Seeing is Believing
August 29, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 33:6-11; Ephesians 1:17-19; John 1:1-5, John 9
We have a favorite cartoon on our refrigerator that we keep there because it so absolutely captures Greg and me. If you don’t know Pickles, you should. The characters are about our age, a long-married couple who are showing signs of what our doctor euphemistically calls “age-appropriate” decline. But the panel that’s on our fridge has been appropriate throughout all our years of living together. In the first block the husband has his head buried in the refrigerator and behind him his wife asks, “What are you looking for, Earl?” He says, “Blueberries for my cereal. Where did you hide them this time?!” She replies, “Oh, for Pete’s sake! They’re right there behind the leftover casserole!” He finally turns around and says in exasperation, “Well, stop hiding them! You know I have male refrigerator blindness!”
John, the story teller, loves to play on the themes of light and darkness, sight and the blindness of not understanding. In Chapter 3 Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, comes to Jesus at night and their conversation is sprinkled with allusions to light and dark. Jesus tells him, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” He continues, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed… but those who do what is true come to the light…”
Later, Jesus will refer to himself as “the light of the world.” He goes on to say, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And what could be a better metaphor for darkness than the state of being blind?
The heading for Chapter 9 is A Man Born Blind Receives Sight. But just before this episode, there’s been a lot of conversation among the religious authorities about who Jesus is, where he came from, and what authority he possesses. He’s even accused of being a Samaritan and/or having a demon—being crazy. They’ve wanted to know who his family is and what’s his lineage. And those are the same sort of questions the disciples want to know about the blind man, too.
“Who sinned, that he was born blind? Him or his parents?” Where did the affliction of not seeing come from, they want to know? If this is a question about ‘original sin’, the sins of the fathers, the sin of Adam, then Jesus uses the very same dirt, adamah, from which ha’adam, the Genesis man, was made to take away the blindness this man inherited. Is John saying that the whole world is blind? Blind from birth? Blind by nature? Is all of humanity afflicted with congenital blindness that leaves us sitting in the dirt, begging by the roadside? And if so, is he suggesting that we don’t have to live in the dark?
The writer of this gospel thinks globally, cosmically even. Yes, there are delicious vignettes, wonderful little playlets to enjoy, but the roles that are played show us problems common to all of humanity, not just those of named (or un-named) individuals. The man born blind. The woman taken in adultery. The woman at the well. These characters could as well have been called Adam and Eve, the figures from whom we all descend.
But in this story the questions the disciples and neighbors and Pharisees ask are not global. They’re myopic. Their theology focuses on assigning blame: Who sinned, this man or his parents? They want to have medical answers: How did it happen? Or, they’re skeptical: Is this actually the same man who used to sit by the road and beg? Is this really the son you say was born blind?
In their cross-examination of the now-sighted man, the Pharisees return to the question of who Jesus is and where he came from. What are his creds? Is he a descendant of Abraham? Does he have a prophetic inheritance from Moses and the prophets? But they ultimately have to conclude that they simply don’t know whether Jesus is Godly or not. The formerly blind man has no such questions. “Here’s an astonishing thing! (he says to them). You don’t know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. He couldn’t do this if he weren’t from God!”
If I weren’t enjoying the story so much, I’d be sympathizing more with the Pharisees. I’m afraid I’d have been asking the same questions because who wants to find out they’ve been hoodwinked/taken in by some Elmer Gantry tent evangelist claiming to offer cures. Seeing myself in the Pharisees still makes me squirm and wonder if I’m not as blind to my own nature as they were.
They were skeptical. They were accusatory. They were looking for the wrong authentication while looking down their social noses. (“Who was your mother, dear?”) They were pretentious and arrogant. They were self-satisfied.
Jesus’ actions take us back to the elements from which we humans sprang—long before the question of immediate parentage, before the question of how we’re connected to Abraham or Moses. All the way back to the cosmic dust from which the first man and first woman were created. In the beginning there was dirt and water and the breath of God. Through John’s eyes, it’s the first day of creation and maybe there’s a chance for a do-over.
John began his gospel with a reminder of the first days of human time, but what he describes is a Creation at which Jesus was present as co-Creator, dwelling in timeless eternity. Put in that perspective, the Pharisees’ questions of parentage and credibility and power become petty—questions that would be asked only by those who had no understanding…those who were blind to Jesus’ identity.
Jesus lifts this one poor soul up from the dust in which he sits and begs, and then he mixes his own spit with the dirt of the world. Next, he puts mud on the man and sends him off to get the dirt washed out of his eyes—a sort of baptism!
Wouldn’t that be a great place to end the story? Sadly, when it goes on it snares even us as it becomes a commentary on the complexity of who sees and believes… and who sees and chooses not to believe.
And believing is what matters most to John.
If you like statistics, you’ll be interested to know that the verb to believe occurs 241 times in the New Testament. And 107 of those occurrences are in the gospel of John and the epistle of I John. Remember this verse? For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son , so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. These words so many of us memorized as children are close to the beginning of the gospel but John will bring them back again and again. Take today’s story, for instance.
All the characters are caught up in questions of belief…or disbelief. The neighbors disagree with each other over whether the now-sighted man really is the same man they had known. The Pharisees don’t believe he really had been blind, even challenging the man’s parents as to whether this is actually their son, and are skeptical about whether he really was born blind. In Jesus’ final conversation with the now-sighted man, he asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
I can’t read these questions without wondering if they aren’t meant to speak for doubts we all have.
In a time that now seems long ago, I would stand in the pulpit and ask, “What is it you believe?” And then I’d answer, and we’d all join in, more or less together, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ…..” If you were ever uncomfortable with those words, you may have been even more so hearing John’s cosmic Jesus asking people he encountered what they believed.
If faith is living, it’s also evolving. At least it has been for me. And I see how that happened throughout the Bible. “I am,” God said to Moses. God is. And the Jewish people responded with the creedal affirmation, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One.”
“I believe,” said John’s now-seeing man, and the church through the centuries expanded on that, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…and in Jesus Christ…and in the Holy Spirit.” And there are even more words in our beloved Brief Statement of Faith.
In the end, after all their questioning, the religious authorities don’t believe in the man’s cure and they drive him out. But Jesus found him and asks again about whether he believes in the one who gave him sight. The man answers, “Who is that, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him. Jesus then says to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” Wouldn’t you like to know what exactly the blind man saw that caused him to say, without pause, “Lord, I believe,” and then to worship him?
I can only guess. But I think his moment of insight was the same as it had been for the woman at the well. It was a moment of being completely known by God, of being rescued from the spiritual blindness that kept him from seeing farther than his own ego, a blindness that prevented him from seeing God everywhere he looked. It was a moment of knowing he was loved by God in spite of everything God could see. It was a moment of absolute awe and amazement and envelopment in the immensity of God the Creator, God the Sustainer, God the One who loves us absolutely. What could he do but gasp, “O My God! Credo! I believe!”
The older I get, the shorter my credo becomes. These days it is enough for me to say, “God is. Jesus is. God’s Spirit is. Thank you.”