There's a wonderful story in John 9, about how Jesus heals a man blind from birth.
I was thinking about that story because the formerly-blind guy describes my faith process of the past few years perfectly: "I don't know how he did it. I was blind, but now I see." (John 9:25)
Like the blind man, I am not in control of this whole deal, but I like the outcome.
Even with all the trouble it sometimes causes, there's no way I'd go back to how it was before. The only way forward is forward.
I went back and read the story this week, and the whole thing is actually a discussion about--can you believe it!--sin. The thing I don't talk about in counseling!
The story starts off with the disciples who see the blind man, and assume that somebody must have sinned, for him to be blind: "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" the disciples ask Jesus.
How often do we see that same formula today? We've talked about this before when it comes to mental health and the stigma that won't go away.
Blaming other people for their misfortune, calling them sinners, makes us feel safe. The bad stuff is not going to happen to us, because we aren't sinning like Those People. From Job, the earliest book of the Bible, til today--this is the story: you're suffering=you must be in sin.
You know what Jesus has to say about the question of "who's to blame here"?
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me."
And what exactly is the work of the One who sent Jesus?
If you look at what happens in John 9, it's this:
No sin confronted.
No repentance required.
No confession of Jesus' name.
No sinner's prayer.
Just some mud smeared and washed and voila, healing.
Jesus healed the blind man without the blind man repenting of sin or even having a clue who Jesus was.
That's unexpected, isn't it? We tend to think that repentance comes first, and healing after. But in this story, not so.
So Jesus heals the guy, and then what happens?
The Pharisees freak out.
And not in a good, happy "it's a miracle!" kind of way.
They freak out in a "this-is-not-okay-and-who-can-we-blame" kind of way.
This healing doesn't fit their formula, and they can't understand it.
The healing took place on the Sabbath. Healing on the Sabbath is a sin. Jesus is a sinner. Sinners can't heal.
Something that can't happen, just happened.
The Pharisees have been over every single last little jot and title of The Law, and They Know What The Bible Clearly Says.
There is no other possibility to the Pharisees besides Sabbath+Healing=Sin. This is The Only Right Answer.
And yet they've got this healing. It doesn't fit.
And they FREAK the heckittydoodah OUT.
They call in the guy. They don't like his answers.
They call in his parents. They don't like their answers.
They call in the guy again.
"Give glory to God by telling the truth," they said. "We know this man is a sinner." [Not-so-subtle subtext: reinvent reality so we can be comfortable! Make it fit our box! Do it now!]
Then they asked him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"
He answered, "I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?" [I love this guy!]
Then they hurled insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from!" [You've got some Yertle-the-Turtle stuff going on here, gentlemen.]
The man answered, "Now that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." [Seriously, I love this guy. He is my people.]
To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. [And, yup. Totally my people.] John 9:26-34
I find all this fascination with sin to be just fascinating.
- Why aren't they just thrilled that the guy is healed?
- Why does it matter if Jesus is a sinner or not?
- Why do they care so much about sin, anyway?
- Why do they get so mad that they throw the guy out?
Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology sheds some light on this:
"If God is a possession of the faith community then God needs to be protected from the threat of others. This is why belief becomes violent. If God is owned by a faith community then the faith community comes to assert their proprietorial rights over God over against others. That's the root of dogmatism: We have God and you don't. God is for us and against you. God is here experienced as a possession.
"And this is the the important thing to note: possessions have to be defended. Because possessions can be lost or damaged.
"If, however, God is received as gift then the faith community can never possess God. This is the notion of eccentricity, that God is always approaching to us from outside the boundaries of the faith community. God comes to us as the stranger. The faith community is always pursuing God outside of herself. And this expectant searching keeps us looking for God in the world and in the Other. This is a Matthew 25 orientation. A Road to Emmaus orientation. A Good Samaritan orientation."
How much do we see God as a possession that has to be protected?
How much do we have God clearly defined by our rules and pinned into our little box?
How upset do we get when somebody experiences God in a way that doesn't go according to our rules?
I absolutely love what happens at the end of the story.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
"Who is he, sir?" the man asked. "Tell me so that I may believe in him."
Jesus said, "You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you."
Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him.
Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind."
Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, "What? Are we blind too?"
Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." John 9:35-41
Jesus went and found the guy when his faith community had tossed him out, when even his own parents had thrown him under the religious bus.
And the blind guy, who's been pretty snarky to the Pharisees, is perfectly prepared to fall down and worship Jesus.
At the end of the day, I think, all of us have to be careful of our certainty.
It is all too easy to put ourselves in a place of claiming to see, and using God as our own possession to defend against those who don't agree with us, and so aren't allowed to have him or his healing.
When one of our primary religious priorities is gatekeeping--telling others that they can't be part of the in-group until they meet certain criteria--then we have to ask ourselves if we're being like Jesus, or being like the Pharisees.
I used to think that someday I'd get it all figured out, know what's right, understand everything there is to understand about faith, find a place of final rest.
Now I think differently. I think the journey of faith is one that goes on and on and on, into the wild blue yonder.
Now I think that God will always be coming to us as the stranger, the unknown neighbor lying in the ditch, the one who walks and talks with us while our hearts are strangely warmed within us.
And maybe admitting that we do not see is the very first part of beginning to see.
Through a glass darkly, today.
And someday face to face.