If today’s Gospel lesson from John is about anything, it is about understanding who we really are—a message from Jesus about identity. In this time of crisis, this time of changes, knowing who we truly are, is as important as ever. When all is said and done, when we get to the very bottom of this suffering, are we to be defined by a virus, by devastation? Are we to be known as victims, whether of illness or economic downturn?
Related to identity, to who we are, is the image of sight: how people see us as, how we see people, and how we see ourselves. It is obvious, then, why our Gospel lesson centers around a man blind from birth.
The question, “Who are we?” is asked right from the beginning. The disciples ask Jesus a question that they have already answered for themselves. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The spiritual worldview of Jesus’ time, believed that physical impairments and illnesses like this were thought to be punishments for sin. But a man who was born blind raises a dilemma. Who sinned then that this poor man would have been punished like this?
Jesus dismisses the question immediately with a reply that tells us: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” So, Jesus heals him, gives him sight with a simple action and the physical stuff of spit and mud. This man is returned to sight—Jesus provides him with the ability to know who he is, and to know who Jesus is.
What this man and everyone around him thought of as his identity: he was “the-man-born-blind”—is now changed. And in crazy irony, no one around him can recognize him anymore because he is changed! The neighbors and those who knew him before begin to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
Can you imagine? “It’s me, guys! It’s me,” he says! But his identifier, his tag, his label is gone. If this man-born-blind is no longer blind, then who is he? The man tries to explain what Jesus did, but a change of this magnitude needs to be decided by those in authority.
So, the authorities do their best to judge what has happened, but they end up baffled. Tragically, the authorities are the most blind, and cannot see and understand what Jesus has done either. Using the tools and laws available to them to figure this out, they ask: how could a person like Jesus do something so amazing, but at the same time disobey the law of the Sabbath? It doesn’t compute.
They are continuing to debate about who is a sinner and who is not. The man’s identity is entirely in question. Even his parents acknowledge he was the man-born-blind, but now, well, now they don’t know. And if his new identity as the man-healed-by-Jesus puts them at risk of rejection, they are willing to sever ties with him. They say to the authorities, “Leave us out of this, he is an adult, ask him and not us.”
And then they go in circles again. How did this man receive his sight? Jesus did it. But Jesus can’t do that if he is a sinner. But along the way, this man-who-once-was-blind has found another new identity: he is a proclaimer of the good news of who Jesus is.
The authorities say: “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners… but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Jesus has turned the authorities’ world upside down. And drives that point home at the very end of this story: The authorities say: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Now everything is reversed! The man-blind-from-birth was presumed a sinner because of his blindness, but his blindness gives him a vehicle to faith, a pathway to experience Jesus and who Jesus is. Those who believe they know how God works, those who imagine they can see, are actually the ones who are blind.
Though I know this story is very confusing at times, full of metaphors and things being turned upside down, I think you’ll all agree that labels and identities are hard to get rid of. We have all been labeled as something, and those labels tend define our whole world—simple labels like “male” or “female;” complicated labels like “criminal” or “victim;” work related labels like “blue-collar” or “white-collar” or “unemployed;” body labels like “disabled,” “fat,” “skinny,” “pretty,” “tall” or “short.”
And the newest labels we are all reeling from: “quarantined,” “exposed,” “locked-down,” “vulnerable population.”
In the Gospel of John, we’ve seen how hard it is to get free from labels. Even the parents of the man-who-was-blind distance themselves from him. His transformation at the hands of Jesus is unthinkable.
And for God to transform this situation caused by our battle with the coronavirus is unthinkable too. In our time of darkness and of suffering, when we encounter a new reality, one that we really never thought was possible, I know we are all crying out to God, “Why? What have we done? If God is so great, why did this happen to us?” And this brings us back to the beginning of our Gospel lesson from John again.
The disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We want knowledge. We want to assess cause and effect. “Who are we, now?” we ask. We want to know who is to blame, even if we have to blame God.
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This is such a powerful, powerful thing for Jesus to say to us this morning. Because like the Pharisees, like the disciples, we want to know why.
Jesus doesn’t provide knowledge in John’s Gospel today, Jesus acts; Jesus heals… Jesus doesn’t offer a tidy answer. Jesus instead offers a pathway toward love.
And when Jesus heals, he’s not changing us or fixing us or making everything all better again. But he’s inviting us to remember who we really are. Who we are, is God’s children. We are part of the life that is the light of all people. This is how God sees us, and how we are invited to see all other people and creatures in creation.
As children of God, nothing can separate us from our source and destination. Jesus invites you to learn this not with your mind, but with your heart and with your hands. Jesus invites you into the presence of God, which is love.
God doesn’t promise an end to suffering and to wounds. In fact, we know Jesus’ true power—his defeat of death—was shown to us in his cross, in his fragility and wounded-ness.
These times aren’t easy, but these times are our times, and Jesus tells us this morning that God’s works of love will be revealed in us.