“Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” (John 9:39).
St. John begins his gospel with the words: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” (1:3b-5). And here at the beginning of the ninth chapter of the Gospel According to St. John we encounter Jesus walking along with his disciples when he meets a man very much living in darkness, that is, he is blind and has been since birth. Suddenly before the man stands the light of the world—what is going to happen?
Well the first thing to notice is a little detail right there in the first verse that, if you’re anything like me, probably went in one ear and out the other. But I want us to slow down and notice it now, because it’s not really a little detail at all: “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth,” (9:1). He saw a man blind from birth. What an extraordinary thing: Here is a man completely unable to see but Jesus sees him. Jesus notices him. Jesus beholds the man.
Now we can learn a number of different things from this short verse. For instance, Jesus notices and cares for especially hurting people. Many people, many of you perhaps, look quite alright on the outside but in your hearts carry with you pain and loss, remorse and sorrow. There are far more hurting people around us than we might ordinarily be aware of. We rush past them on the TTC, we stand behind them in line at the coffee shop, we sit beside them at church, and we simply have no idea. But, Jesus notices. He sees your pain. You are within his compassionate and healing gaze.
Others have read this verse and understood, rightly so, the blind man to be a paradigmatic representation of a sinful humanity and our conversion to Christ. To be sure, he isn’t blind because he or his parents sinned. Jesus is clear about that here. But in this story of healing the blind man is every man. And his healing is our healing, the healing that we experience when Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, bears away the sin of the world and we who are by nature blind are given sight by he who is the light of the world (William Temple in Bruner 561).
All of this is true. It’s all there in that first verse. But what I want to highlight is quite simply the sheer, luxurious grace of it all. Jesus sees, beholds, a man who is unable at all to see him. This is the gospel, friends. Before, long before, you were ever able to see Jesus Jesus saw you.
And so Jesus, seeing the blind man, spat on the ground, mixed his saliva with the dirt and made mud pies for the mans eyes. He did not ask the man if he wanted it, if he was ready, if he believed that Jesus could do it. There are zero preliminary conditions. In his great compassion and mercy Jesus simply does it. Then he sends him off for a bath in a nearby pool. So the man went, mud pies on his eyes and all, washed in the pool, “and came back able to see.” Dirt and water. Remember now, this is a man who was born blind. So when he came back and was able to see it wasn’t that Jesus had restored something to the man that he had previously lost. No, what Jesus Christ did in this man was something brand new all together.
The mud hearkens back to Genesis: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being,” (Genesis 2:7)—Creation. The water of the pool is a figure for baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:4). Or elsewhere: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)— New Creation. The man born blind was given something by Jesus that he has never experienced before. Likewise, to become a Christian in baptism is not to be renewed but to be made wholly new altogether.
Alright, so the blind man is healed and made a new creature. Look at how his neighbours respond: “Uh, isn’t that Bill? The blind guy that used to sit over there and beg?” “Yeah, that’s him. Weird right?” “No. No, guys. Not Bill. Believe me, I know Bill. That’s a lookalike.” Herein lies a truth of the gospel: a sinner whose heart God has changed and enlightened by his grace is not easily known again (Pasquier Quesnel). They are a new person. “For once you were darkness,” wrote Paul. “But now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light,” (Eph 5:8).
I think of my own story. I was raised in the church but when I was 17 years old and at summer camp I had what I can only call a conversion experience. Like Nicodemus two weeks ago, I had a sense of being born again. Like the Samaritan woman last week, I got a taste of that living water. Like the blind man this morning, Jesus opened my eyes to see him in a new way. Whatever the case, I was changed. Even still, to this day, when I recall this story I have a difficult time explaining just what happened. In fact, I feel a bit like the man in our story: “Look, I don’t know a lot of things but here’s one thing I know for sure, I was blind but now I see.”
The only way that the blind-now-healed man could account for the difference between his two states—I was blind, I now see—is the reality of Jesus coming into his life. That’s the only way I can account for my own experience as well. The same is true for you, I’m sure.
There is another important point just here: You don’t have to be a know-it-all to know-at-all. The man in our story didn’t know who Jesus was, where he was from, what his name was, how he fit into the picture with the religious leaders. All he knew was that the man Jesus restored his sight. And from that point he begins a journey towards Jesus. And on that journey what does he do but tell the truth.
We were challenged last week in our gospel reading to be people that are willing and able to share our faith with others. Here we see a similar challenge and it takes the form of truthful speech. There are three occasions in our gospel reading where the man is questioned: What happened? How is it that you can see? And each time he answers truthfully according to what he knows: “OK, so Jesus made mud with his spittle, spread it on my eyes—I know, but stay with me. Then I washed, and now I see.” This is so striking. The man is questioned multiple times, he doesn’t know all of the answers, he can’t explain it all nicely, but he never lies, he always tells the truth.
What if being on mission with Jesus is as simple and uncomplicated as telling the truth? I mean, if you’re like me then when you think about evangelism or “reaching out” maybe your mind goes straight to organizing some sort of program or event. Being a people on mission might include those things but what if, at it’s core, it is as simply about being honest, about telling the truth who Jesus is and what he has done? I’ll bet that if we can learn to be as honest with our neighbours as this once-blind-mind is honest with his neighbours, we’ll find out pretty quickly what the Lord can do with our witness. My priest-friend Dawn said that she likes to encourage people to “gossip the gospel.” Make the gospel part of your everyday life and storytelling. “Name-drop” Jesus and see what happens!
Let us return to the man. The journey that he began toward Jesus progresses, he comes nearer and nearer to the light, his knowledge of Jesus grows little by little until finally, the healed man confesses, “Lord, I believe,” (9:38). And he worshipped him. This is the only fitting response.
John began his account of the gospel with the words: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” (1:18). Here now, Jesus, the only Son of God, makes God known to this blind beggar. He opens the mans eyes so that the man can see Jesus and in him recognize the glory of God himself. And so, fittingly, he worships.
The man who at the start of the story was beholden by Christ, now himself beholds Christ and is drawn to love and adore him.
This is a figure for the Christian life and for Christian worship. The Christian life isn’t about keeping some sort of moralistic scorecard and Christian worship isn’t about “getting something out of it.” Both of these responses probably mean we are looking at ourselves. Rather, above all else the Christian religion is about beholding Jesus Christ, fixing our eyes upon him as he pours himself out in love on the cross for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. It is about taking our eyes off of ourselves, off of the world around us, and being taken in entirely by the vision of Jesus Christ, of his beauty and his love, and worshipping him with our whole selves.
In just this way Christ heals us of our spiritual blindness. And so at the end of this story what we have is a grand reversal of fortunes. The one who was blind at the beginning now sees at the end. Whereas the ones who could “see” at the beginning—the Pharisees who we did not spend a lot of time talking about this morning—have, in the end, their true blindness revealed. The one who was driven out earlier in the story finds himself on the inside with Jesus while those who were on the inside find themselves suddenly on the outs. But no one finds themselves on the outside at the end of the story that wasn’t on the inside to begin with. It is only those who insist on not needing Jesus, who insist on seeing-just-fine-thank-you-very-much, who insist on being perfect peaches, themselves without sin, that remain in the dark unable to see the gratuitous love of God in Christ. And so Jesus ends the story with a warning: In your aspirations for purity, in your quest for holiness, beware of not wanting to seem to yourself, or to be, a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners. (Luther) To acknowledge this and to behold Christ is to receive from him the gift of sight. Amen.