Mar22SunProfessor of Systematic Theology and Assistant Dean at Martin Luther University College March 22, 2020
Sometimes scripture has words, phrases, images, questions that leap off the page. Today I have such an experience when I read, and echo, the words of the disciples:
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?
The disciples are really asking: why is there pain in the world? Why is there suffering? Have we done something wrong? Have our ancestors erred? Are we reaping the fruit of their evil? How come some escape this current plague, while others don’t? Is it possible make some sense of this Covid 19 nightmare? Where is God in these corona days?
We might live at some 2000 years remove from John 9, but the human condition and the ways of the world are not so very different in some marked ways.
People suffer needlessly.
People scapegoat those who are different.
And God’s people wonder why.
These are days of wondering, dear hearers, as our worlds get smaller and smaller day by day. I suspect your experience has been like mine. In a few days, in my work at Luther we went from life as usual, to no face to face instruction, to work at home with social distancing. And if China and Italy and Spain are a kind of crystal ball, full on social lockdown is around the corner. And we ask: where is God in all of this? Where is God? Indeed. Did this man sin, or his parents, that he was born blind?
In our text Jesus says:
Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. It makes it sound a little like God ordained his blindness so that God could play the saviour: his blindness was a set-up for God’s glory: born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
Except that doesn’t really say that in Greek, in the language in which the New Testament was written. We read, instead, quite literally:
Neither this man sinned, nor his parents. Rather, the works of God will be displayed in him.
Or some scholars argue for
Neither this man sinned, nor his parents. Rather, let the works of God be displayed in him!
In other words, Jesus only answers the question in the negative. This man did not sin himself into blindness. And, this man did not inherit his blindness because of his parent’s sin. But Jesus does not say why he is blind. Jesus refuses to speculate, but Jesus does insist that the grace of God will work a wonder from this adverse and sad situation. God does not cause evil, or pain, or suffering, but God will take advantage of it to graciously bring about God’s reign of love. St. Paul writes:
And we know that all things work together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.
God does not cause suffering, but God is in the midst of suffering.
God is not about the business of scourging us with sickness as punishment for our moral depravity, despite the contrary convictions of rabid preachers across the internet.
God is not meting out divine wrath, striking us dead with dread.
God is not setting straight our crooked way by killing children, elderly, the infirm.
God is not sitting in heaven, keeping count of our vice and virtues, and reckoning our arrears with novel corona here, with cancer there, with war, with famine, with mental illness there.
This is not the message that God communicated and communicates to us in Jesus Christ. The message that Jesus is, is God’s unconditional embrace of all humanity and all of creation in love, despite our moral failures and in the midst of our mortal fears. God on the cross… and that is what we deem Jesus to be… God on the cross is God in solidarity with suffering; and so Jesus says: Father forgive, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. God is forgiving. God is forgiveness.
But still, I can hear you say: this very passage has some harsh language! We read, for instance, in verse 39, Jesus say
For judgement I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind. For judgment I came into this world.
I suppose, at one level, this makes manifest sense, since love is very discerning, calculating what is best for those we love. Lovers are always judging what might be most adored by those we adore.
And Jesus adores us… the bible tells us that God so loved the world, the cosmos, all of reality, that God came to be with us in solidarity with our suffering, sin, and joy. God wants what is best for us. And that means that God, in Christ is very discerning and so says no to what is not so very good for us, nichts to what is harmful for us, nada to what threatens our souls.
Of course, we see something of this in dangerous activity in the religious rulers in today’s lessons. We find them disbelieving the testimony of the man once blind. We hear them accusing him of being born in utter sin, and so responsible for his condition. We see them kick him out of his house of worship.
Perhaps some of you have experienced this kind of judgment in your experiences in
Houses of worship, or
In institutions of instruction and education, or
Perhaps on sports fields, or workplaces, or playgrounds.
Humans sometimes feel the need to raise ourselves up by putting others down. We have all seen it, we have experienced it, and if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes we have done it. We have played the part of the religious ruler:
judging others’ prayers as inadequate,
pointing to the impropriety of some expressions of piety;
claiming that my way is the only right way.
Jesus says no to this. No. His no is unequivocal, and unbending. It slices across society and forces us to ask whether we are acting out of love or not. And sometimes this No splits communities and demands decisions. We saw it in the religious rulers in today’s lessons. We read:
Some of the Pharisees were saying “This man is not from God because he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them.
This division exists still wherever God’s message of unconditional love is at work in the world. Divisions exist and so Jesus says
For judgement I came into the world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.
Sometimes we find ourselves to be blind, like the religious rulers in today’s text. Honestly, sometimes the fingers we point, point back at us. And when we know that to be true we need to hear again the word of the Lord:
So, the man who had been born blind, went away and washed, and came back seeing.
All of us have been blinded by our prejudices, by our sense of superiority, by our self-righteousness. We have heard Jesus say no,
But now Jesus says go; go and wash.
And with a baptismal bath we hear … yes…
And with this heavenly yes, sight comes flooding in and gives eyes to see that we are free to serve our neighbour, to reach out to those under the assault of prejudice, to engage in the holy, in the sacred task of caring for the cosmos.
In these corona days, dear hearers, know that Jesus says yes to you, so that you can, in the words of the second lesson:
wake from sleep and
rise from the dead,
so that the works of God might be displayed in you. May it be so. Amen.