Saturday, April 09, 2011

Am I Worthy of Relationship with Jesus?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Fourth Sunday in Lent: John 9:1-41

At the end of this great story, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment…” I’ve been talking this Lent about relationship with Jesus and what Jesus says here can get in the way of relationship with him. This is the Jesus of whom we wonder if we should not be at least a little afraid. This is the Jesus we assume is all about sin and judgment.

It is, unfortunately, easy to get this impression. From 1988 to 1991, I was a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. On the grounds of the University is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is the third largest church building in the United States.

Once you get inside the first thing you notice is that there are mosaics everywhere. There is hardly an un-mosaiced inch of the walls. It won’t take long for your eye to be captivated by an enormous mosaic of Jesus in the rotunda of the apse. He appears to be seated, dressed in a deep red toga with his hands raised. His head is surrounded by a golden halo, but there are also three spikes of fire shooting out from his head. And the most striking thing is the look on his face. He is seriously angry.

One day a friend of mine wanted to see the University so we agreed to meet at the Shrine. He was a priest also and arrived in a clerical collar. We were near the apse and we were looking up at the angry Jesus wondering what the hell the artist had been thinking. A little girl of about six or seven came up to us. “Father” she said to my friend, “can I ask you a question?” “Of course!” he said. She pointed up into the apse and asked, “Who is that Father?” After a long pause, during which I could see the tug of war going on inside him, he said, “I don’t know.” And we got out of there as fast as we could.

In my mind, that mosaic has always been a symbol of the Jesus that too many people think they have to be afraid of, the Jesus who is aware of their every sin, angered by it and judging it and them even as we speak.

Now we are people who take the Bible seriously (if not literally) and we believe that Jesus will be our judge (we say it every Sunday: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”).[1] We also have to admit that he is opposed to sin, even, perhaps, that it makes him angry. But what we need to ask the question, just what sin is for Jesus? Just what will he be judging and what kind of judge he will be.

The story of the man born blind that we just heard is about many things. One of the things that this story is about is sin. Just what is sin in the eyes of Jesus?

I’ll admit right up front that I am following the reading of this story by James Alison,[2] an English Roman Catholic theologian, who also happens to be openly gay. Alison believes that the opening question is critical to the story. Everything follows from it.

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

And Jesus answers,

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

What follows is a tangled tale of inclusion and exclusion. The man born blind begins the story excluded. He is, in the belief of the time, not whole. His creation was flawed. Among other things this means that he cannot participate in the fullness of the life of Israel. In particular, he could not participate in worship, he was ritually excluded.

It was because of this ritual exclusion that people made the leap to believe that he was morally defective as well. If nothing else, exclusion from worship meant exclusion from the way that Israel made itself right with God, so the man could not possibly be right with God, and for this to make sense it must have been true from the beginning, hence the question, “Who sinned to make this man be born blind?”

None of this way of thinking should particularly surprise us. Throughout history and even in the present day, much prejudice is based on (or justified by) conjectures of physical and moral defect. It was certainly how racism was taught to me, for instance.

This whole story is about Jesus subverting this way of thinking. He begins by making the man whole, making a paste from the ground with his own spit. It was apparently a common remedy, but it is also, interestingly, a sort of continuing of the man’s creation. Think of Adam being formed out of the dust of the earth. Jesus is saying, this man is one of us. He is human.

Jesus then sends him to a pool to finish his healing/inclusion. Perhaps we are supposed to be thinking about the inclusion of baptism here, but the pool would have been a place for Jewish purification, so Jesus may be saying, he is part of our people as well. He is a Jew.

The man then begins to attract attention and people are confused and frightened as we would expect if such a thing were to happen among us. They ask him if he was the man born blind, and his first words in the story are a powerful affirmation, the likes of which he has probably never been able to make in his entire life: “I am the man.” Hear, “I am a man” and even, “I am somebody.”

The religious authorities take notice, no doubt because the crowd is stirred up and that always means trouble. The man at this point has no idea who has healed him. He did not see him. He tells his story first to the crowd and then to the authorities. Their prejudice and their understanding of sin are immediately challenged.

“This [healer] is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Notice no one has yet said anything positive, such as a “congratulations” to the man or a “thanks be to God.” Everyone is caught up in how their prejudices are being challenged. The authorities go so far as to seek out the man’s parents with the hopes that they will reveal that this is all a hoax.

The parents reply as little as possible. Clearly they are being threatened and they take that threat seriously. Yes, he is our son. Yes, was born blind. But we have no idea what is going on. You have to talk to him about that.

OK, so denial of what has happened isn’t going to work. The man was born blind and obviously now he sees. Now their only option is to prove that the healer was evil. They return to the man and demand that he swear an oath:

Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.

The man has come into himself, however. He is no longer the blind man begging by the road, an unworthy, defective human being. And he is not afraid of the religious authorities, or, perhaps, he is no longer afraid of religion itself. He replies

Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know; the only thing I know is that before I was blind, and now I see.

Jesus, in fact, was a sinner in the belief system of his own religion. The authorities were not wrong to call him a sinner. He was. Guilty. But John the Gospel writer is trying to show us through this story that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what rules have been broken. It matters what good has been done, what life has been changed, what creation has been continued.

The argument continues, and there is a point at which the authorities snap when it is clear that the man who had been born blind is not going to sacrifice the healer in order to be a part of the group of so-called good guys. So they pronounce him a sinner. He was born in sin (hence their answer to the question the disciples asked at the beginning) and they drive him out. He is excluded once again.

The man then finely gets to meet Jesus, the one who has healed him, and Jesus says his own “I am he.” And this story is concluded with an exchange between Jesus and the authorities.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who are blind may see and those who think they see may become blind.” Some of them heard him and asked him, “We are not blind are we?” And Jesus answered, “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you think you see, your sin remains.”

Drink that in. Jesus has completely subverted how the world tends to work, and, in particular, how the world’s religion tends to work. Jesus will judge sin. But what is sin? Who is a sinner? The sinners in the story end up not being the ones who were seen as defective or rule-breaking. The sinners in the story ended up being those who felt they had the right to judge others, to decide that good was really bad because it did not fit their ideas of good and bad, and the ones who excluded from the group, thinking that somehow made it pure.

You are worthy of relationship with Jesus. Sinner that you may be, he is ready to make you whole with his mercy and love. But do not spend time trying to figure out who is unworthy. Jesus seems to think that is a waste of time, and it makes him, well, angry.

A quirky Church of England priest named Percy Dearmer wrote a hymn for Lent sometime around 1900. It is #145 in the Hymnal 1982. He meant to turn Lent on its head, I think because he knew that Jesus had turned religion on its head, and so much of the church has never figured that out. The last verse reminds of this story of the man born blind, and I‘ll close with it.

Then shall your light

break forth as doth the morning;

your health shall spring,

the friends you make shall bring

God’s glory bright,

your way through life adorning;

and love shall be the prize.

Arise, arise, arise!

and make a paradise!

Arise, arise, arise!

and make a paradise!

[1] Nicene Creed, the Book of Common Prayer, p. 358.

[2] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Crossroad, 2001), pp. 3-26.

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