An Astonishing Thing!

Fourth Sunday in Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9: 1-41

There were things I learned in my theological studies that really stood out for me, which I don’t have to return to my notes or books to remember. One of those is how 90% of the “you”s in the Bible are plural, referring to either Israel or the church (and the difficulty caused by a language that does not currently distinguish between the plural and singular forms of that pronoun—Canadians don’t have the “you all” found in parts of the United States—in a North American culture that is highly individualistic). Another is that the purpose of the four gospels is to convince the reader(s) of who Jesus is. This is particularly true for the gospel of John, for it is on this—belief that God is revealed in Jesus—that everything hangs.

There are two opposing story arcs in this text. We first encounter, along with Jesus and his disciples, the man born blind. Right from the get go, Jesus makes it clear that the man’s blindness is not due to any wrongful action on the part of himself or his parents. Sin in the gospel of John is not focused on actions (a moral stance) so much as on the decision about who Jesus is (a theological, specifically Christological, stance) and therefore how one will live in the light of that revelation. The man’s blindness, Jesus states, will be used to reveal the love and glory of God.

Without conversing with the man born blind, Jesus goes about healing him using the earthy particulars of dirt, spit, and water from a washing in the pool of Sent. The text says only that he “came back able to see,” so we can only imagine his response to the brilliant light and colors that would have assaulted his new found sense. What comes to mind are the reactions I have witnessed in videos of people who are color blind being able to see color for the first time using special glasses, or of deaf babies’ reactions to hearing their parents’ voices when their hearing implants are turned on for the first time.

But in this text we do not learn of the man’s reactions so much as we learn, first, of the reactions of his neighbors. Many of them do not even recognize him, now that he can physically see, despite his continued claims to be that formerly blind beggar. The man’s new ability to see has so rattled his neighbors’ reality that they haul him in front of the Pharisees. And so the second, opposing, story arc begins.

The gospel of John’s practice of using one, more concrete, level of meaning to point to a second deeper meaning is fully at work in this text. Throughout his encounter with the Pharisees, we witness the growing spiritual sight of the man born blind. His recounting of the way he was healed by Jesus moves to proclaiming him a prophet, and then as a man from God, grounded in the astonishing act of his healing—and here is the climax of the two story arcs, as the man born blind moves toward becoming a disciple of Jesus, while the Pharisees’ astonishing unbelief has them on a trajectory towards spiritual blindness, despite their physical sight.

Once driven out from the blind Pharisees’ presence, Jesus seeks out the man born blind who now can see. Jesus does not leave him alone, but reveals his identity to the man, who responds with belief and worship, giving glory to God (ironically doing what the Pharisees had instructed him to do).

Given that the man born blind is Jewish, Jesus is Jewish, the neighbors and Pharisees are Jewish, this text asks us as a church to consider if we are blind—and not as the Pharisees ask, assuming they are not. What political, theological, cultural, spiritual beliefs and assumptions might we be making that are leading us deeper into blindness and sin? We must discern these together in prayer. We can be assured on the one hand that the assumption we are right likely means we are blind, and on the other hand that confessing Jesus as Lord and worshipping him likely means we are on the Way to seeing.

And so this text confronts us mid-Lent, the season when we are given the gift of time to reflect on, re-adjust (re-turn, make course corrections to) our discipleship, and re-commit to Jesus, our Lord and Savior. “Do you also want to become his disciples?” knowing what we know of where this leads—into suffering and death…and astonishing new life. For “we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.”

4 Responses to “An Astonishing Thing!”

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  1. Phil says:

    Janice, you wrote…

    “…for it is on this — belief that God is revealed in Jesus — that everything hangs.”

    If this is the issue around which all else revolves, then we’d best examine it very carefully.

    If Christianity depends upon belief, then it can never be a universal gift to all mankind. Any belief of this scale has to be labeled speculation and only so many people will be able to speculate to such a significant degree, as we can plainly see in the world around us. After 2,000 years, most people are still not Christian. Even many Christians hedge their bets in regards to the divinity of Jesus.

    Basing Christianity on belief would be as if Jesus gave out an unlimited number of size 7 shoes, but only those with size 7 feet could be served. How about those of all the other sizes, did Jesus really mean to leave them out?

    If on the other hand Christianity is built upon the experience of love then no speculation is required, because every person in every place and time can validate the power of “dying to be reborn” for themselves in their own experience.

    Belief, any belief, is made of thought. And thought is inherently divisive in nature, that’s how it operates, by a process of conceptual division. Thus, anything made of thought can never be the force which unites humanity, as can be clearly seen for example in the chronic (sometimes violent) internal divisions which have plagued Christianity from the beginning. This phenomena is not limited to Christianity of course, for every ideology ever invented has undergone a similar internal sub-division process.

    Love is not made of belief. It doesn’t depend upon belief. Love is universal. This is easy to see just by observing that there are people of love in every time and place, no matter what their culture, philosophy or beliefs may be.

    Belief in love, God, Jesus or anything else is not love, but rather belief. That is, thought, division, and then typically conflict. A reader need not believe this either, they can simply examine the Christian web for themselves and observe the conflict which is rampant there.

    This conflict which afflicts all human communities doesn’t arise from the moral failings of the individual or weaknesses in any particular philosophy, it arises from that which all individuals and philosophies are made of, thought. That’s why division and conflict are so pervasive, persistent, and universal.

    Some one believes Jesus is divine and someone else believes something different and the division and conflict which has been going on for since the dawn of man continues without end. Whatever one believes, little has changed.

    The best theology should teach us that thought is not the solution to this conflict. Thought is instead, the source of the conflict. Seeing this puts theology in a whole new light. The best theology is like the best person, always striving to surrender itself.

    The brilliance of Christianity arises from the fact that, in it’s best moments at least, Christianity is not built upon belief, but upon love.

    A great irony is that we probably rarely hear from the best Christians, as they are likely too busy loving to have time to write sermons. I’m guessing God assigns the talking of the talk to we of lesser ability, the thinkers. Oh well…

    • Janice Love says:

      Dear Phil,

      Perhaps it is my poor writing that has made you misunderstand my intent.

      Of course I did not mean to imply that in the gospel of John, Jesus is going around asking people to believe in him, at least in the way you have defined belief (belief = thought, which seems to owe more to an enlightened understanding, and perhaps a false dichotomy). The Greek word used three times in John 9: 35-38, pisteueis, is better understood as “to entrust, to have faith in, to put in trust with”. The biblical understanding of belief is a relational term that encompasses the whole of one’s being, and hence the whole of one’s life.

      The text is also clear that Jesus has done an astonishing thing for the man born blind in restoring his sight, surely an act of love, before he asks for his trust.

      Thank you for providing me the opportunity to clarify this.

      I think wise and humble Christians not only perform loving acts, but continually reflect theologically, and in the context of worship, on whether those loving acts are in accord with Christ. Failure to do so means we risk allowing something other than Christ to define and guide those loving acts.

      The United Church of Canada discovered this when it participated in the residential schools program for First Nations people in Canada, which many thought at the time was a loving thing to do. Now we realize how wrong those “loving acts” were, which were performed in service of our culture rather than our Saviour.

      And, as I know you as little as you know me, I will leave Christ to be the judge of us both when it comes to how much loving action we are engaged in.

  2. Phil says:

    Hi Janice, thanks for the exchange.

    Ok, let’s go with your definition of belief as “to entrust, to have faith in, to put in trust with”.

    My question in reply is, have faith in, put trust in what?

    1) A man who has been dead for 2,000 years who a great many people say a great many different things about so that nothing can ever be established for sure?

    2) Or the experience of love, which every person can verify for themselves, right here right now?

    When we’re physically hungry we eat something, and that ends the pain of hunger. We try eating, see that it works, and then know what to do when hunger strikes again. We don’t need to rely on belief, trust, faith, or experts, because we have our own direct experience.

    I’m attempting to suggest that the divisive nature of thought generates a psychic hunger which can be resolved by love, the act of surrendering division. Nobody needs believe this. They can simply try it, and see for themselves.

    We can try to answer the largest questions through theology, belief, faith, a never ending process where nothing is ever resolved.

    Or we can try to answer the largest questions through love. If we love well enough, we’ll stop worrying about the largest questions, given that the problem which gave rise to them has been resolved.

    My argument is that having faith in any collection of books, people or ideas etc is really way of stating that love isn’t sufficient unto itself, that it needs our help.

    Is that true?

    I hope this is at least somewhat responsive to your article, and I thank you in advance for graciously considering words which can reasonably labeled as being outside the commonly accepted Christian group consensus mainstream.

    • Bo Grimes says:

      Most Christians do not believe Jesus has been dead for 2000 years. We believe He not only rose but is faithful to His promise to be with us always, in the here and now, that He is love incarnate and that we can only love because He first loved us. If Jesus has been dead for 2000 years “we are of all people to be pitied.” (Context 2 Corinthians 15: 12-19)

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