Introduction to the reading from John:
Just before we hear the Gospel reading, I want to say a few things. During the season of Lent in year A, we get a series of long stories from John’s Gospel, and today’s Gospel story about the healing of a blind man from John 9 is no exception.
All of the Gospels have stories about Jesus healing people who are blind. But if we were reading a healing story from Mark’s Gospel it would be much shorter! The Gospel writer would tell us that someone was blind. Jesus would do something simple to help. The person would be healed. And everyone would rejoice and praise God. There might be a few Pharisees around who would grumble about it a little bit, especially if it happened to be the Sabbath day. But that would be the story.
John’s Gospel is different though. When the author of John’s Gospel tells a story about healing a blind man, it’s about much more than just healing a blind man. It’s almost like John’s stories are parables. They’re not parables really, because parables are made up stories that are told to make a specific point. On the surface a parable is about one thing, but it has a deeper level of meaning too, and that’s the point of the story.
John’s stories are about things that Jesus actually did in his ministry. But they’re told in such a way that, if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that they have a deeper meaning too. Today’s story is about Jesus healing a blind man, but it’s also about something else. Let’s listen carefully for that something else this morning.
That was a pretty complicated healing story, wasn’t it? There is a man who was born blind. And Jesus’ disciples ask him a theological question about the blind man. They ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Can you believe that they ask that question? It seems shocking to us today. But the idea that when something bad happens to you that it must be because you have done something wrong was not unusual, and it’s probably not that unusual today either. If there’s something wrong with you, God must be punishing you. Or if it’s something genetic that you were born with, maybe God is punishing your parents for something they did wrong.
That’s what the disciples are wondering. Who did something wrong? The blind man or his parents? But Jesus breaks their assumptions and tells them, “No one sinned. Neither the man nor his parents have done anything to deserve being struck with blindness.” Or I could imagine Jesus saying, “Come on, everyone sinned! Everyone makes mistakes. This man and his parents aren’t perfect either. But that has nothing to do with this man being born blind! In fact, this particular man was born blind so that God’s works could be revealed in him.”
And Jesus proceeds not only to heal the man of his blindness, but to use this event to show God’s power and God’s love to many others. It was a simple and straightforward healing. First the man was blind. Then Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread it on the man’s eyes. Jesus told the man to wash, and he came back able to see. Once he was blind, but now he could see.
But instead of celebrating – the usual response to a healing in the Gospels – everyone was confused and upset and worried about how it was done. The neighbours wanted to know how it was done and “where was the man who did it?” The Pharisees wanted to know how it was done, and they were upset that someone had done it on the Sabbath day. They called the man’s parents and questioned them about it. All they could say was “Yes, this is our son. He was born blind.” They didn’t know how the healing took place. They told the Pharisees to ask the man himself.
So they did. They called the man again, and they tried to get him to say that Jesus must be a sinner because he did this thing on the Sabbath day. But the man said, “I don’t know if he’s a sinner. All I know is that though I was blind, now I see.” And the Pharisees just pestered him some more, asking him again how Jesus did this thing. And when the man finally says that Jesus must be from God, they drive him out.
At the end of the story, there is a final encounter between Jesus and the healed man. And though the man still does not understand exactly what has happened, he knows that once he was blind, and now he sees. He knows that Jesus is responsible for the healing. And he believes that Jesus is from God.
And Jesus finally says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Although the story is about the healing of a blind man, I think on a deeper level, it’s about healing our spiritual blindness. Although the story is about opening the eyes of a man who cannot physically see the world. I think on a deeper level, it’s about opening our eyes to see God in Jesus Christ, to understand who we are in relationship to God, and to have our lives transformed by that relationship. I think the story is about conversion.
Conversion isn’t a word that I use all that often. Maybe if I had become a Christian later in life, I would talk about being converted. But I grew up in the church. And although I can identify some key moments in my faith life and commitment, I can’t identify a single moment of conversion and tell you exactly what happened.
Like the preacher John Wesley who described the feeling of his heart being “strangely warmed,” I can tell you about the day of my baptism when I felt absolutely surrounded and upheld by the love of God in my church community. Like the first disciples who dropped their nets to follow Jesus on the road, I can tell you about the day that I became sure that I was being called to ministry. I didn’t feel ready or equipped, but I felt called and I was ready to go.
When I think about it, I can’t even trace the key moments in my development of faith. I can’t remember the sermons that made a difference in my understanding of God. I can’t recall which songs I was singing or which scripture passages I was studying when I recommitted my heart and my life to serving God so many times over the years. And I certainly can’t repeat the many conversations I had with people of faith and with people with doubts… the debates, the earnest discussions, and the prayers that were shared.
Like the man who was formerly blind, I can’t explain to you how it happened. But I can tell you that Jesus was there. He was there through it all. And I once was blind, and now I see.
Consider the Gospel story that we just heard. And tell me… when was the man born blind converted to the way of Jesus? Was it when Jesus touched him and put mud on his eyes? Was it when he opened his eyes and found that he could see? Was it when he was talking to the Pharisees and found himself saying, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Was it during that final conversation with Jesus when the man responded, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him?
Think about your own moment of conversion… or perhaps many moments of conversion throughout your life of faith… And think about what difference your faith makes in your life. You once were blind, but now you see. How is your life changed because of your relationship with Jesus? Give thanks for that change, for that transformation, whether you can remember one key moment of conversion, or whether your growth in faith has been a gradual process over many years.
But I don’t want us to make the same mistake that the Pharisees always seem to make. They keep thinking that they have everything about God all figured out. They keep thinking that they can see perfectly already, and so they aren’t looking for opportunities to have their own eyes opened.
I’m reminded of a minister that I once knew when I was growing up. He was a wonderful minister. Thoughtful, kind, and caring. But he was finished learning. Although Presbyterian churches provide time and money for clergy to do continuing education every year, he had no use for taking courses. He said that he learned what he needed to know in seminary, and he was finished. It made me wonder how great a minister he could have been if he had been open to learning even more.
Continuing education is something I don’t have a problem with. I’m very excited about the time I can get to read, and study, and attend conferences and lectures. I’m signed up to go to the “Festival of Homiletics” – a major preaching conference in Minneapolis next month. And I’m happy to learn from the masters, and hopefully improve my preaching.
What is more difficult than learning new ideas or skills is learning the humility to admit that you can’t do everything well, that you made a mistake, that you missed something important, that you made a wrong decision. Because unless you and I can humble ourselves enough to let God lead us in new ways… Unless you and I will open our eyes to see the new things that God is showing us, then we might as well be blind.
Yesterday we had a very good gathering here at the church. We were a small group of 15 members, and we were talking, discussing, thinking, and praying about what God is calling us to do to grow the health and effectiveness of our congregation. We shared some excellent ideas, and some good suggestions. Some of the good suggestions shared will be forwarded to the committees and the Board so that they can be implemented as part of the regular work of those groups. And a couple of excellent ideas you’ll be hearing more about in the next few months. We decided that it will be fun and fruitful to work on developing some Major Community Sundays in our church. And we decided that it will be fun and fruitful to discern and develop the spiritual gifts of our congregation members.
I won’t get into any more detail than that today, but you can expect to hear more from this group, and there will be more opportunities down the road for you to get involved in putting these ideas into action. But I think the best thing about what we did yesterday was that there was a Spirit of openness to excellent ideas and good suggestions. We listened to each other. We expected God to speak through those with whom we gathered. We opened our eyes to see something new, to see something good… and we did.
This morning’s Gospel story reminds me that conversion is a process. Faith is a journey, and we’re on the journey together. So if we’re willing to listen to one another and be patient with one another, we can help each other to see new possibilities, to embrace new ideas, and to journey on with new hope and courage.
Wherever we’re at right now is not the end point of our faith or understanding of God and God’s will for us. There will always be more to learn, more to understand, more to enact in the world… And so we have a wonderful reason to hope, because God is not finished with us yet. Let’s open our eyes, because there are more wonders yet to behold! Amen.