The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      27th March 2017
Lent 4 John 9
Andrew Penny

What is it that makes John's drama of the healing of the man born blind, and its consequences, so gripping? It engages us first though its characters but also through its overt imagery of light and night, exclusion and recognition and more subtly the development of underlying revelation of salvation.

We can identify with nearly all the characters, they say what we might say and feel what we might feel. The exception is Jesus himself, inevitably perhaps, but he comes over as rather remote and apparently disengaged with reality, although, of course, he is engaged at a profound level and using the mundane to express eternal truth, as the word is made flesh.

But Jesus' is in a sense a walk on part, literally at the beginning; it's the disciples who bring the blind man to his attention as he walks by. And it's a theological question that starts the drama, not the immediate human sympathy for an unfortunate fellow creature which characterises most other miracles. The question which the disciples ask is who is to blame for this misfortune of blindness at birth which is plainly-the disciples think- the punishment for either the man's sin in the womb or his parents'. We find both suggestions grotesquely inhuman and even absurd; in what sense can a foetus in the darkness of the womb sin? But for Jesus the question is the opportunity "to show the works of God", the opportunity for another sign of the arrival of the Messiah, the kingdom, or everlasting life. It's another opportunity show an individual his salvation, and to show us all something of the nature of salvation and how it is revealed.

Crucial though his intervention is, Jesus' role in the drama is limited to the miracle itself and his final comments on the blindness and sinfulness of the Pharisees; it is their wilful blindness that is sinful, the blindness is the cause not the consequence, or punishment.

Meanwhile the stage is held by the blind man, who now sees, with growing clarity; and his movement to real vision corresponds to the Pharisees' or Jews' regression as they see less and less.

At first the blind man knows little, and healed, his own identity is confused- Is he the blind beggar? surely he can't be! -  but he affirms his identity in words which echo those of Jesus, and indeed Yahweh himself "Ego eimi"-I am. We should remember that as blind from birth he has had no conception of what sight is, and yet what we see and have seen plays a large part in making us who we are; for the blind man his healing is like a new birth; he is new person.

 Then he is interviewed and increasingly interrogated by the Pharisees, but he doggedly sticks to his story, as he is pushed into admitting that the person who has healed him in this way must be very special, a Prophet in fact.

This provokes the Jews to summon his parents and allows John to introduce the idea of exclusion; in fact, this is almost certainly anachronistic; there is little other evidence that proto-Christians were expelled (although Jesus himself is); but exclusion matters to John and with it the fear of being excluded; the blind man's parents don't want to get involved (they probably did think it was their fault their son was born blind) Anyway, they pass responsibility to him, he is of age and significantly growing as an individual. And he is also growing bolder and more irritated as he announces spontaneously the real point of the miracle as a sign of Jesus' arrival and power: Only one close to God could perform such a deed as opening the eyes of one born blind.

And after this, it’s all over bar the shouting of abuse by the Pharisees and worship by the blind man; the silent worship of recognition, silent beyond the simple statement: "You have seen him; it is he who is talking to you." Simple because no words usefully can explain it; Montaigne expresses the same in trying to explain his friendship for the poet Etienne de la Boétie; "Parce que c'était lui; parce que c'était moi". "Because it was him; because it was me". That is all that can be said about the encounter of man with the God in whose image he was made; it is the great I am; as individuals they simply are and recognise the fact.

But the Jews and Pharisees, deliberately confused and lumped together, are not wordless; they live by the Law, the written word of God. They are entrenched in and blinded by, tradition and its rules; the rules which define them as a nation. With typically Johannine irony they argue their way into accusing the blind man of being a sinner because he was blind; and they throw him out. Exclusion is the final admission of defeat. And in this it their blindness that is revealed; they look with forensic care and find nothing; the blind man, a newcomer in use of sight, sees with the clarity and innocence of a child.

John treats Jew and Pharisee as one, deliberately categorising them together. They share a common blindness because they cannot recognise the individual; they invite the deadly categorisation which removes their individuality and humanity. They cannot tolerate Sabbath breaking because keeping the Sabbath, then as now, identified Jews by relation to a tradition enshrined in the law handed down from God. But they apply this rule prohibit healing, the divinely creative act of putting right failing creation.

John sees salvation as the individual breaking loose from the community of tradition; expulsion is liberation as the blind man finds. And liberation, and salvation is the recognition of the individual’s worth in the presence of God. It's true that in the following chapter- the "Good Shepherd" discourse, the Christian community is likened to the normally rather introspective flock of sheep. But crucially we are told that belonging to the flock means recognising the shepherd and being known to him; it's not a matter of rules, tradition, definition and exclusion, but knowing Jesus and knowing God.

We would I am sure all like to be like the blind man, but find ourselves more like the Pharisees, holding on to words and tradition when they have spent their usefulness; we too I suspect are frightened to encounter God face to face and prefer blindness. The message of this drama is uncomfortable, but the promise is equally inspiring. Let us open our eyes and be inspired to be ourselves in the presence of God.  Amen.

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