Reading John 9:1-41
[Note on the reading. While John often uses the phrase “the Jews” to express the conflicting party at odds with Jesus and his movement, it is important to remember that all the people in this story are Jews. It is often helpful to reframe the phrase as “the Jewish leaders”, or the “religious and political elite” in order to avoid a kind of (good) Christian vs (bad) Jewish dichotomy which has, sadly, resulted in anti-Semitism and violence across history]
What might we learn from Jesus’ words that the man’s blindness is not the symptom of his sin, or the sin of his parents - but exists so that the “God’s work might be revealed in him”?
At a base level the reading warns against becoming so fixated and rigid in our views of what is or isn’t sinful that we stop actually listening to people when they testify to the work of God in their lives, or when they witness to the transformation engendered by their encounter with Christ. The efforts the religious leaders extend in order to not listen to this man, who is telling them exactly what happened, are extraordinary. (There is certainly a lesson here for all of us about how we engage with people with disabilities - are we listening to them, talking to them, or is our first step always talking past them to a carer?).
The religious leaders (and to some extent the disciples themselves) are not allowing their views of sin to be challenged and developed in dialogue with what is right before their eyes, and because of that, they miss what is right before their eyes. Indeed, they are so concerned with “sin” (pointing it out, diagnosing its cause, enforcing its boundaries) that they are unable to apprehend that the work of God is occurring in their midst, they are unable to celebrate that a man has been healed, that a man has encountered Christ, that a man now witnesses to the good news of eternal life! Indeed they are so closed off to the surprising work of God that they cannot see the light of the world is in their midst!
How many times has the church missed the work of God, how many times has it stifled the witness of someone, because they have been too fixated on someone’s status (in their eyes) as a “sinner”? If the church wants to develop such a rigid, universalised, abstracted doctrine of sin that is able to assign blame without any consideration of the individual and their situation - then we will miss the works of God more than we see them.
Talking about sin is important, being able to - as a community - name and resist those forces, actions, and attitudes that alienate individuals and communities from the love of God is necessary if we are to seek first the kingdom of God and be known by our love for one another. Noticing and addressing that which obscure our standing before God (either over-elevating or denigrating people) is a proper work of the church. But that is a far cry from what is happening here (and what happens too often in our churches). What is happening here is that “sin”, as a label, is wielded like a sledgehammer to determine who is in and who is out, who deserves blame and who acclaim, who is heard and who is silenced, who are loved and who are spurned - this use of sin and blame resembles far more the divisive activity of the enemy than the works of God which seek to make and keep human life human.
So how might we study the lesson? In part, we stop trying to work out if people who are in a sorry situation are there on their own doing. Stop trying to ascertain whether it is because of their sin (or the sin of those near them) and just do the work of God of healing, reconciling, visiting, feeding, liberating, and proclaiming good news. The how question shouldn’t stop us doing the good work. This reading reminds us that we are to receive people, not as problems to be diagnosed and blame to be assigned, but as encounters through which the tender, healing and hopeful works of God might be revealed. We study the lesson when we meet people with openness and trust that, through standing together, the works of God might be revealed. That in the relationships formed through solidarity and support we might all see more of the eternal life promised in Christ.
The second way we study the lesson is when we encounter those crying out for healing and freedom, we actually listen to what they have to say about their experience. We study the lesson when we are open to how they understand what has befallen them, the enemies that bind them, and to what they need to get well. Let that guide us (each situation will be different so we approach this with wisdom and flexibility) and let that motivate us to look deeper at their situation, name that which binds them, and stand with them in the pursuit of transformation, healing, and liberation.
Jesus is the one who does the works of God - as long as he is in the world he is the light of the world - and folks, hear the good news, Jesus is still in this world. He is present to us in many ways, the testimony of Scripture, the elements of communion, the community of believers, but one of the most significant ways in which Jesus encounters us is as one who is present in the hungry, hurting, and vulnerable who call on us in need (Matt 25). Let us not meet the presence of Christ, present to us in the least of these, with blame and suspicion, but with tenderness, compassion, and a hope that through this encounter the works of God will be revealed. For that is how Jesus meets us - not as one sent into the world to condemn the world, but to - through solidarity with us in our deepest sorrows - save the world, to reconcile it, redeem it, and bring all things to fullness and glory.
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