“How did that happen?” The gospels frequently prompt the question. They are full of the miraculous, ecstatic, irrational and super-natural. In the gospel of John, such miracles are also signs (from the Greek semeion), pointing beyond themselves to tell us the identity of Jesus. But that’s not all the miracles do.
The biblical scholar Gerd Theissen has said that the miracles of Jesus are instances of “boundary crossing.” They challenge and ultimately cross our limits of who is worthy, what is possible, where and when and by whom the miraculous can occur. Miracles cross boundaries, or sometimes they eliminate them altogether. And that might actually be bad news for some of us.
Take this story of Jesus’ miraculous transformation of a man who was born blind. If I’m to find my place in this story, it’s probably not as the recipient of the miracle and certainly not as the one through whom this divine activity flows. I’m a pastor. Licensed. Ordained. According to the job description given to me by this church, “The pastor is the spiritual leader of the congregation.” The kind of person who quotes from books they’ve read to build up their knowledge and expertise, or, worse, who interjects into a sermon a phrase like, “Signs… from the Greek semeion.”
So that means, in this story today, if I have a role to play it as the ones who hear of Jesus’ healing work and respond with their limits, their restrictions and standards.
The American born painter, James McNeil Whistler, was a prolific artist who left behind many famous and transcendent works, but one of his best known is his 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, which is better known by its colloquial name Whistler’s Mother.
When it was complete, the painting was set to be hung in it’s original gallery location, where it was to remain for many years. Only as they measured the work, and considered the space, it seemed that the painting was too large, so the curator approached artist James Whistler and told him that they didn’t want the painting after all. It was simply too big.
“Our rooms are too small,” the curator said, “you must find a smaller painting.”
To which the artist replied, “No, you must make a larger room.”
John tells of a sweeping, expansive work of Jesus. But notice that it only takes up a few verses in this lengthy gospel passage. The greater bulk of the tale focuses not on the miracle and the wonder, but on the argument that arises after it occurs. All these people are standing around with their tape measures, wondering if their carefully constructed views of the world and of the divine make space for what has happened in the life of this man born blind. They respond not with wonder, but with their questions, then their condemnation. And I’m afraid if there’s a role for me in this story, it might be them.
“Who sinned?” They want to know at first. It’s a question from the disciples, that soon arises amidst all these religious authorities. “Who sinned?” they ask, always measuring.
I suppose we could claim to be on the side of Jesus over against these people who greet the miraculous immediately with their restrictions and limitations. We’d never do a thing like that, would we? We’d never hold such a small view.
A friend and former pastor in Asheville recalls one Easter Sunday morning standing in the foyer at the back of the sanctuary. Fully robed and outfitted, gathered with the choir and the ministers prepared to process just as the brass was playing the first notes of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” the sound rising and filling that domed sanctuary. It was as high and holy a moment as most Baptists are going to permit themselves to experience. That’s when he felt a tug at his sleeve, and someone said, “Pastor, I know you’re busy, but I just thought you needed to know that the 2nd flr bathroom is out of toilet paper.”
How often does the majestic and wondrous work of God meet our small concerns, the bounds of our knowing, and our limited ability to understand it or make space for it on our lives. Rather, we are so often preoccupied with theological correctness, or organizational shrewdness, or focus on only what’s been in front of our face and comfortably situated in our understanding for all these years. “Who sinned first,” they ask, “This man or his parents? How will we know? How will measure it?”
I heard of a Christian congregation, where a woman said that God had spoken to her and given her a direct assignment to go and begin an after-school daycare program for kids in the neighborhood surrounding the church. She took the initiative, organized, equipped, recruitied, fundraised, got the program rolling. That church hadn’t had one new program – one success – in years, and her program was by widespread consensus nothing less than a miracle.
But then the some of the leaders of the church met and raised questions about the cost, whether the building was equipped to be open on the weekdays, insurance liability, supervision of the volunteers, age of the kids, etc. In a few weeks the program had ended. The miracle became the victim of overprotection, examination, and all those questions imposed on it. (1)
And they were right, you know. They were right about liability, and preservation, and expense. Those institutional realities mater a whole lot to us. So they were right. They were just about as right as all of those gathered around the man in our passage. They greet this dispersal of mercy from a mysterious healer, occurring on the wrong day to an unworthy recipient, and according to every previous standard, they were right.
They were holding onto their understanding of the world and of the work of God. They knew what it meant to live good lives. And that meant adhering to a strict interpretation of the law of MOses, which clearly forbids work on the Sabbath. That same interpretation told them that disability is a form of punishment for breaking the law, and that persons born with disabilities are being punished for their own sins or the sins of their parents.
So their questions continue for the man, as his interrogation mounts.
“Who healed you?”
“How did this man, a sinner, restore you?” they continue to ask, as that question of sin returnins once more in the story.
“Is he your son?” they ask the fearful parents.
“Do you think this Jesus is a legitimate spiritual leader or not?” they ask the man.
And they continue to pepper him with questions, one after another. Seven in all.
In a reflection on this passage, the writer and artist Jan Richardson has said these questions of the religious leaders make her claustrophobic, as though they are closing in on the man. For there are questions that might help us find our place, or open up to wider view of the world. And then there are those that seek to keep us in place, and reinforce the boundaries of what people already know. They keep the space of belief, experience, and knowledge safely contained. They keep the boundaries established of what we know, believe, think possible, who we think worthy. (2)
Unsatisfied, these leaders bring him back in once more. “We know this man – this Jesus – is a sinner,” they say. “Don’t you agree?”
And then the man says something remarkable. Something that cuts through every question, and breaks through all those closing in on him, enlarging the space around him for every one of us who has ever experienced the mercy of God through the person of Jesus Christ. The once blind man says, “Here’s what I do know for sure: I was blind and now I see.”
He doesn’t know enough to make a decisive judgment about the messianic identity of Jesus. He’s not interested in the bounds of what’s correct, or worthy, or valid. He knows one thing. One thing as true as anything in his life: “I was blind and now I see.”
I had a man in my church who struggled for years with various forms of addiction. At one point it began to spiral downward together with a health crisis and mounting costs, to the point that one day he decided to try to end it all. But he survived.
Weeks later he described that in that lowest moment of his life, he had what he could only understand as a spiritual experience, where he heard the voice of God. He heard voices of his church family, specific people who had loved him through the years, and somehow it helped him to believe there would be a future, a healing, a restoration for him.
I suppose some would snicker at the notion. Seems far-fetched or fanciful. Why didn’t God speak to him sooner, some would ask. If anyone asked what I thought about it, what could I say? “Who knows? That’s his experience. That’s how he describes it. What can we say to that?”
But when he was asked, he would say, “All I know is I wanted my life to be over, and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it, and then God saved me.”
All these years later, what my friend describes as a resurrection in his life has led him to a renewed life. He returned to law practice. He was chair of the board for the last years I served that church.
I guess some would say in hindsight, well that’s enough evidence to prove it. To which I suppose he would say, “Look, all I know is I was dying, and then God brought me back to life.”
In the end that’s all you really need to know, no matter who’s stepping back with their questions and their measurements.
Notice that Jesus has zero interest in the speculation. He doesn’t care for the boundaries or the limitations. He disappears from the story altogether for that portion of it, because, you see, he gave all that up. In coming to find us, to be with us – to come to a man blind from birth, and all the others of us with our struggles and wounds and imperfections – Jesus was giving up the small space in which so many of us reside, and inviting us all to do the same.
Henri Nouwen tells a story about a young fugitive, who, trying to hide himself from the enemy, enters a small village.
The people there were kind to him and offered him a place to stay, but when the soldiers who sought him came and asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village unless the fugitive was handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the pastor and asked him what to do. The pastor, torn between handing the young man over to the enemy or risking the whole village, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning, his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than the whole people be lost.” Then the pastor closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the young man was hidden.
And after the soldiers led the prisoner away, there was a great feast in the village because the pastor had saved the lives of the people. But the pastor didn’t celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness he stayed in his room.
That night, the story goes, an angel came to him and said, “What have you done?” The pastor said, “I handed over the young man to the enemy.” Then the angel said, “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the pastor replied. Then the angel said, “If instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.” (3)
For all their questions, these religious authorities never look in the man’s eyes. They never look up from their study and preoccupation with the safety of their institution, and all they’ve constructed. And in the end the text says it all becomes too much, there’s too much at stake as this man’s story leans against the limits of their understanding, so they drive him out.
Notice who finds him. Notice who looks in his eyes. Jesus returns to the story, now that all the speculation is done. The man’s eyes have begun to adjust to the light of this one before him, and he recognizes him now as Lord. And with that confession, he joins a whole new community of those who have known and recognized the mercy of God in the person of Jesus, including those of us who gather in that mercy right now.
Meanwhile, standing nearby are those religious leaders. These are the same ones who later in the story will say to themselves, “It is better that one man dies than the whole people be lost.” I guess they’re right. Those institutional realities matter a lot to them And they will do the safe and prudent thing in handing this boundary crossing Jesus over to the Romans, and leading him out to the cross, always driving away the ones who ask them to expand the boundaries of what they believe.
As they listen, they question of sin returns once more. Who sinned? Jesus asks. Well it’s not this once blind man. Not his parents. Who was it after all? Was it not those who stayed in their small room at the end of the story rather than out into the expanse with the person who could see?
Who sinned? Well if I look at it through the eyes of this man once blind, I wonder if it might be me.
- Will Willimon on A Sermon for Every Sunday
- Jan Richardson, “Here’s Mud In Your Eye”
- Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer