I remember well my orientation to seminary. It took place over the course of a weekend and on the second day we were shuttled out to what’s called “a low ropes course” for a team-building exercise. Of course, we had to do all the usual things. We had to fall backwards trusting that the others would catch us and we had to help one another through an obstacle course. It was really a great way to get to know each other. This thing that stands out most in my mind, however, was the lifting exercise. One person had to lay on their back, close their eyes, while the others lifted them over their heads. And with that many people, it really was quite easy. That is, until we came to Don. He didn’t want to participate. You see, Don weighed at least 300lb and it was a sensitive issue for him. But after some reassurance, Don agreed. And to his amazement, we lifted him quite easily.
Now, fast-forward to our final year in seminary. Sitting around in the coffee shop one day Don brought up our day on the ropes course and his being lifted. He said, “you guys didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was lifted up into the air, I felt the weight of my own self-doubt float away. And in a very real way, it seemed like that doubt was replaced by a sense of belonging. It seems like a strange place to have such an epiphany, but for me, that was maybe the most significant ‘God moment’ I experienced in seminary.”
Don’s story, like the narrative we have before us today, are about restoration.
But to accurately discuss restoration, we must look at what caused the separation in the first place. In Don’s case, it was his own self-doubt keeping him from fully participating in the group activities and in the Gospel the man’s separation from society was caused by his blindness. He was born blind. He had no physical sight.
The ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, however, presents sight in a different sense; a metaphorical sense. Sometimes a person can look, but not see. Here, the blind man received not only the ability to use his eyes but the gift to see on a deeper plain.[i] Spiritual sight.
Now, Jeremiah 5:21 might be a good text to introduce this story: ‘Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear.’ I say this would be a good introduction because the spiritual blindness Jeremiah outlined was still plaguing John’s community and perhaps to some degree, ours as well. You see, the understanding of sin in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is one of direct causation. If a person was born blind, it was because of his parents or his grandparents had sinned. If anything bad happened, it was directly caused by one’s sin.
Now, you can see why this was problematic. When we try to explain why bad things happen by assigning causation to one’s sin, it turns into a vicious game of blaming the victim. That’s not to say that there aren’t consequences to sin. If I choose to rob the gas station, I will go to jail. That’s the consequence. But not every bad thing that happens to us is because we or our parents sinned. Things happen that are beyond our control. So, that theology simply doesn’t hold water.
And Jesus has my back here. In our text for today, the question was asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents.” Jesus answered, “Neither, he nor his parents.” And then he gives us a somewhat puzzling alternative. He says, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”
Let’s unpack this. When I first read this I was confused. It seems like Jesus was saying that this man suffered his whole life just so Jesus could make a point. But after further consideration, it’s apparent that’s not what’s going on here. Instead, it would be helpful to investigate that background on the difference between disease and illness as understood by John’s community. Physical symptoms – the disease – were of little concern. The main concern was with the social dislocation – the illness – associated with the physical symptoms.[ii]
We in the post-modern world tend to focus on – and get distracted by – the physical changes – we think that’s the “miracle.” But for Jesus and the Johannine community the real miracle was the change in relationship. In other words, when this man was healed by Jesus the physical gain of sight was second in importance to his restoration to friends and family. And in that restored state, after a long back and forth about what was fake news and what was real, after his parents were called in to testify, and after this man’s eventual expulsion by the Pharisees, we see his faith come to light.
And I think that’s where this text is taking us today. Things in our lives happen, both good and bad, and perhaps these things offer an opportunity for God’s mighty works to be displayed in us as well. Do you see what I’m getting at here? God doesn’t say, “Okay Milam, you sinned so you’re gonna get it now.” Instead, a difficult situation might be viewed as an opportunity to grow in our faith or to make a difference in the life of someone else who may be struggling. That’s the real miracle! That’s the place where true sight or insight might be gained. That’s the way healing and restoration come into existence.
Here’s the goodie. We can, and are called, to be a part of these miraculous restorations. How? Well, by seeing past our own self-interest; by seeing the face of Christ in the face of the refugee and the immigrant; by demonstrating the love of Christ to the outcast and to the marginalized; or by sharing the compassion of Christ the struggling, the poor. We can truly see, when we come to understand that the Light of the World, the Spirit of the Living God, is within and around and shines forth from all people. Karoline Lewis affirms this when she writes, “The Light of the World is in our midst, and we need not shut our eyes. In fact, the best thing to do is to open our eyes, wide. We will not be blinded by the light. We will be saved.”[iii]
My friends, as you go forth from this service today, let the light of God shine forth from your very being in every situation because you never know whose life those rays might enhance. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Larry Broding The Gift of True Sight. (word-sunday.com 2017)
[ii] Historical background information drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., pgs. 169-178.
[iii] Karoline M. Lewis. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) pg. 120.