We are now four weeks into our series, so let us begin by reminding ourselves of where we’ve been on this journey so far.
We started the series by noting that the season of Lent is historically connected to baptism. In the early church, Lent developed as a final period of instruction and preparation for people who wished to become followers of Jesus Christ, and who would formally enter into this covenant through baptism on Easter morning. In this season, then, we have been considering the covenant we make when we are baptized as United Methodists.
The first week, as we considered the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, we reflected on the issue of temptation as it related to our first baptismal vow: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? We considered not just our battle against personal forces of wickedness and sin, but our collective fight against systemic evil in the world.
The second week we read the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to ask him about the source of his power. We considered our need to be born again, especially in light of our second baptismal vow: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Last week we learned about the living water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman, and how her encounter with Jesus transformed her life so greatly that she became the first Christian missionary. We reflected on this story as we considered our third baptismal vow: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races? And will you commit yourself, according to the grace given in you, to be a faithful member of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?
This week, as we consider the story of Jesus restoring sight to the man born blind, we will reflect on the role of the community of faith in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. In the baptismal covenant the community of faith plays a critical role. The gathered worshiping community is asked:
Will you nurture these persons in Christ's holy Church, that by your teaching and example, they may be guided to accept God's grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?
How does a community nurture a person in the faith? How does YOUR community live out this part of the baptismal covenant? And what insights in to that task might be found in this story about Jesus healing a man who had been blind since birth?
There are three distinct communities in this story: the disciples of Jesus; the neighbors who had known the blind beggar and his family since the man was born; and a small group of Pharisees. Each community responds in a different way to what they witness.
The disciples are the only ones to actually hear the conversation between Jesus and the blind beggar. They are eyewitnesses to their master making mud out of spit and dirt, spreading it on the man’s eyes, and ordering him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. But the disciples don’t seem to be all that interested in the man regaining his sight. They are distracted by wanting to know the cause of the man’s blindness. They believe, as did most people in this time period, that a person suffering from a physical or mental ailment was being punished for sin. And so the disciples wonder aloud whether this man is blind because of his own sin, or because of the sins of his parents.
It appears that once the man went off to the pool of Siloam to wash the mud out of his eyes as Jesus instructed him, the disciples do not encounter him again until the end of the story when the newly sighted man becomes a member of the community of followers of Jesus himself. It is not clear from the text whether they even witnessed the man’s miraculous healing, although we might surmise that, having witnessed Jesus healing many people before, they simply trusted that the man would be able to see as Jesus promised. John implies that after Jesus put the mud on the man and sent him to the pool, the disciples went on their way, and their interaction with the blind man ended. It is not clear whether they were present during Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees.
As a community, then, the disciples do nothing to nurture this man in the faith. They seem to have little sympathy for him as a human being, and their main concern is to know exactly who is to blame for his condition.
How many times have we, when confronted with someone whose physical condition is outside what is considered normative, found ourselves wondering about how the person got that way? What did that man do that led to him being homeless and panhandling on the street? If I give him money, will he squander it on drugs or alcohol? Is he an addict? Is he mentally ill? What is wrong with that woman who collects disability checks each month? She looks perfectly able to work to me! Is she cheating the government so she can sit around and watch television all day? Why does that young man insist that he is really a female and should be able to use the ladies’ bathroom? Clearly he is a male. What about that young black man with the baggy pants who walks up and down the street all day long. Why isn’t he in school? Where are his parents? Is he in a gang? Is he selling drugs? Does he have a gun?
Communities form strong parameters around their identities. Once the boundaries that create clear insiders and outsiders are determined, the only thing that remains is to make judgments about who is welcome and who is not. The criteria for making this determination is often centered in blame:
- That man is blind because he has sinned, so he can’t be a member of our community.
- That woman can’t be the pastor in our community because her command of the English language is not good enough.
- That child is not welcome in our worship services because he makes noise and runs around during church and his parents will not control him.
Here we see the community of Jesus’ closest followers—his own disciples—making assumptions about this man’s condition. In doing so, they not only reject him themselves, but they give justification for the wider community to continue to reject him. He is blind because he or someone close to him has sinned. He deserves his punishment. The community does not have to nurture him because his blindness is his own fault. The community is free to ostracize him and deny him access to what those who have not committed the sin that leads to blindness take for granted, such as employment opportunities, a place to live, and friends and family who won’t deny knowing him in order to protect their own privileged status in the community.
The second community in this story is the neighbors from the village where the blind man was born, and where he and his family continue to live. Their response is curious: even though this is a man they have known all their lives, now that he can see, some of them can no longer recognize him, even after he repeatedly identifies himself to them. Once the Pharisees enter the picture, his own family won’t speak on his behalf, for fear that they will be identified with the Jesus followers and ostracized by their community of faith.
Why are the neighbors unable to recognize this man once he is no longer disabled? Do we have difficulty accepting changes in people? Do we put them in a category that, once they are labeled, they can never escape? Or do we believe that people really can change, be born again, made into new creatures? Do we believe that a person who has committed multiple heinous crimes can be forgiven, and even rehabilitated? Do we believe that a mother who has lost custody of her children because of addiction can ever be trusted with children again? Do we believe that someone who has hurt us can ever be worthy of our forgiveness?
It appears to me that like the community of disciples, the neighborhood community, and even the family, of the blind beggar also do nothing to nurture this man in his faith. Some don’t even believe Jesus has healed him. They don’t believe he is the same man they have known all their lives. Others want to know how it is that he was healed, and where this miracle healer has gone. Surprisingly, not one of the man’s lifelong neighbors celebrates this miracle, or cries tears of joy for his healing, or embraces him in love. At least, not according to John’s account of the story.
The last community in the story is the small group of Pharisees. The Pharisees get stuck on a couple of issues. Some suggest Jesus cannot be a man from God if he broke the law and healed a man on the Sabbath. Not only is he a fraud, but he is a sinner just like the blind man. Others do not seem so hasty to make this judgment, so they continue to question the blind man. “What do you say about him?” And the healed man says he believes Jesus to be a prophet.
This response seems to really upset the Pharisaic community, to the point that they decide it must not be true that this man was born blind. Their judgment is that the whole story is a lie. So they go to question the man’s parents.
The parents, as noted above, confirm that their son was born blind, and now can see, but they know nothing of how that came to be. The Gospel writer indicates that they then distance themselves from their son because they don’t want to be associated with the followers of Jesus. They are afraid this association will cause them to lose status in their community.
Meanwhile, the Pharisees, still not satisfied with the answers they have heard, return their attention to the fact that Jesus, by performing a work of healing on the Sabbath, is a sinner. The healing the man has received is not the work of Jesus; it is the work of God. They get into a back and forth with the healed man in an effort to pigeonhole him as a person who has chosen to give allegiance to a false prophet, a sinner who doesn’t even observe the Sabbath. The blind man, despite being healed of his impairment, is in the end judged by the Pharisees to be an unrepentant sinner who continues to practice a sinful lifestyle. They refuse to honor his testimony. They reject that he has been healed of the sin that caused his blindness. They tell him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drive him out of town, banishing him from the only community he has ever known.
Jesus gets word of what has happened, seeks the man out, and invites him into the community of his disciples. And perhaps for the first time in his life, this man becomes part of a community that will actually nurture him in the faith.
For me, this is the real miracle in this story. This is where our role as a community of faith in the baptismal covenant really gets some legs under it.
I don’t mean to imply that the restoration of sight to a man who has been blind his entire life is not an incredible gift. It is. But the real power in the story, to me, is that this man—a man who had been born blind; who had been judged to be a sinner and rejected by his community, and even his own family, because of something that was beyond his control; who had suffered a lifetime of ostracism; and who had been reduced to earning a living by begging on the side of the road—found not just healing, but grace, welcome, and even love, in the community of followers of Jesus Christ.
Oh, that our communities of faith could truly be places of this kind of welcome and nurture for all who pass through our doors. Open our eyes, Lord, to see people not with our own eyes, but with yours. Open our arms to welcome those who have been rejected or cast out by their communities and families. Open our hearts to be able to truly love those whom we have judged to be sinners. And help us, that by our teaching and example, those whom you send to our communities maybe be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, profess their faith openly, and lead Christian lives.