I went to the eye doctor the other day, and after she looked into my eyes, she told me that a cataract was in its early stages of forming. Now, I’ve had bad eyesight since I was a kid, but that bit of information was unexpected. I asked her: how long? She said 3 to 5 years. I said: aren’t I little young? And she said – well, a little young! Of course the good news is that if I have cataract surgery I might end up not having to wear glasses!
Now, I’m not blind, but without my glasses everything is blurry. In fact, if I was living in the first century I might be considered blind. And so, even though I’m not legally blind, I can sympathize with those who are, because without my glasses I’d miss out on a lot – things like the beauty of the mountains or the sea. I couldn’t drive or watch a baseball game. Life would be very different.
I. Who's at Fault?
As we’ve wandered through John’s gospel these past few weeks, we’ve noticed that John likes to use words and ideas that have double meanings. The physical is always put in parallel with the spiritual. And so, here we have both physical blindness and spiritual blindness. As John tells it, the former is easier to deal with than the latter.
In John’s story, we read that Jesus and his disciples run into a blindman. The disciples ask Jesus who’s at fault – him or his parents? Now, this isn’t a question about genetics, it’s a question about divine judgment. Back in the first century physical disability was considered to be a mark of divine punishment, so this is a good question. Fortunately for us, Jesus rejects this theory of cause and affect, and he suggests that this might be an opportunity for God’s glory and compassion to be revealed. And so, Jesus reaches down, picks up some dirt, spits into it, makes a salve, puts it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash his face in the Pool of Siloam. The man does as he’s told and in the end he’s healed – but in time he runs into problems when his neighbors and then the religious authorities begin to question him about how this happened.
As I said, John’s not content with telling us about physical things. He always likes to dig deeper into the spiritual dimension of things, and in this case it’s spiritual blindness. This kind of blindness is more problematic than the physical kind, because it’s deeply rooted in the heart. In this story a man’s healing is seen as a challenge to the rules, and God’s act of compassion is missed by those who should have seen it. Unfortunately, standing behind this text is the unfortunate split between church and synagogue. This split colors the way the story is told, and so the Pharisees and the Jews come off pretty badly. If we can acknowledge this factor, then perhaps we can discover the truth that is in this passage of scripture.
II. The Light Is On
The image of blindness that’s present here is wrapped up in another image – that of light. The images of darkness and light are prominent in John’s works, and here to be blind is to live in darkness. Now, if you’ve ever experienced total darkness you can understand the image. Maybe you’ve been in a cave or a windowless building when the lights have gone out. You quickly discover that your eyes are useless – that you are in fact blind.
Early in this chapter, Jesus tells the disciples: "I am the light of the world." The point is this: Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, which is our blindness to the ways of God. The question that arises here is: What form does my spiritual blindness take? There are a number of possibilities. Things like hatred and prejudice, racism and sexism, anger and self-centeredness. These attitudes blind us to God’s presence and to God’s creation.
Now, we’d just as soon that no one shine the light into the darkness that plagues our hearts, because we’d rather not have to acknowledge that such things are possible. But they are. We’re all susceptible. And sometimes these attitudes can lead us to act in violent and unseemly ways. Consider the recent story of a junior high boy in Oxnard who took out a gun and shot a classmate, because that other boy’s sexual orientation -- the way he dressed and talked -- made him uncomfortable. For some reason the darkness took hold and he decided to get rid of the boy. This is a matter of spiritual blindness. It’s an extreme case, but the attitude that led to the shooting is rooted in our hearts. And it can infect every aspect of human existence, including the church. Down through the years the church has often been on the side of bigotry and oppression – we’ve let ourselves be blinded by the darkness that’s present in our world. When the light has shined into our darkness, we’ve tried to extinguish it, but God won’t let that happen. The light keeps shining.
There are two kinds of blindness. As William Willimon puts it: The physical kind, "is a tragedy, but one which can be overcome, in great part, through courage, determination, and education." The other kind of blindness, the spiritual kind, "can be overcome only through the exuberant, extravagant grace of God in Christ. Most of us are one and not the other. Jesus heal us!"1
III. Spiritual Eyesight
We come today to experience our own healing, and as Jesus heals us of our blindness, he also gives us spiritual eyes so that we can see the world as God sees it. This involves seeing the world through the eyes of faith and hope. Friday evening, I heard Jim Wallis speak at Westmont College. The point of his message was that real change in the world takes faith. Faith, he said, leads to hope, and hope leads to action, and action to change. Faith is defined, by the author of Hebrews as the "the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). It takes spiritual eyes to see what God is up to, and spiritual eyesight requires a good deal of training and discipline if its to be effective in our lives.
There was a man named John Newton. He lived in darkness – not physical darkness, but spiritual darkness. He was a slave trader and as a slave trader he failed to see the humanity of the African men and women he helped transport to the New World. But one day, his eyes were opened and he saw things in a new way. The light shined upon the world and he saw the humanity of the very people he had helped enslave. That was a moment of conversion and it changed his life and the lives of many others, including a man named William Wilberforce. Wilberforce would one day become the chief advocate for ending the slave trade in England.
In just a moment we’ll sing that great hymn of the faith that was written by John Newton. Amazing Grace! expresses clearly the impact of seeing things with spiritual eyes. Yes, John Newton had been the captain of one of those infamous slave ships, but as his spiritual eyes were healed, he found it possible to sing: "I once was lost, but now I am found; was blind, but now I see!"
1. William Willimon, Pulpit Resources, 27 (Jan, Feb., Mar., 1999), 45.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 2, 2008