Today’s Gospel Lesson brings to us the man born blind. The scripture we heard tells us the story from the beginning-Jesus offering healing--to the end-dealing with the community after this extraordinary event. In general, we are familiar with stories of Jesus healing people. What really makes this story unique is what happens after the blind man is healed. Let me refresh your memory…
- The “Jews” did not believe that the man had been born blind. And please, don’t think it was all Jews, but really it was a few leaders.
- They called in his parents
- the parents said something to the effect of, “Y’all are nuts! He was born blind and you can ask him yourself.”
- They called the man back and continued to argue and interrogate him finally ending with what can be summarized as “Oh yeah? Well, my Dad is bigger than your Dad!”
Have you ever had that moment in your life? Either when you have completely flabbergasted someone or you have been flabbergasted? I remember a long time ago, when I was a teenager, my family was sitting around the dinner table arguing. We were talking about taxes and education which is never a good thing to talk about at dinner. I thought … ahha! I know where the weakness of my dad’s argument is! I can logically lead him to my conclusion. And I did it. I laid stone after stone in my argument and he agreed all along the way. Until my conclusion. It was there, at the conclusion, that he balked. There was no way he was going to agree with the concluding statement and his response was along the lines of “Oh yeah? Well, my idea is bigger than your idea!” I think we all have a moment when we are out-argued by our children! I knew I had won the argument, but he was simply flabbergasted. He didn’t know what to do with the entire conversation. It was outside of his experience.
I think we can say similar things about the Pharisees and their conversations with the blind man and the blind man’s family. They were encountering things totally outside of their daily experience.
The Pharisees were interested in two rituals that are very important both to ancient Judaism and to modern Judaism: the Sabbath and arguing. The Sabbath is about worship and argument is about learning or study. The idea that the Sabbath is worth arguing about seems totally foreign to us. Our culture does not protect holy time. The Sabbath is taken up with what? sports for kids, shopping, chores, cleaning house, doing laundry, writing sermons… All sorts of things and we don’t blink an eye. If we think of people who set aside the Sabbath, we may think they are “quaint” or cute. That it might be a custom carried out only by odd religious sects who probably dress like the Amish. The point is, we have no idea in our lived experience what the Sabbath means or meant to the Ancient Jews. But we can learn that the Sabbath would have been welcomed into their home as royalty. The Sabbath, to Jews, is a taste of the feast to come. When the Pharisees argue about the observance or lack of observance of the Sabbath as a flaw, they are correct to do so.
The second ritual, argument, can seem so scary to us. Our culture tends to be fairly passive and avoids confrontation at all costs. Let me tell you two stories to help illustrate how argument can be unhealthy when we avoid it and healthy when we enter into it with respect and a learning heart. These are stories about my home church…so no tattling!
In the beginning of my home church’s life, they met in homes and then a school and then they decided to build a building. It was an exciting and stressful time. The conference helped bring in a pastor who specialized in building churches. I think they called him a Directive Pastor or something like that. Even if I didn’t get the title correct, you get the idea, right? He was large and in charge. Well, this little congregation had been functioning for at least a decade doing everything themselves. To have a person come in and suddenly take control was difficult. But especially difficult was the intersection of the worship committee and the pastor. I am not privy to 100% of what happened, but I know the results. The people that were involved in the worship wars that developed were damaged. Some people left the church, never to return. Even the pastor left the ministry. There was and is still an almost throbbing pulse of pain when it comes to issues of control in worship. I think that worship wars are the most difficult thing that churches have to face.
So, let’s see, a good story of conflict? This took a long time for the fruit to become evident. I was on a learning committee. We were trying to discern the future for our church. One idea our committee had was that we should do a church-wide book study. We had some great reasons:
- we need to learn, as a church body, how to talk about our faith experiences
- we need to work at creating a church identity…sort of establishing our church DNA
Well, this idea came grinding to a halt when one member of the learning team said that he could not endorse a church-wide study because it “didn’t meet his personal spiritual needs.” This was a point in time where I was flabbergasted! And I have to tell you, it takes a lot to shut me up. We talked, and I asked straight out, “So, you would put your own personal needs above the health of the entire church body.” And he said, “Yes.” Well then, what more is there to say? We decided, then, as a committee that we would not pursue the idea because we were not interested in alienating people. I know, you must be thinking, “arguing didn’t get you very far, did it?!” Well, time passed. And I believe we must have planted a seed that day. Because that same person now has committed to “doing whatever it takes” to revitalize the church. That is a long ways away from being only concerned about his personal needs. The author, Richard Swanson, puts it this way: “argument is a gift from God that allows faithful people to work out proper courses of action. Argument is a sign that the faithful community is living faithfully. If they (we) did not care about faithfulness, they would not argue.” Now, this doesn’t mean I want y’all to argue with Molly when she gets back! But do see the gift that argument or learning or study can bring.
So we have these two rituals: argument and Sabbath. They are presented to us in the story of the blind man and they are worthy of entering into. Worshiping God (Sabbath) and learning about God (argument). Important stuff to consider. So, let’s give the Pharisees a break. In their own way, they were having “worship wars.” To our culture, they seem obtuse and irritating. To their culture, they were defending important ideas.
Also woven into this story are a couple difficult ideas:
- In verse 3, Jesus says that the blind man was born blind simply so that Jesus could heal him and reveal God’s work, and the other difficult thing…
- Jesus spits and makes mud and puts the mud on the man’s eyes
Why do I think these are difficult things? Well, I have to say, subjecting anybody to a lifetime worth of pain simply to prove a point is a hard concept to stick with. What do we do with this image of God that is provoked by John’s words?
Haven’t we all heard difficult words like, “if you prayed more, you would be healed?” or “it must be God’s will” or even worse, at the death of a loved one, “God must have wanted him or her more.” Sounds a little like Job’s friends! My brother died in May last year and I became pretty angry when somebody said something along those lines to me. In my head, I answered back, “oh yeah? and what about his wife and one-and-a-half year-old son that has to grow up without him? I bet they feel a whole lot better now!”
I think Jesus’ words here are difficult words if we take this story literally. But if we remember that Jesus was a man of parables, we can find some hope. So hold onto that idea for a minute.
The other point, Jesus is a man of action. He spits into the dirt to make mud and puts mud on the man’s eyes and sends him away literally to the River of Sent. The Greek word for send is apostello which is where we get the word apostle. This sending makes the blind man an apostle. But isn’t it weird to be sent in darkness with mud caked on his eyes? What kind of apostle does that make?
Now, do you remember the other idea about Jesus being a man of parables? Lets link these two ideas together with the concept John presents right in the beginning of the gospel. John 1:1 –
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 
We have this concept of the creation story, “In the beginning,” acted out in the story of the blind man and Jesus. The blind man is in darkness. Jesus works with the spiritual darkness and the light shines and is sent. This is further cemented by the blind man’s own words in verse 9. In verse 9, the people of his community are arguing about whether it really was the blind man or “someone like him.” But the man says, according to our scripture, “I am the man.” In reality, translated directly from the Greek, the man simply says, “I am.”
This picks up another theme that runs through John. The “I am” sayings of Jesus. In the Old Testament, we have Moses asking God what is the divine name? God answers, “I am.” This is why the “I am” sayings are so significant, so huge. In the Gospel of John and the Book of the Revelation to John, there are at least 28 references to Jesus and “I am.” Jesus says:
- “I am…” (John 4:26)
- "I am the bread of life...." (John 6:35)
- "I am the living bread..." (John 6:51)
- "I am the light of the world..." (John 8:12)
- “I am the resurrection…” (John 11:25)
- "I am the vine..." (John 15:5)
The list of “I am’s” goes on. What we can quickly know is that John takes “I am” to be a very particular, very special phrase. So what can it possibly mean for the blind man to say, “I am?” We know that the blind man is not God. Now we are holding the ideas of:
- light and darkness
- and the I AM statements
all together. Perhaps we can put a little twist on John 1:1 to arrive at an idea:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness was overcome. 
In the light overcoming the darkness of the blind man, the blind man seizes that grace and runs with it telling his neighbors and the Pharisees. And he did not back down when confronting the Pharisees. In many ways, he became the light shining in the darkness when he was talking to these particular Pharisees. He was the bearer of the great “I am.”
And don’t we really know this? Don’t we greet each other and say, “the Christ in me greets the Christ in you?” What would it be to live life with this reality in the forefront of our thoughts daily? To carry the “I am” constantly? To be filled with “I am?”
Long ago, St. Patrick said simply, wisely, and beautifully:
Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.
Can we summarize the entirety of St. Patrick’s prayer by saying that all that we are, all that the world is, all that is, is the “I am?”
In summary, this story of the light overcoming the darkness teaches us perfectly how to live out a relationship with the “I am.” We learn argument and Sabbath as study and worship. And in watching Jesus, we learn that we need to do something besides arguing and worshiping! We need action to be complete--action that leads to healing. Jesus’ action of healing the blind man allows the blind man to enter into relationship with the “I am” and to be sent as an apostle into the world. I guess the big question is, what does this mean to us? How can we live out a life of worship, study, and service? What are we missing? I think that we tend to gravitate towards worship OR study OR service. So what one of the three are you most missing in your life? And what are you going to do about it?
Shalom and Amen.
 Provoking the Gospel of John. Richard W. Swanson. p. 265-269.
 The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:1–5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:1–5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.