The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      6th October 2019
The Man Born Blind
Andrew Penny

John 9

John’ s story is the healing of a man born blind. There are other healings of blind men but only one, the blind and dumb demoniac, who seems to have been born blind as opposed to having lost his sight through injury or disease, (we know this because the others ask for their sight back) I suspect congenital blindness in 1st century Palestine was much rarer.
What I suggest strikes the modern reader first is that giving sight to someone who has never seen is a greater miracle than restoring sight to someone who has by accident lost it. It takes the miraculous power a step back and stage deeper; it’s not merely putting right a mistake in the world but correcting a fault in creation itself. And it’s not just a modern reader who might think this we are told “such a thing was unheard of since time began” [verse 32] In this it is a more powerful Sign, as John calls his miracles, a sign that Jesus’ power comes from, indeed is God’s creative power.

It’s not however, this aspect of the blindness from birth with which John is first concerned. Rather it’s one with which I think we find it hardest to empathise, the link between sin and disability. It’s hard enough to equate sin with disability in the disabled individual but there is a sort of logic to it; if you sin you are punished with disease or injury. We want to shout, however: What kind of logic, let alone justice, is there to punishing children for their parents’ sins? Although this is of course, a commonplace in the Old Testament. Think of David’s adultery with Bathsheba punished by the death of their son. This question clearly troubled the disciples too and it is the question which opens the story. 

At first blush, Jesus’ answer is not very convincing. H says the man was born blind to reveal the works and Glory of God. Somehow, I don’t see that as being a hugely satisfactory consolation to a man who has spent his life hitherto severely disabled and having to beg to survive.  “Some God! Some glory!” We can hear him mutter. And yet there is sense to this, as I shall try to show, and it’s closely linked to the extraordinary nature of the miracle in healing a man blind from birth.

All the miracles, in John and the other Gospels are instances of salvation, but the healing of congenital blindness is a peculiarly rich example of, and metaphor for, salvation. Congenital blindness is not, in some ways, as terrible as blindness inflicted by injury or illness. The man born blind does not know what he is missing; his world is, for him complete. Those of us who can see are so reliant on sight- for most of us by far the most important of the senses, that we cannot imagine a world consisting only of smell, taste, touch and sound, and yet if more keenly perceived they may make a world almost as intricate, varied and complex as sight allows us to see, and yet lacking something vital.

This is surely a metaphor for existence without the saving power of God. Those untouched by salvation may live happy, good and as far as they are aware, fulfilled lives. But as Christians, we believe, sympathetically, I hope, that without hearing the Good News, and accepting it, life is incomplete and lacking a dimension. That life is simply not all that it’s meant to be; it’s not what I think we mean by eternal life, the life that we, as Christians, feel we enjoy. It’s that Good News that we are impelled to share, albeit with tact, humility and discretion. We need to keep hold, however, of the fact that it’s something extra, something more than fulfilling, but not essential for a life at certain level, and a life that most people see no necessity to change. It’s primarily by our behaviour as Christians that we may show that it is worth changing, and that is the first step to spreading the Good News. 

There is another aspect of the healing of a man born blind that amplifies the salvation metaphor. John rather skates over the complications or giving sight to someone whose perception of the world has hitherto been purely aural and tactile (with a bit of taste and smell on the side).

The healed blind man would not immediately “see”; he would need to learn to sort out his perceptions; imagine most tellingly perhaps his first encounter with someone he loves. He would need to  match what his retina registers as he looks at his parents or perhaps his wife or children)-as he begins to accommodate those disordered colours and incoherent shapes to the loving presence he has hitherto only smelled, felt and heard.

This literally amazing transformation is what we face when we consider what salvation means to us, and like learning to see, we need to learn to come to terms with it and to understand, or try to understand, its implications and its extent.

 I’ve been critical of the talk of Christian life as a journey, because it seems to deny the reality that we have arrived at the destination but appreciating and understanding that place is certainly a process, and learning to see is good analogy for it. It would equally be a good analogy be for the process of creation itself, as the swirling inchoate waters separate at God’s command to the recognisable and ordered colours and forms of stars, seas, trees animals and so, marvellously, on.

 So healing, and thus salvation  are the ultimately the fulfilling of creation. And that is presumably why Jesus actions on the Sabbath, the day God rested for his creative effort, was so offensive to the rule bound Pharisees.  By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus was saying I am God and back at work. The Pharisees saw this healing as sinful because departing from the will of God; but for Jesus and for us it is rather fulfilling the will of God, and in that way revealing the glorious works of God. In a roundabout but crucial way the healing, and therefore the disability which precedes it, do indeed reveal God’s glory, and none more so than in the healing of a man born blind. Amen.

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