-41
I want to begin this morning doing something I almost never do – begin with a commercial. On Tuesday evening during Holy Week, which is believe it or not, two weeks from this Tuesday, it is our tradition here at Christ Church to gather together and hear the Gospel of the Year read in its entirety. “Why on Earth would we do that?” one might ask. The reason is that the Gospels as we have them in our Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were not experienced by their original audiences in weekly installments. Biblical scholars tell us that the four Gospels are collections of oral stories and traditions that had been handed down by followers of Jesus in their various communities. Even when they were eventually written down, there weren’t handy pew versions or photocopies to follow along with. The stories of Jesus were read aloud.
This year is actually a bit special. We are breaking with tradition. Please withhold your gasps. You won’t hear this year’s Gospel, Matthew, read in its entirety in one sitting. We are going to hear John read in its entirety. John, you see, doesn’t have a particular year assigned to it. Instead, readings from John are interspersed on Sundays throughout the three other years, just as we have these past few Sundays. We do hear from John, but it is a rare opportunity to hear the whole text at the same time. Don’t miss it!
Now, John is clearly different from the other gospels. It is more literary. It seems to have been crafted more deliberately and carefully – its theology and indeed the Greek used in writing it are beautiful and more refined. Whole chunks of John are LONG speeches by Jesus – not just stories about Jesus but many of Jesus’ inner thoughts.
This morning we heard a story, a LONG story, which may be familiar to many of you – the healing of the man born blind and the interrogation of his parents. We have a long narrative piece here, with several scenes, almost like the script to a play.
What we don’t have this morning is the context. We hear this lesson in isolation, which limits some of the meaning and affect it might have if you heard in the larger, literary scope of John’s Gospel, as you will if you come to the reading during Holy Week. So bear with me if I take a moment to set this reading in the larger context of John’s story.
Last week we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This week, the lectionary crafters have skipped ahead to a similar encounter in John – this man born blind. But MUCH has happened between these two lessons.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well comes soon after Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus which we heard two weeks ago. Jesus is breaking boundaries and conventions, challenging Pharisees and Samaritans alike. Jesus is doing a new thing in the midst of these people who populate the narrative of John.
In the section between last week’s lesson and this week’s we hear of healings: the Centurion’s servant, and the lame man sitting beside the Pool of Bethesda. Jesus’ fame is spreading. These healings aren’t just noticed by the people but also by the religious authorities.
Jesus feeds 5,000 people, and then tells them, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem, and we can’t help but sense that the tension is growing – a showdown is looming.
“A prophet has no honor in his own country,” Jesus reflects ominously. Jesus walks on water. Peter confesses that Jesus is the “holy one of God.”
Meanwhile, the reactions to Jesus’ ministry are also become more polarizing. Many of the people want to make Jesus king, but religious authorities want to kill him and don’t keep their plans very secret.
Jesus defends a woman taken in adultery who is about to be stoned, pointing past the Law to a renewed understanding of God’s love and God’s grace. Jesus tells those who would listen – I am the light of the world. The Pharisees and religious authorities are asking out loud – is this man a demon?
Right before today’s lesson Jesus has a confrontation with the Jewish leaders, he calls them children of the devil rather than children of Abraham. A line is being drawn in the sand.
Jesus’ last words to them are, “Before Abraham was, I am.” They, of course, accuse him of heresy and the verse right before our lesson begins reads this way: So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.
Just a short time before this, Jesus had stopped them from stoning a woman, but now, the stones being picked up have his name on them.
It is in this context that we read today’s lesson. Do you see how knowing this bit of background makes this story much more powerful and ominous? This story is part of the larger story.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
The other bit of context we get here is the worldview of those among whom Jesus moved every day. Not just the common people, but the Jewish authorities even Jesus’ disciples seemed to believe that this man’s blindness was the result of someone’s sin.
Jesus doesn’t get caught up in a debate with them – rather he heals the man proclaiming that the man’s blindness was to show God’s might in him.
The man is healed. But this is where the trouble starts.
His neighbors debate whether it could really be the same man. The bring the man to the Pharisees who are more concerned that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath, claiming this fact as proof that Jesus is not of God.
They go and get this man’s parents. Again, the assumption is made that the man’s blindness was the result of sin. A rather amusing debate rages between the authorities and the healed man and his parents.
The one thing they cannot do is tolerate his testimony about Jesus. “Go be his disciple then,” they say and kick him out of the synagogue.
It is here that the true nature of what Jesus has done is revealed. This man has been born blind. Those around him are looking for someone to blame. Jesus heals him saying it is to glorify God.
The people aren’t even happy for him – instead they want to investigate how he was healed.
In the end, this healing and its aftermath serve to illustrate who exactly the blind ones were.
The Jewish authorities kept pointing to this man as a sinner. Jesus doesn’t dispute that, rather he points to this paradox – the kingdom of God is full of examples where the tables are turned – a blind man is healed and now can see, but his healing serves to show the blindness of those around him. They were looking for sin in this man, when all along the sin was in themselves.
I do not know for certain why the lectionary crafters put this story back to back with the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, but I do see some parallels.
Both of them had nosy neighbors. Both of them had reputations – namely as sinners. Both of them were outcasts.
Jesus restores them and they cannot keep quiet about it – the man’s sight is restored and he testifies to God’s mercy, and the woman at the well is turned from a woman of bad reputation to one of the first evangelists.
These were outsiders who had no voice, and suddenly Jesus gives them their voice, and people listen. In the case of the woman, people are converted, Samaritan people are converted. In the case of this man, tensions grow, and Jesus is rejected by his own people.
The sin is what people notice –the sin of this woman that has driven her to draw water from the well by herself in the heat of the day; the supposed sin of this man or his parents that has caused his blindness.
Jesus is pointing their eyes to a place beyond sin, as he had done with the woman taken in adultery. The people were obsessed with crime and punishment, but Jesus’ mission was to see the human being buried under the condemnation of the crowds. These were God’s children, sinful, adulterous, blind, but God’s children nonetheless.
Jesus breaks through the barriers, speaking with a forbidden woman of the town, healing a sinful man on the Sabbath. Jesus identifies with these sinners by risking his own reputation, and by risking the condemnation of the religious elite. Restored, these people rejoice, testifying and praising God.
Now Jesus’ asks – who exactly is it who is blind?
This is the work of God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth – restoration and reconciliation. Some want to play the blame game and marginalize all those who aren’t as perfect as they are. Jesus is showing us that it is these very imperfect, marginalized people who are the very kind of people God’s kingdom is all about. Look beyond the sin, beyond the curse, and see God’s healing, God’s restoration. In the end, this man’s blindness wasn’t the real problem – it was the blindness of those who had rejected him. Who needs to be healed, the one who is rejected or the ones who are rejecting him?
May God give us the mercy to risk our reputations to embrace those whom others consider sinful, and may God open our eyes to see God’s own plans at work around us. Amen.