Scripture – John, chapter 9
Change You Can See
Britt’s and my first ministry charge was to a three-church cooperative parish in a small city in Pennsylvania. In one of those churches was a young man named Tommy. Tommy experienced a mild intellectual disability but he was fully and actively engaged in the life of the church. He loved his church and the church loved Tommy. When the church doors were open, Tommy was there. When a volunteer was needed, Tommy’s hand went up. On one occasion, we had a cooperative parish picnic. It concluded with communion and Britt and I decided that, to build bonds among the congregants, we would sit in a circle so that each person served could, subsequently, serve the person to their right and – in that fashion – the juice and the cup would make their way around the large circle, each person having the opportunity to both give and receive the body and blood of our Lord. Tommy, in his usual eager fashion, sat next to Britt and me. So he was the first to receive and to give. But, in his enthusiasm, Tommy failed to comprehend that, once he had served the person to his right, he should release the cup and loaf to that person and they would serve the individual on their right. When they reached for the cup and loaf, Tommy, instead, moved with enthusiasm to the next person in the circle. Now, once folks recovered from their initial surprise, a couple bold souls tried to explain to Tommy that he needed to relinquish the bread and cup. But I suspect that Tommy had never experienced the joy of serving the body and blood of his Lord to his church family. And he was so overjoyed at the opportunity; nothing could deter him from his mission. In the end, although there were a couple chuckles, no one was actually upset that the instructions hadn’t been followed. Tommy, with his unbridled joy and undiscriminating love, was a blessing to our church family.
Not surprisingly the ancient world was very different from our post-modern Western world. Today in America, although we may still struggle inwardly with stereotypes or prejudices, most of us believe that judging someone’s character based on physical characteristics or intellectual ability is inappropriate... Perhaps nowhere was this modern value more clearly expressed than in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. King proclaimed, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
But in the ancient world, it was considered not only appropriate, but prudent, to judge someone based on their physical characteristics and abilities. They believed that physical characteristics and inward character were so intertwined that, if one were to change, so must the other. Now, blindness in the ancient world was considered particularly suspect. Most ancient people did not understand the scientific or medical process for sight. Rather than understanding that light enters our eyes as part of the vision process, they believed the origin of the light that results in vision was within the person; it emanated from their heart. That's why Jesus, in Matthew's gospel is quoted as saying, "the eye is the lamp of the body."[i] Blindness was associated with sin. That is why Jesus' disciples inquire of him regarding whose sin led to this man's pitiable circumstances. The blind were judged to be ignorant. Hence lack of physical sight was linked to lack of insight or knowledge. Finally, people in the ancient Mediterranean world lived in great fear of the evil, or dark, eye. Since sight resulted from light that emanated from the heart; lack of sight meant a dark or evil heart. That evil would come out of the blind person's body through their eye and fall upon a person or object causing them harm or even death. Overall, to be blind in the ancient world was a dreadful state. As Britt writes in “One Thing I Know,” this blind man “would have been at best, pitied and looked down upon, and at worst feared and despised.”[ii]
And so there is a dimension to the story of the man born blind that would never even cross the mind, never be considered by, us in our culture today: the dimension of social isolation. Imagine how lonely this man would have been. People wouldn't have wanted to be his friend and he was likely treated by his family as a shameful embarrassment to them. This man, through - as Jesus affirms - no fault of his own, is living a lonely and isolated existence. That is, until Jesus passes his way. Within the first few verses of this story, Jesus has blessed him with physical sight. But the healing portion of this healing story is the shortest part of the story; and if that were the only change in this man's life, he wouldn't end much better off than he'd been at the beginning because we are human beings created in the image of a God who desires fellowship. From the Garden of Eden and on and on through Old Testament scripture and into the New Testament, it is abundantly clear that God wants to share close and intimate fellowship with us and God has placed within our hearts a longing, a yearning, to be in relationship with him and with one another. We are hard-wired for relationship. It is built in to our DNA...
And that is why it is a critical point, a place of mounting tension, in this morning’s gospel story when the religious leaders expel this man from the synagogue. He is thrown out of the place where God and God’s people connect. But our story doesn’t end there because Jesus wouldn’t ever let it end there. God doesn’t want us to live lives of isolation, shriveling under the judgment of others. Jesus came so that we might have life: a close intimate fellowship with him and with one another. Jesus finds this man who would have never recognized Jesus. Jesus very purposefully seeks him out. Technically, this blind man has not yet looked upon the face of Jesus. But Jesus finds him and he reveals himself to him. And the formerly blind man believes that Jesus is much more than initially meets the eye. The man’s encounter with Jesus changed his life because he now is in close relationship with God and with God’s people. And when chapter nine of John’s gospel concludes, Jesus continues to reveal who he is, describing himself as a Good Shepherd who draws together an ever-growing fold, an ever-expanding flock. And amidst their diversity and their differences, they are one flock led by one shepherd.
Friends, I hope you know yourselves to be a part of that Jesus flock. I hope you know him and trust him as your Good Shepherd who even laid down his life for you. And I hope that you also feel blessed to be a part of a flock, a fellowship, that isn’t defined by worldly labels and values; a fellowship that doesn’t judge your worth in relation to the income you make or the job you hold, how attractive you are, how witty you are, the kind of house you live in or your level of educational attainment; because Jesus came not only to change how we relate to God; Jesus came to change how we relate to one another. Jesus founded a flock that doesn’t judge based on outward appearances or abilities. Jesus founded a flock where the weakest and most vulnerable, folks like Tommy, are cherished and protected. The change that Jesus brings to our world ought to be clearly visible in the way we care for one another – fellow sheep of the fold and lambs of the flock. Jesus didn’t just give a blind guy the ability to see. Jesus gave a lonely isolated man a place to belong. He drew him into the fold and we are called to do the same in Jesus’ name.
[i] Matthew 6:22, NRSV
[ii] One Thing I Know: How the Blind Man of John 9 Leads an Audience Toward Belief. 2015. Pickwick Publications. P. 129.
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