A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb
Meade Professor of Biblical Interpretation and New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Wednesday, March 22, 2017
This afternoon, God willing, I will get on a train headed back to Washington DC after a perfectly splendid week with all of you at St Thomas, Whitemarsh. I am honored to have been your theologian in residence for this past week and I am deeply grateful to all of the people who have made that happen, and especially to your Rector, for inviting me. Thank you all very much, indeed. It has been wonderful to be with you.
The reason we have such a long Gospel passage this morning – it is the entire chapter — is because it is hard to imagine how the story could be broken up into smaller pieces: we really need all of them to get the full effect. The question about who is a sinner runs through the entire chapter. Not only that, but the man born blind gradually grows in his understanding of who Jesus is, as shown by the way he describes Jesus. He also becomes bolder as the story develops and more willing to confront the leaders of the synagogue, who finally expel him. The story is told this way, with the man born blind portraying an ideal disciple of Jesus, because of a heated argument between two kinds of Jews: Jews who believed that God’s Messiah had come and that his name was Jesus of Nazareth and Jews who did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s Messiah, for any of a number of good reasons, such as the fact that the Messiah was not supposed to suffer death on a Roman cross.
We will be talking more about these issues in the forum hour today, but for now, it might help to imagine two histories of the American Civil War, written 50 or 60 years after the fact, one from each side of the conflict. You can imagine that each of them would be highly polemical and that they would see the same set of facts very differently. After all, 150 years later, we cannot even agree about how to describe it: was it the War of Northern Aggression or the War to Free the Slaves?
The Gospel of John was written some 50 – 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the story of Jesus is remembered and told through the lens of a conflict between the two kinds of Jews I mentioned before: Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Jews who believed he was not. What happens when these two groups are worshipping God in the same synagogue? One group is worshipping Jesus Messiah as God; the other group considers this action to be blasphemous. It’s like oil and water that don’t mix and eventually the Jesus Messiah people either leave or are kicked out – like any bitter divorce, there are two sides to the story – and the ones who saw themselves as “kicked out of the synagogue” wrote the Gospel of John.
Now to the story. Jesus and his disciples see a man who had been blind from birth and the disciples immediately want to know whose fault it is: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We might well spend some time wondering what is it about us humans that we move so quickly either to blame the victim or to affix blame somewhere else in the face of human suffering. But today we must content ourselves just to notice Jesus’ answer, “No one sinned.”
He adds, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Then he heals the man’s eyes with a mud and saliva paste (that probably gives us shivers but would have been considered good medicine when this was written) and sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man went, and washed, and came back seeing. (If you hear that and think about Baptism, you are on the right track.) But as soon as he has his sight, the arguments begin. The neighbors argue about whether it’s the same man or someone who looks like him. He says, “I am the same man.” They say, “but how…?” so he tells them the story of how “the man called Jesus” had healed him.
The neighbors don’t know what to do with him, so they take him to the leaders of the synagogue (called in the story “the Pharisees” or “the Jews” but that’s confusing because everybody in this story is Jewish and Jesus and his disciples were all probably Pharisees) so I’m going to say “leaders of the synagogue” because that’s where the action is happening.
Now Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, and you know from other Gospel stories that Jesus and the religious leaders argued about Sabbath observance: did healing a blind man count as “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath or not? The leaders of the synagogue say of Jesus “He’s not from God, he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.” But others say, “A sinner could not have done this.” So they are divided. They turn to the man himself, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” At this point the man makes a stronger statement than “the man called Jesus.” He says “He is a prophet.”
The synagogue leaders in the story don’t believe the man. They send for his parents. “This is your son, whom you say was born blind. How does he now see?” We see the parents getting very careful: “We know this is our son, and that he was born blind, but we don’t know how he can now see nor who opened his eyes. He’s an adult, ask him.” (The parents wimp out and the narrator tells us why: they were afraid they would be put out of the synagogue.) So again, the synagogue leaders call in the man himself and they are portrayed as cross-examining him to the point of harassment.
“Give God the glory!” which is a way of saying, “Now tell the truth, because we know he’s a sinner and could not have done this.” The man says, “All I know is that once I was blind but now I see.” (If that makes you want to hum “Amazing Grace” you’re right; that’s where John Newton got his famous line.) They continue to argue back and forth, during which time the man born blind confesses that he wants to become a disciple of Jesus. He says, “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.” That’s the last straw for the leaders of the synagogue and he is kicked out of the synagogue.
I hope you can now see what I meant earlier about this story describing an ideal disciple from the point of the Johannine community: members of that community had themselves been in conflict with their synagogue leaders about Jesus Christ: the story of the man born blind is their own story as they saw it. They had been misunderstood by their neighbors, disowned by other family members, and gotten into trouble with the religious authorities because of their confession of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah.
The story ends with the man saying “Lord, I believe” and worshipping Jesus, which would only be appropriate if he believed that Jesus was indeed God. It concludes with the polemical statement that the leaders of the synagogue are the ones who are “blind” and that they are the real “sinners.”
So what are we to make of this story? I give thanks to God that in our own time Jewish scholars and Christian scholars are studying our sacred texts together and are working together to try to reconstruct the historical situation in which such polemical language made sense. In John’s Gospel, we have only one side of the story. We don’t have the other side of the story, but we can be sure that there was one.
Personally, I would want to return to the words of Jesus at the beginning of the story. In answer to the question, “Who sinned?” Jesus said “No one sinned.” Maybe we can see the separation of the Johannine community from their synagogue as a no-fault divorce. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for two people, who were once very close, to stay together. And sometimes it just doesn’t work out for two groups of people, who were once very close, to be able to stay in the same worship space.