Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
“It must be nice to serve a small congregation where you can talk quietly and consistently with a few people each Sunday,” a colleague recently commented to me. Laughingly, I told her, “You mean people whose ages span from newborn to post-90 or the people whose faith development spans from literal and concrete to individuating and reflective? Perhaps you mean that couple with three squirming kids who want an all-praise service who are sitting beside the people with hearing aids but still want to sing In the Garden?”
“Ok! I get the picture,” she said. Our conversation then turned to the challenge any of us faces on any given Sunday: in spite of the size of a congregation, people come to worship with differing needs—and they come to those needs with differing levels of faith maturity. Our gospel lection for this Lord’s Day gives the preacher an opportunity to help people recognize their level of faith development and yet recognize a fundamental truth of this text: regardless of the level of faith development, the most basic division is between those people who acknowledge Jesus and those who reject him.
While there are numerous questions in this passage, there are truly two that are important: "do you want to be his disciple?’ and "do you believe in the Son of Man?’ Both of these questions precede the Man Born Blind’s query, “who is he, sir?” How we help the congregation respond to these two prior questions will help them gauge the development of their discipleship and enrich their understanding of Jesus.
That first question, "do you want to be his disciple?’ can be addressed in two manners. One can emphasize the personal (Do you want to be his disciple?) This rhetorical barb goes to the heart of the questions swirling around Jesus—and around us today! But matters of the source of physical illness, the role of parents with handicapped children, and even the power of God to heal pale before this more basic question—who is Jesus and am I his disciple?
You can also emphasize the activity (Do you want to be his disciple?) The opening chapters of John’s gospel bind together questions of Jesus’ identity and questions of discipleship. There are explicit arguments churning around what Jesus says and does. But the more important arguments are the implicit ones pulsing around what happens to those who believe what Jesus says and who seek to do what Jesus does.
In response to this first question, we may note the following truths. Discipleship requires the power of Christ! Christ heals the disciple’s lifestyle. Certainly, Jesus healed many people. So many sought him out that he withdrew at times for renewal. Yet the Great Physician is not into assembly line medicine. He wants to position us so we practice health. He gives guidance on how to stay healthy. He urges one woman to become married, another to "sin no more,’ a man he urges to essentially watch his step "so that nothing worse happens to you!’ while here he affirms the Man Born Blind’s worship. Healthy discipleship requires the power of Christ!
Christ also heals the disciple’s understanding. Both the Woman at the Well and the Man Born Blind go from calling Jesus a "prophet’ to affirming him as Lord. This is so true for most of us and illustrates how our faith matures. Our understanding of Jesus develops over a lifetime. What matters most is the direction of travel. While Christ alone truly has the wisdom and authority to discern the direction of our travel, the ultimate saving affirmation is “Lord.” The gospels urge us toward this affirmation.
Do you want to be his disciple? Just as he avoided social controversy, medical controversy, and moral controversy, here Jesus avoids theological controversy. Instead he heals people caught in bondage. The Woman at the Well, Man at the Pool, the Woman Caught in Adultery and now the Man Born Blind each move to discipleship as a result of healing. The healing includes a change in how they conduct their lives and how they understand Jesus!
In response to this second emphasis (Do you want to be his disciple?) these things suggest themselves. Discipleship portrays the evangel of Christ! We must allow Christ to heal our understanding: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!” This witness is a true conclusion of the people Jesus touched and so it appears in all four gospels. This is not true simply because it appears in all four gospels; this evangel is not simply the author’s "point of view.’ It was, is and shall remain the evangel of those whom Christ heals. It is true and so it is in the gospels. We must also allow Christ to heal our witness: “I have come into this world for judgment!” Jesus was "healing on the Sabbath and calling God his own Father thereby making himself equal with God. A fair reading of every gospel leads to this dual conclusion—Jesus not only claimed to be equal with God but he conducted his mission of both healing and judgment based upon such self-awareness. When we detach our witness from such explicit statements of Jesus, whether out of personal confusion or political correctness our witness is fundamentally flawed and thus ineffective.
Do you want to be his disciple? The challenge of knowledge and faith in 2020 is to affirm the evangel in the midst of a hostile religious setting. Although we have trouble with such a boundary, even our most liberal confession of faith makes a clear connection between healing love and judgment (The Confession of 1967: 9.14). If we do not proclaim this evangel there is little to distinguish us from any other social club. But the church is not a social club—we are Christ’s church, an outpost of God’s kingdom and witnesses to God’s redeeming power.
Of course, this inquiry leads directly to the query Jesus makes of the Man Born Blind: "do you believe in the Son of Man?’ This intimate exchange between the man and Jesus frames the core question still haunting the human heart, “Who is he, sir?” We already know that the Man Born Blind has progressed beyond what James Fowler would describe as Mythic-Literal Faith. That stage, recognized by a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, characterizes the religious leaders who investigate the healing. These leaders are carriers of the community’s narrative and thus trapped by that narrative. The Man Born Blind challenges their literal interpretation of the community’s belief by pointing out the obvious: “if this man were not from God, he could do nothing!”
Perhaps this Man Born Blind had already progressed to the next stage, while still blind. The Individuate-Reflective stage shows he has already begun detaching from the belief of his parents and the religious leaders. We see this in the progressive honors he bestows on Jesus as he describes "the man who healed me.’ His parents recognize his detachment from the community’s literal faith and so they push the religious leaders to ask their son, noting, "he is of age. Ask him.’ More significantly, the man’s response to the question of Jesus indicates he is ready to progress from this stage of faith into the next stage, for he recognizes his healing and the anxieties of the religious leaders both signal that the world is more complex and numinous than his rationality allows.
The Man Born Blind is no longer blind. He has entered the Conjunctive level of faith. It is a level that James Fowler depicts as brimming with vision. It is also imbued with a new sense of justice that goes beyond justice defined by one’s own culture and people. He makes the fundamental announcement of discipleship, calling Jesus "Lord’ and "worshipping him,’ according to the gospel. (James Fowler, http://www.apocryphile.net/jrm/articles/fowler.html)
So how might we appropriate this story and acknowledge the way our congregants are maturing in their faith? I believe it is important to recognize people may come to be a disciple of Christ at any one of these stages of faith. Some people may be struggling with his humanity—but the struggle can be the struggle of a disciple. Some people may be struggling with his relationship to the God—but the struggle can be the struggle of a disciple. Some congregants may be wrestling with his unity with the Father and some with questions of how to worship Jesus—but these are all the struggles of a disciple.
How might we appropriate this story and inform the life of our congregation with its power? Your church is a community of disciples whose purpose is to spread the word about Jesus Christ. Making disciples requires us to portray to others our fullest under-standing of who Christ is—at whatever stage of faith possesses us for people within any community live at these varying levels of faith. The core affirmation must be simply a loss of shame about the Gospel of Christ. The church makes disciples when it embodies the healing love of Christ. This means in mission a congregation must meet the blind, the curious, the alienated, the thirsty and hungry people around us with the healing touch of God’s Son and our Savior.
We need to examine two great eternal principles.
(1) Jesus does not try to follow up or to explain the connection of sin and suffering. He says that this man’s affliction came to him to give an opportunity of showing what God can do. There are two senses in which that is true.
(a) For John, the miracles are always a sign of the glory and the power of God. The writers of the other gospels had a different point of view, and regarded them as a demonstration of the compassion of Jesus. When Jesus looked on the hungry crowd he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd (Mark 6:34). When the leper came with his desperate request for cleansing, Jesus was moved with pity (Mark 1:41). It is often urged that in this the Fourth Gospel is quite different from the others. Surely there is no real contradiction here. It is simply two ways of looking at the same thing. At its heart is the supreme truth that the glory of God lies in his compassion, and that he never so fully reveals his glory as when he reveals his pity.
(b) But there is another sense in which the man’s suffering shows what God can do. Affliction, sorrow, pain, disappointment and loss are always opportunities for displaying God’s grace. First, it enables the sufferer to show God in action. When trouble and disaster fall upon someone who does not know God, that person may well collapse; but when they fall on someone who walks with God, they bring out the strength and the beauty, and the endurance and the nobility, which are within a person’s heart when God is there. It is told that when an old saint was dying in an agony of pain, he sent for his family, saying: ‘Come and see how a Christian can die.’ It is when life hits us a terrible blow that we can show the world how a Christian can live, and, if need be, die. Any kind of suffering is an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God in our own lives. Second, by helping those who are in trouble or in pain, we can demonstrate to others the glory of God. The American missionary Frank Laubach has the great thought that when Christ, who is the Way, enters into us, ‘we become part of the Way. God’s highway runs straight through us.’ When we spend ourselves to help those in trouble, in distress, in pain, in sorrow, in affliction, God is using us as the highway by which he sends his help into the lives of his people. To help another person in need is to manifest the glory of God, for it is to show what God is like.
(2) Jesus goes on to say that he and all his followers must do God’s work while there is time to do it. God gave the day for work and the night for rest; the day comes to an end, and the time for work is also ended. For Jesus, it was true that he had to press on with God’s work in the day, for the night of the cross lay close ahead. But it is true for everyone. We are given only so much time. Whatever we are to do must be done within it. There is in Glasgow a sundial with the motto: ‘Tak’ tent of time ere time be tint.’ ‘Take thought of time before time is ended.’ We should never put things off until another time, for another time may never come. Christians have a duty to fill the time they have—and no one knows how much that will be—with the service of God and of others. There is no more poignant sorrow than the tragic discovery that it is too late to do something which we might have done.
But there is another opportunity we may miss. Jesus said: ‘So long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When Jesus said that, he did not mean that the time of his life and work were limited but that our opportunity of laying hold on him is limited. There comes to each one of us a chance to accept Christ as our Saviour, our Master and our Lord; and if that opportunity is not seized it may well never come back. E. D. Starbuck in The Psychology of Religion has some interesting and warning statistics about the age at which conversion normally occurs. It can occur as early as seven or eight; it increases gradually to the age of ten or eleven; it increases rapidly to the age of sixteen; it declines steeply up to the age of twenty; and after thirty it is very rare. God is always saying to us: ‘Now is the time.’ It is not that the power of Jesus grows less, or that his light grows dim; it is that if we put off the great decision we become increasingly less able to take it as the years go on. Work must be done, decisions must be taken, while it is day, before the night falls. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of John [2001, Louisville, KY] Vol. 2, pp. 45–47)
The healing stories, the narrative in John 9 centers on a blind man who, upon recovering his sight, immediately begins to walk around like a typical sighted person. However, as neurologists like Oliver Sacks point out, if it really happened this way, then this once-blind man was the recipient of a double miracle: not only had Jesus fixed his optic hardware but he must also have installed the necessary mental software which allowed the man to make sense of the information coming through his eyes. Although we do not realize it most of the time, the ability to see is one-part physical phenomenon and another part mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience.
For this reason blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out of reach even as they may knock over a glass of water which is closer than they thought. Likewise, the once blind misjudge steps and bump into walls because they have not yet acquired the knack for interpreting visual data. Some even continue to use their white canes for a while so that they can slowly begin to connect how the world has always felt through the tip of the cane with how it now looks through their eyeballs. It also takes time to learn how to recognize objects which previously had been known only by their shape and texture. The once blind may know what a telephone receiver feels like but may have to be told “That’s a phone” the first time they see one.
As it turns out, this matter of sight is a bit more complex than we might think. But then John 9 bears witness to this same fact, albeit in the spiritual realm. As is the case in many classical Greek dramas, so in John 9 irony is created through the fact that the man who had been blind turns out to have a sharper spiritual vision than people who never had any optic difficulties. Conversely the Pharisees, who believe their vision can penetrate spiritual matters with laser like precision, turn out to be the truly blind ones.
Homiletically this lection is rich with possibilities. The option of an embellished retelling is certainly a strong one, particularly with some of this story’s built-in humor and irony. There is even an element of mystery as Jesus disappears after verse 7, reappearing only at the very end of the story (though even then Jesus is a mystery figure since the once-blind man has quite literally never laid eyes on Jesus and so does not recognize him at first). There is also the humor of the healed man’s becoming ever more impatient with the silly interrogation by the Pharisees.
However, since this passage is assigned as a Lenten reading, perhaps a more apropos approach would be to trace through its obvious motif of sin. Lent is a season which calls believers to be serious about sin. Yet, in an ironic way this story provides a Lenten caution not to say more about sin than is prudent.
Like the disciples at the outset of this story, so many people look for connections between sins and circumstances in a simple cause and effect schema. For instance, some years ago parts of California experienced a particularly devastating earthquake resulting in significant damage and loss of life. Desperate to make sense of this tragedy—and perhaps also eager to score some points for God—one southern California congregation invited Richard Mouw to come the week following the quake to help them discern what God was saying to the folks in that sometimes-secularized part of the country. Mouw, however, was not interested in playing into any naive equating of this event with God’s wrath, and so chose as his sermon text for that Sunday the portion of the Elijah story which says, “But God was not in the earthquake”!
There are, of course, places in the Bible where God himself makes clear that sometimes there is a correlation between a tragic event and God’s punishment of sin. When God himself reveals such a judgment, it can be taken as reliable. However, even in the Bible, when human beings try to make such connections on their own, they nearly always get it wrong. The disciples in John 9 do, too. They see a man born blind and assume someone must have sinned.
In John 9:3, however, Jesus provides the Bible’s single most striking counterargument against the simple equating of bad things with specific sins. The blind man’s unhappy situation may ultimately be a tragic fallout of a world that had fallen into sin, but it was not the result of any proximate sin. In other words, sometimes a little holy agnosticism is called for when it comes to talking too glibly about other people’s sins.
The Pharisees possess no such pious caution. They start by once again lobbing the sobriquet “sinner” toward Jesus himself. Since Jesus had, by their definition, broken the Sabbath, he could not be some God-sent prophet. On the other hand, however, the Pharisees could not deny the punch behind the argument that a miracle as grand as healing a man born blind could not have been performed by anyone other than a heaven-sent servant of God. Hence the Pharisees launch plan B, which is to impugn the miracle itself lest Jesus get credit for something which, undeniably, would bolster his divine credentials.
Alas, plan B does not work either, as it soon becomes clear that the healed man is no fake—he’s too well known as the town’s blind beggar. So the Pharisees fall back, regroup, and return to plan A; namely, calling Jesus a sinner. But this tack works no better on the second go-round, as this time it is the healed man himself who provides the same counterargument: no mere sinner could have the kind of pull with God that Jesus clearly has. Frustrated, fed up, and frankly also defeated, the Pharisees dispense with the man by returning to the same idea which the disciples had when the story began: namely, it is this man who was steeped in sin at birth (which is why he was born blind in the first place), and so he is not a credible witness.
Hilariously, by calling this man a sinner on account of his having been born blind, the Pharisees now tacitly acknowledge the miracle, thereby playing into the logic of Jesus’ divine character after all! Thus Jesus, having begun the story by repudiating the disciples’ cozy assumptions about sin, concludes by targeting the genuine sin of the Pharisees. If the Pharisees really were ignorant (or spiritually blind) as to the logic which properly equates the ability to heal with being divine, then they would not be guilty of sin. But Jesus knew (as did the Pharisees deep down) that they both saw and understood the implications of this healing. Their spiritual eyesight was just fine. Their stubborn rejection of Jesus came not from blind ignorance but sin.
John 9 counsels caution to those who, out of a sincere but misguided desire to show pious seriousness, say more about the sins of others than they know. By way of counterexample the Pharisees, through their convenient dismissal of both Jesus and the healed man as lousy sinners, remind us that it is possible for the devout to use the sin label as a way to avoid those who, if only we would listen, have something important to teach us. More chilling still is the end of this story, which contains more than a hint that sometimes the very people who talk the most about sin (other people’s sin) are themselves the most blind, sinful folks of all.
Perhaps it seems odd to encounter such a text halfway through Lent. In some ways John 9 could make us wary to talk too much about sin in the center of a season which centers on confession of sin! But perhaps this lection calls for us to import into our doctrine of sin a slogan of the ecological movement: Think Globally, Act Locally. The global sin of the world is a matter of great seriousness—it explains why the Son of God came to die. But too much focus on all the sin that is “out there” in the wider world can quickly transmogrify into a self-righteous smugness. This can then make us so blind to our own need for grace that we become stingy in doling out this same grace to those around us who are desperate to hear the good news that the light of the world has come in Christ Jesus—a gracious light of mercy and forgiveness in whose ambient glow all people can see the glory of God. (Hoezee, S. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol 3 pp. 521–524)
Sometimes the best answer to complex theological and philosophical questions is just to do what needs to be done. Instead of the global answers we should be answering locally.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Personal healing honors Christ. Instead of blaming someone for the wreckage of my heart and the corruption of my life, mature faith will acknowledge with gratitude for the mercy of Christ and the abundance I have. Evil gains unnecessary power when we center all our efforts on eradicating it. While evil and disease must be purged, centering our attention on Christ allow us to develop habits of health. The most important task of healing comes after the surgery as we rework the habits that led us to the surgeon’s knife in the first place.
Deepening belief also honors Christ. All of us follow the pattern of the Man Born Blind—as we are healed of our sophistication and skepticism. We gain insight into the nature of Je-sus. We grow from questions of his history (the man) through debates over his mission (a prophet) to submission to his teaching (Lord). Neither degrees on the wall nor status in the pulpit insures our maturity in this life-long healing. Only a humble recognition that Jesus and the people who wrote about him likely have greater insight into healthy living than I have.
“Now what do you say?” Nothing is a more profound betrayal of marriage than the act of adultery—and discovering your spouse in the midst of adultery puts this question squarely before you: now what do you say? Other betrayals of good will, decency and justice claw at our heart with equal force: “how could you do such a thing?” How can our life survive this great wound? These are treasonous actions that challenge us precisely at the intersection of justice and mercy.
“Who sinned...that he was born blind?” Nothing brings more anguish to a parent’s heart than the discovery of a child’s impediment—a condition made even more troubling by contemporary medicine that puts this question squarely before you: who is responsible? This is our way of thrashing to answer a parallel heartache—how will my child live with this encumbrance? Such queries may smear the lips of community busybodies, but this question haunts the heart of any loving parent.
These are troubling questions that mature our faith. Of course the easiest thing for us to do while reading this story is to vilify the bystanders asking these questions—the judgmental Jewish elders and the feckless parents. But the redemptive thing for us to do is this—recognize that each of us has stared into the darkness of the night with these same troubling questions. The incidents are unique only in the names of the characters—the heartache caused by the inter-section of "what we say we believe’ and "what we feel like doing’ troubles our soul.
The most intense conflict between people comes when they are one level of development apart. People are the most critical of others, and the most self-righteous, when they are dealing with those who are at the level of moral development the person has just left behind. With all of the zeal of a true believer, and with none of the graciousness, they set out to show those left behind the true light they have just found for themselves. Too often they wind up only blinding the very person they sought to convert.
In the movie Contact Jodie Foster plays an astronomer who works with a project searching for signs of life in the universe. Her character reacts to the world solely on the basis of “seeing is believing,” and in a conversation with a pastor-friend, she says she could not believe in God because she has no empirical evidence, nothing she could see convinces her. When she ends up having an experience of being transported to an alien world but returns with no empirical evidence to support her claims, no one believes her. She realizes that there are things in life that are true though they cannot be seen or proven scientifically. The Pharisees seek facts; the blind man knew the truth.
In order to make ourselves feel superior, we like to be able to point at others whom we consider to be inferior in some respect. Part of the abuse the blind man faced was due to that fact. In the business realm, former General Electric leader Jack Welch was one of the foremost proponents of the “rank and yank” system of personnel management. Every year GE ranked its entire labor force and then automatically fired whoever ended up in the bottom 10%. In a similar manner, the former Enron corporation forced managers to rank their workers every six months and then terminate the bottom 15%, even if those employees were not bad workers. In that kind of an environment, the only way to feel satisfied with yourself is to know there is someone else around who is thought of more poorly than you are. (David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead [Orlando: Harcourt, 2004], p. 130)
As the blind man who was healed discovered, it is often the case that those who are the weakest are the ones who receive the most abuse from the powerful. That has often been the case when it comes to the Internal Revenue Service. Since 1988, the chance of a poor person being audited has increased by a third, while the most affluent taxpayers have seen their audit rate drop by 90%. In 2001, poor individuals making under $30,000 who made use of the Earned Income Tax Credit experienced a 1 in 47 chance of being audited. At the same time, taxpayers making over $100,000 had only a 1 in 145 of having their tax returns being examined. Some analysts believe the IRS does that because poorer taxpayers are “easy prey.” While middle-class and lower-income families often don’t have the resources to engage in lengthy disputes with the IRS, the wealthy can avail themselves to top tax lawyers and accountants who are skilled at keeping the IRS tied up in knots for years. (David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead [Orlando: Harcourt, 2004], p. 157)
While the leaders in the temple might have acknowledged that Jesus was a captivating speaker and a charismatic teacher, they wanted to draw the line as to how much healing power they were willing to attribute to him. Nowadays, though, if someone achieves fame or glory in any particular endeavor, many people are willing to defer to their judgment in all matters. Some years ago MAD Magazine poked fun at the logic of Joe DiMaggio being chosen to be the pitchman for Mr. Coffee. The magazine asked: “In the course of his 16-year career with the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio hit 361 home runs, had a lifetime batting average of .325, and hit safely in 56 consecutive games. Which of these accomplishments qualifies him as an authority on coffee makers?” But today if someone is good at basketball, the general public is quick to listen to what they have to say about breakfast cereals, trucks, and telephone companies. Likewise, while movie stars might have great acting skills, vast numbers of people are quite willing to listen to what they have to say about political candidates, transferring their notoriety in one field to an entirely different field. (Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank [Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society, 2004], p. 74)
One of the reasons the temple leaders lashed out at Jesus and anyone who dared to ally himself with Jesus was because the temple leaders felt that their status of being “somebodies” within the society of that day was being challenged. Throughout history, whenever “somebodies” are threatened with suddenly becoming “nobodies,” there is usually a fierce, violent reaction. Such was the case when Hitler came to power in Germany. Hitler’s swift rise was primarily due to the fact that the Germans felt they had been turned into “nobodies” at the end of World War I by being made to pay humiliating punitive reparations. Hitler’s appeal, then, largely came from his proposals to restore Germany to the status of a proud, dominant nation. Likewise, following the Civil War, many whites in the South felt that they had been turned from “somebodies” into “nobodies” almost overnight. That in large part explains why the Ku Klux Klan achieved such a following among that population. The Klan offered southern whites the prospect of regaining and maintaining their elevated status in southern society. (Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank [Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society, 2004], p. 6)
Although we cannot attain complete Christian maturity by ourselves, Jesus invites us to strive toward perfection. Many of Rembrandt’s paintings were initially painted by apprentices in his workshop. Rembrandt himself would then apply the finishing touches to make them complete. In some cases a gifted apprentice would hand his work over to the master and Rembrandt would apply only a few brush strokes to finish it. Yet on other occasions the same artist would bring an equally well-done piece to Rembrandt and the master would engage in significant amounts of repainting in order to bring it up to his standards. Likewise, there were times when less talented artists would bring their work to Rembrandt and he would virtually repaint the entire piece, while at other times Rembrandt would make almost no changes to the painting. After a while, the students become puzzled about which of their paintings would meet the master’s approval and which would not. But even though they were frustrated at times because of that, they continued to strive to do the best work they could. They did their best, and then trusted the master to do the rest. (Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Seeking Justice in Hope,” The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 99)
A significant part of Christian maturity is acting on the knowledge that has been revealed to us. Many times, though, we choose to do what we know is wrong. Philosophers use the Greek word akrasia to refer to that phenomenon. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, akrasia literally means “lack of mastery” or “incontinence.” “Akratic” people, therefore, are those who fail to exercise sufficient mastery over their impulses and do what is contrary to what they know is right. (Anita L. Allen, The New Ethics: A Tour of the 21st-Century Moral Landscape [New York: Miramax, 2004], p. 10)
Richard Lischer, a professor at Duke Divinity School, tells about how one of the pillars of his congregation came into his office when he served as the pastor of a Lutheran congregation. The man beamed as he announced, “I’ve been born again!” Lischer responded, “You’ve been what?” The member explained, “I visited my brother-in-law’s church, the Running River of Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened and I’m born again.” Lischer replied, “You can’t be born again, you’re Lutheran! You are the chairman of the board of trustees!” Lischer concluded that spiritual insights are great as long as they occur within “acceptable” channels and do not threaten other people’s understanding of God.
That was the problem the blind man encountered. His new insight into who Jesus was threatened to turn the religious world of his day upside down, and the authorities were dead set against that happening. In a similar vein, Lischer points to Peggy Payne’s novel Revelation, where a Presbyterian minister experiences a theophany. One afternoon, while grilling steaks in his backyard, the minister hears God’s voice speaking to him. It turns out to be a revelation that changes his life. The rest of the story goes on to tell about the price he is made to pay for that revelation. Instead of rejoicing at his new spiritual insights, his church leaders provide free psychiatric care and paid administrative leave. Such are the burdens that people face when they claim to see things that others are blind to. (Christian Century, 3/3/99)
The movie The Sixth Sense told of how a young boy named Cole was able to see and talk to dead people. Consider what he says at one point in the film: “I see dead people. They don’t know they’re dead. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see.” This story in the Gospel of John suggests that those words could often be applied to us as well. In many ways we are spiritually dead because we only see what we want to see. In contrast, the healed blind man is shown to be the spiritual giant in the story because he sees what others do not see, and he is bold enough to tell about that experience even though those in power are not going to be receptive.
Sight Savers International, a charity that cares for the blind, estimates that nine out of ten blind children in developing countries are not able to participate in school. The organization calls upon the nations of the “world to devote more effort to preventing easily prevented sight-loss diseases like trachoma and cataracts.” Sight Savers points out that “while more children in third-world nations now have education available to them, the number of blind children who have access has remained practically unchanged.” The group believes that 28% of blindness among the young can be prevented and another 15% is treatable. In Pakistan, for example, 75% of the blind adults there are illiterate, compared to 46% of the general population. In Uganda, blind children are deemed to be incapable of doing the educational activities that other children take part in. In Malawi, only 20% of the visually impaired children go to school. (“Blind "missing out on schooling,’” BBC, 10/13/04)
As the healed blind man came to realize, the road to maturity can be painful: “Blisters are a painful experience, but if you get enough blisters in the same place, they will eventually produce a callus. That is what we call maturity.” (Herbert Miller)
All living things have basically two options: grow or die. If we are not growing and maturing in our faith, we do not truly have the life of Christ within us: “Growth is the only evidence of life.” (John Henry Newman)
Spiritual maturity is not reserved only for the “great.” Rather time and time again Jesus chose to demonstrate God’s greatness by giving the lowly an opportunity to experience what God is able to do in their lives despite their weaknesses and failings: “Growth begins when we start to accept our own weakness.” (Jean Vanier)
In telling this story of healing John contrasts the moral and spiritual blindness of Jesus’ critics with the physical blindness of the man born blind—the latter is far easier to heal than the former. We see this in the character of Nahum in the film Spitfire Grill. In the small town of Gilead, Maine, a young woman named Percy has come to find work as a waitress in the Spitfire Grill. Everyone is curious about her past, but soon most people are won over by her winsome ways. She is a great help to Hannah, the owner of the Spitfire and Nahum’s aunt; she brings courage and a new sense of self worth to Nahum’s browbeaten wife; she helps Joe see the beauty of the land he owns and has considered worthless; she begins the psychic healing of a recluse in the woods (who turns out to be Hannah’s estranged son); and she comes up with a good idea for Hannah to sell the Grill that nobody in town wants to buy. Yet, all through the film Nahum is suspicious and hostile to her, especially so when his wife begins to stand up to his verbal abuse. He uses the telephone to make enquiries into her past, discovering at last that she has just been released from prison and his come to Gilead to begin anew her life. Hannah is his aunt, and Nahum becomes convinced that Percy is out to steal her money. He even concocts a scheme that makes people think Percy has stolen a moneybag. Townspeople jump to the conclusion that the recluse in the forest is an accomplice of Percy in the theft. Percy runs off to reach the man ahead of the mob, but in crossing a raging stream she is drowned—and only after her death does Nahum discover how wrong he has been. Just as in John’s gospel it takes the death of Jesus to bring us to our senses, so in this film it takes the death of the innocent Percy to cure Nahum of his moral blindness.
Jim Manley’s beautiful hymn “Spirit” speaks of blindness in its second verse. The hymnist is referring to the Hebrew people before Christ, but it is the same moral blindness that affects the Pharisees in today’s passage from John. The Spirit “swept through the desert” and gave the people “a law and a land,” and even when the people were blinded by “their idols and lies, God sent the prophets “to open their eyes.” In John’s day Jesus is the prophet sent by God to open eyes, but just as hundreds of years earlier, many would not heed the prophets, so in his day Jesus opens the eyes only of those who want to see.
Probably the most famous, and favorite, mention of “blindness” in a hymn is the one from the “old sea captain’s” hymn, “Amazing Grace.” There is an autobiographical note to “I once was blind, but now I see; was lost but now am found.” John Newton, it is reported, loved to talk about his conversion from his moral and spiritual blindness to sight, from his old reprobate ways to one of righteousness and love. There apparently were two stages to his conversion. The son of a sea captain and a sailor himself, Newton had been impressed aboard a British man-of-war at the age of eighteen in 1743. Hating the life, he deserted, was caught, publicly flogged, and stripped of rank. Leaving the Navy, he next served aboard a slave ship, on which he was so abused that he was almost a slave himself. He came across a copy of the Thomas a Kempis classic The Imitation of Christ, which marked the beginning of the first stage of his conversion. A great storm overtook the ship, during which Newton manned the pumps for over nine hours. All their provision were either washed overboard or spoiled, so for the next four weeks all they had to eat were the fish they were able to catch. Newton’s great fear, however, was not of starvation but of drowning—he could not swim. Thus out of fear he turned to God. After reaching port, Newton became a sea captain—of a slave ship—but now he was pious, and held a worship service for the crew twice on Sundays. For a long while he was like the blind Pharisees in that he saw no disconnect between belief and practice. He had a series of narrow escapes from death by storms and mutiny during the next few years, and gradually became aware of how morally repugnant his trade was. He took advantage of an illness while at home to give up his trade. He struggled to educate himself and win the approval of the bishop for holy orders. Now under the influence of evangelist George Whitefield, it would be many years before Newton would be ordained. He served but two parishes during the last part of his life (1764-1807) and became a leading light in bringing his spiritually bankrupt Anglican Church back to Christ. He helped convert the man who would become the mainstay in the hard-fought campaign to ban slavery, William Wilberforce, whose tireless efforts finally succeeded in the very year of Newton’s death, 1807.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The Lord is my shepherd,
People: I shall not want.
Leader: He makes me lie down in green pastures;
People: He leads me beside still waters.
Leader: He restores my soul.
People: He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Leader: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all my life,
People: And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
God of light, we confess that we are blind in many ways. We have no eyes for your goodness, we cannot see your presence in the world around us, we do not perceive your guidance in the stillness of prayer. We do not find because we do not seek. Open our eyes, that we may see your goodness in the life around us. Remove our blinders, that we may absorb all you are trying to teach us. Give us eyes to see the need of our neighbors, and to care for them as you have cared for us in Christ. Amen.
O Lord receive these gifts from our hands. Bless us as we return to you a portion of the bounty you have given us. In sharing with others, we celebrate your generosity to us. In giving thanks for the blessings you have bestowed, we aim to be generous, that others may bless your holy name, through Christ. Amen
O God, we are grateful that, like a shepherd, you care for us. When we are lost and alone, you seek us out. When we are hungry, you fill us with good things. When we thirst, you lead us to still waters from which we may drink. In the presence of enemies, from you we receive a feast, and our cup runs over with your love and peace. When our souls languish, you restore and refresh us. We pray we may always dwell in your comforting and courageous presence.
Today we remember our global neighbors. Bring peace to their lands, and plenty to their tables. May love increase, so that all may find safety and fulfilling work. Guide our leaders as they seek to discern what is best. Motivate us to be good neighbors, locally and globally. We ask this in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.