The passage we heard begins with Jesus healing a man who had been blind since birth. In ancient times it was assumed that any ailment or disability was a punishment for sin and so the passage opens with Jesus and the disciples having a conversation about this. They carry the common attitude about disability and Jesus challenges that assumption. Jesus affirms that God is at work in this man who lives with blindness and that his blindness is not the result of sin. By making this assertion Jesus was giving value to a man who was probably seen as a burden by his family and community. It was pretty radical stuff for the time.
Jesus identifies himself as being sent by God to be light in the world. There are at least 18 words in Greek that may be translated as sent. The word used here may also be translated as exchanged and in this verse it may be related to the idea that Jesus will exchange light for darkness, that Jesus is being light in a dark world and that Jesus is exchanging common knowledge for uncommon. Jesus was sent by God to change the way people see and experience the world.
And that’s exactly what happens in this story. Jesus makes a paste of mud and puts it on the blind man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool of Silaom. When he returns from washing he can see.
Everyone sees him and questions whether or not he is the same person. They view him differently because he can see. Up until this point in his life he has been known as the man born blind who begs. He doesn’t have a name. He is known for his blindness and for the fact that he begs. He keeps saying to his neighbours…I’m still here. I’m still the same person but the people around him are unable to accept that he has changed or that he could be anything other than the blind beggar.
The Pharisees, who concerned themselves with observing proper ritual questioned the man and tried to make sense of who Jesus was. Is Jesus of God? Is he a sinner? He must be a sinner because he healed on the Sabbath. But if he is a sinner, how can he heal at all? They couldn’t agree on who Jesus was or the meaning of the healing. So they asked the man. He wasn’t much help. He affirmed Jesus healed him and that God was at work through Jesus but beyond that he couldn’t explain what happened to him.
Finally, the temple authorities spoke to the man’s parents. His parents didn’t want to get in the middle of this conversation and so referred the authorities back to their son. This scripture was written at a time when Christianity was splitting for Judaism. The author of this gospel was watching Christians being removed from temple membership. The temple so was central to the Jewish faith and community that being removed from the temple meant not only a loss of the ability to worship but a loss of family, community and identity.
The man’s parents were not prepared to be removed from the synagogue. They weren’t going to stop their son if he believed in and followed Jesus but they were not prepared to give up their identity and community. The split between Christianity and Judaism was more than a split between religions. It was also a split in families and communities. Throughout Christianity’s history there have been many splits that have torn families and communities apart. During the reformation, as a response to corruption, we see the powerful remain with the established church and the poor, along with those concerned for their welfare, split from what would become the Roman Catholic Church. In our own denomination, we can remember 1988 when we started talking openly about sexual orientation and ministry and the split that caused within church communities and sometimes within families. These splits when they happen are painful for all involved. For many the choice to go or to stay is one about how best to be faithful. For others there is a fear of losing their community and they will take the path of least resistance.
My own experience in 1988 was one of turmoil. I was thirteen and new to learning about sexual orientation but I couldn’t understand how a God of love would welcome some and not others. I agreed with our minister who was a strong defender of the general council’s decision but I remained silent because I knew that my opinion was a minority in my congregation and in my family. I was afraid that to speak out and voice my opinion would result in the loss of my faith community and create conflict in my own family.
In the story we heard this morning, the temple authorities are continuing to try and figure out what just happened. They go back to the man again and ask him about Jesus and how he was healed. The man who was healed seems to see this as an opportunity for evangelism. He had been touched and healed by Jesus so he thinks perhaps if he tells the story again, the temple authorities will understand and soften their position towards those who follow Jesus. Instead those authorities remain firm is drawing a line in the sand between the Jewish and Christian faiths by claiming their connection to Moses and reminding the man who had been healed that Jesus is new in town, no one knows anything about him. They suggest that he will disappear just as quickly as he came.
The man who was healed continued to try and reason with them by sharing his own experience of Jesus but there was no openness to hearing his story and he is removed from the temple. He loses his faith, his community and his family. But Jesus hears about what happened and goes looking for the man. When everyone walked away, Jesus returned. In returning, Jesus gives the man a new faith, new community and new identity as a follower. Jesus continues to change the way people experience the world with his closing statement to the Pharisees: “If you were blind you would have no sin. But now that you say, “we see,” your sin remains.” Sin was originally a military term that had to do with missing the mark. If you were blind, there was no way you could hit the mark. If you took a shot and missed no one would blame you. No one would expect anything of you. If you can see and you miss the mark—that’s another matter. Think of how important a good shot would be in the midst of a battle. If you could see a good shot and missed you would be blamed.
In this story, the Pharisees began by not knowing about Jesus. They were blind to who Jesus was. They hadn’t missed the mark, or sinned because they hadn’t had the opportunity to take a shot. There is no blame. The man who was healed, shared his story, gave them plenty of opportunity for learning and but they chose not to take the opportunity. He gave them the ability to see. Because they have the ability and opportunity to see but choose not to, they have blame for missing the shot.
There are lots of places in our world where we don’t know and don’t understand because we haven’t been exposed to something or haven’t had opportunities for learning. In this sense we are blind. Once those opportunities are placed in front of us, if we choose not see then there is blame and there is sin.
Today, the Truth and Reconciliation Process (TRC) wraps up in Edmonton. There was a time when residential schools were accepted as common practice. Through the TRC process we have had opportunities to hear stories and listen, just like the Pharisees and temple authorities had opportunity to hear the healed man’s story. Up until this process we could say that we were blind. Most of us had not had opportunities to hear the stories of residential schools. Now those opportunities have been placed in front of us and the choice becomes ours…Do we choose to pretend that we can’t hear and can’t see the stories around us or do we draw a line in the sand and choose to figure out what it means for us.
The man who was healed chose to struggle with his experience of Jesus even though it meant losing everything. Are we willing to struggle with what we have heard around residential schools even though it may make us unpopular in some circles? Will continue to ignore the experiences of those around us who need our love and compassion? Residential schools may not be a line that splits this congregation but it is certainly drawing a line between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. Which side of that line do we choose to be on? Do we choose to stand with the survivors and their families (the man who was healed) or do we choose to be like the Pharisees and temple authorities who are unwilling to take the story and experience to heart? The choice is ours.