I Was Blind; I Could Not See

Part 4 in the sermon series “Lent and Easter with U2
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
April 3, 2011–Fourth Sunday in Advent
John 9:1-41

John 9:1-41 • As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

I WIll Follow by U2
I was on the outside when you said
You said you needed me
I was looking at myself
I was blind, I could not see

A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by his hand
If he stops to think he starts to cry
Oh why

If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away
I will follow

If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away
I will follow
I will follow

I was on the inside
When they pulled the four walls down
I was looking through the window
I was lost, I am found

Walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away
I will follow
If you walk away, walk away,
I walk away, walk away
I will follow
I will follow

Your eyes make a circle
I see you when I go in there
Your eyes…your eyes…your eyes…your eyes

If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away
I will follow

If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away
I will follow
I will follow
I will follow
I will follow

I. BEGINNING

I’m a big fan of irony. Real irony. Not the kind of irony that Alanis Morissette popularized where “irony” means some kind of unfortunate coincidence. Or ESPN sportscaster’s irony, where irony means any kind of coincidence and announcers will say things like: “It’s ironic, Dan, because these two teams met in the Superbowl ten years ago today.”

No, I’m a fan of actual irony. The kind of irony where the hoped for result is frustrated by the actual result. For example, when a man takes a bus because he’s afraid of his plane crashing and while he’s on the bus, a plane crashes into it. (See, that’s actually ironic, Alanis, unlike rain on your wedding day, which is actually good luck.) And I’m a fan of literary irony, too, where the literal meaning is the opposite of the intended meaning. The kind where you describe something as “groovy” because the thing is not only uncool but because it’s doubly uncool to use the word “groovy” (and you know that). But then again I’m a Generation-X’er and we’re all kind of like that. Anyone who’s ever watched Jon Stewart is well aware of my generation’s fondness for irony.

II. THE TEXT

And so, for me and admirers of irony everywhere, tonight’s gospel lesson is a particularly enjoyable one. As I’ve noted before, especially in this series, where the Lenten lectionary has dealt us a fair amount of John’s gospel, the text is fully of irony and double meaning. It’s a favorite literary device of John to lace his narratives and his dialogue with all manner of ironic wordplay.

Here in this passage, Jesus encounters a man born blind. His disciples ask him whose sin–the man’s or his parents’–is responsible for the man’s blindness. This is echoing an ancient understanding that disease or disability was the result of some sin or misdeed. Jesus responds that no one’s sin is to blame, but that “God’s work might be revealed in him.” Jesus thereupon makes mud out of some dirt and spittle, places it on the man’s eyes and commands him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man does and his “eyes are opened” and he can see.

Of course the religious leadership is not happy about this. Miracles are not permitted until they have cleared the appropriate committee of General Conference. And so they accuse the man of lying. Of pretending to have been blind. So they bring the man’s parents who attest to the fact that he’d been born blind. So, the religious leaders turn to They declare that Jesus, who had healed him on the Sabbath, is a sinner. The man responds “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” Angry with him, because he will not renounce Jesus, they throw him out.

Jesus hears about this and finds the man and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. The man asks to be shown the Son of Man that he may believe in him. Jesus reveals himself as the Son of Man and declares: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Whereupon, the religious leadership hearing this, responds predictably:

“Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

And so, John uses the irony of the blind who can see better than the sighted who are blind. It is particularly ironic because the sighted ones aren’t just anyone: they’re the religious leadership. They’re the one who are supposed to see things more clearly on account of their wisdom and spiritual connectedness. Instead, they are less able to see than a blind beggar.

III. I WAS BLIND; I COULD NOT SEE

It’s a nice story, but we sometimes can fall into the trap of believing that we, unlike the Pharisees in the story, can see. Now, it’s true that John tends to write for the insiders, but at the same time, such an indictment of the religious ought to give us pause: how blind are we to God’s activity? How likely is it that we, like the religious leadership of the day, are blind as to God’s purposes and activity? Is that level of blindness really possible for the faithful?

We might ask the question the other way around: can anyone really see? Is it really possible for us to know God?

St. Anselm, the father of the school of philosophical thought known as Scholasticism maintained that God was self-evident. Using a clever definition of God, Anselm argued that it was logically impossible for God not to exist.

Writing years later, St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t necessarily agree. Aquinas pointed to the verse from the Psalms that says, “Fools say in their heart, ‘There is no God'” and argues, were God self-evident no one would doubt God’s existence. Aquinas goes on to say that if we knew God’s nature, then God would be self-evident; but we do not know God’s nature and therefore, God is not self-evident. God could not be known by unaided reason, and while Aquinas provided a number of proofs for the existence of a First Cause or a Prime Mover or a Necessary Being, he conceded that the Christian God could not be known by human beings in the ordinary course of events.

Centuries later, John Calvin would continue in this vein arguing that humanity had been corrupted by sin and could no longer know truly God unaided. Later Calvinists would even go so far as to say that humanity was “Totally Depraved” and could not know God at all.

But Calvin hadn’t quite gone that far. He’d argued that humans could know something of God on their own. They had their own consciences. They had the majesty of the Creation around them. These things helped them to understand something of God. Calvin had maintained that our vision of God had been blurred by sin, not erased. Scripture and the Holy Spirit were part of the way that God helped to correct our vision. The sight that we had lost could be corrected with the lenses of Scripture aided by the Spirit. But Calvin argued that God made one more accommodation to us: Jesus.

IV. I WAS LOST; I AM FOUND

Jesus is the one who takes us out of our spiritual blindness. Jesus is the one who helps those who cannot see to see. When his disciples are locked in an ancient notion that blames people for the misfortune that befalls them (attributing blindness or other disability to sin), Jesus reminds them that not all things are on account of sin, and that some offer the opportunity for the performance of God’s work.

Jesus cures us, too, of our spiritual blindness. Aquinas and Calvin may have been right that unaided, we cannot know God. We would be like the singer in U2’s song “I Will Follow”:

I was on the outside when you said
You said you needed me
I was looking at myself
I was blind, I could not see

We were in a state of spiritual blindness. On the outside, looking at ourselves. Perhaps imagining a God who is a lot like ourselves, the way the Pharisees in John’s gospel were doing. And in that moment, we are called outside of ourselves, and our blindness is lifted by the one who came into the world to be the light of the world.

One who came to show us a God of compassion and grace. A God who calls us outside of our narrow categories, who takes our presumptions and turns them on their heads. A God who calls us to something beyond the strict religiosity that we imagine our faith is.

For as Jesus reminds us, he sometimes exposes those who imagine that they have vision to be the ones lacking true sight. The religious leaders in the gospel lesson are exposed as blind because they do not see who Jesus is and whose work he is accomplishing. But they were not the last to be so exposed.

When the church came to believe that it could spread the faith by the sword, the words of Christ expose them as blind. When the leaders of the church sought to persecute Jews through the Inquisition, the grace of Christ exposes them as blind. When the church in America supported slavery and the church in Germany supported the Nazis, the love of Christ exposes them as blind. And just yesterday in his research presentation, our own Kurt Karandy showed how the radical love of Christ exposes the white leaders of the Social Gospel movement, a movement that had much to commend itself, as perpetuating Jim Crow segregation despite their protestations of being prophetic moral leaders for the church.

But we know that in the midst of our blindness, Christ comes to perform God’s work and grant us sight. It may involve a little dirt and spit, but before too long our eyes will be opened. And in that moment, there is but one response that we have. Just as in the lyrics to the song:

I was lost, I am found
If you walk away…
I will follow.

The man born blind had his eyes opened and he became eager to believe in and follow the Son of Man. Having had our eyes opened to the love, grace, and mercy of God found in Jesus Christ, we too have the same response: we follow. We respond eagerly to the invitation by proclaiming “Tell us who the Son of Man is so that we may believe.” When find that we were blind but now can see, when were were lost but now are found, we too declare that wherever the one who healed us walks, we will follow.

V. END

Irony abounds in faith; not just in John’s gospel. For it is often the case that those who claim to be able to see are themselves blind and those who are considered blind are the ones who see best.

It is itself a confirmation of this all too present irony that the word “Christian” itself has become something of an embarrassment. Perhaps because those who claim the name the loudest are ironically, tragically the ones who seem to least understand what that name should mean. And it is often the case that the ones who are the most reluctant to claim great spiritual authority are the ones who often embody Christ the most profoundly. This is a lesson that comes straight out of Jesus’ own teaching: the one who lives out the love of God is not always the elder or the deacon; it’s sometimes the un-churched Samaritan who happens to be walking down the Jericho road.

But if we are to be among those who will have our eyes opened, if we are going to be the ones who sing “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” then we had best be about following the one who lifted the blindness from our eyes. For it is when we truly are about being followers of Christ that we acknowledge our own limits and our own need for God’s saving grace. And in that moment, we become part of God’s corrective lenses for a world struggling to see God. When we follow Christ, we help the world to see the God Christ has helped us to see, aiding the whole world to proclaim, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind now I see.”

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