Sunday, March 19, 2023

Fourth Sunday in Lent

 John 9.1-38

Sometimes, when you want to truly understand something, you have to break it down:

1. Dorothy's house falls on a witch. 2. Dorothy’s new friends confront a number of challenges including flying monkeys. 3. Dorothy and her little dog discover ‘there’s no place like home.’

1. George dreams of a life beyond Bedford Falls2. Evil Mr. Potter traps George in Bedford Falls. 3. An angel convinces George that Bedford Falls isn't so bad if you have friends.

1. Scarlett loves Ashley, but Ashley marries Melanie. 2. There's a civil war and a girl falls off a horse. 3. Scarlett claims she no longer loves Ashley, and Rhett—he doesn't give…anything, really.

1. Harry, it turns out, is a wizard. 2. Strange and wonderful things happen at Hogwarts. 3. And He-who-must-not-be-named is defeated by impossibly cute children.

What we’ve uncovered is narrative structure.  And if you want to tell a story, you will need to pay attention to this three-act movement of set-up, conflict, and resolution.  Each element is essential to storytelling, and each performs an important purpose.

Act one, the set-up, introduces the characters and the problem that they together will face.  Act two is where much of the action takes place, and we see what the characters are made of.  In act three, things come to a head, and the story ends with some sort of resolution. Set-up, conflict, resolution.

Now what if we tried to fit this structure to the passage we heard this morning?  We’re in the extended storytelling part of Lent, so surely we can make this work.  On the most basic level, we get this:

1. Someone asks the question that’s on everyone’s mind: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” 2. We learn that somehow his condition will reveal God’s glory, though we’re not sure how. 3. God’s glory is then revealed, and the man can see.

But hold on, you may be thinking: There is a lot more happening in this passage than a simple healing story.  Bigger questions are at play here, so we should expand the summary:

1. Jesus heals on the Sabbath. 2. Trouble follows, and a debate begins. 3. The truth is revealed—by Jesus, and by a newly healed man who turns out to be a rather gifted theologian.  

So let’s give this summary a closer look.  The set-up is healing on the sabbath, but this is nothing new.  Seven times Jesus heals on the sabbath, six times leading to our passage today:  

Healing Peter's mother-in-law, healing the man with the withered hand, healing the crippled woman, healing the man with dropsy, healing the man with an impure spirit, healing the man lame for 38 years.

That’s a lot of healing.  So much free healthcare, Jesus is practically Canadian.  And that’s just the sabbath healing, which is the line Jesus crosses on this particular day.  But sabbath healing is unique, because it poses a unique threat to the status quo.  Or perhaps we could say a double threat, since it twins Jesus’ unique relationship with the natural world with his rather relaxed attitude toward the letter-of-the-law.  

So trouble follows, and a debate begins.  

But I want to interrupt this sermon and add a couple of notes.  

The first is the implied separation that is happening in the Gospel of John, the separation between the Jesus community and the Jewish community.  In the passion narrative this will become more explicit, but even here we begin to see a dynamic develop.  The man’s parents, we are told, are “afraid of the Jews” and unwilling to answer their questions.  But it is important to remember that everyone in the story—Jesus, the young man and his parents, the Pharisees—everyone is a Jew.  The separation will come, obviously around the time John puts pen to paper, maybe 50 years later.  But the story of Christian anti-Judaic thought and the terrible cost it will bring is only beginning, so we need to take note.  

The other thing to note is the structure of John.  Some have described John’s Gospel as a passion narrative with a long preamble.  And the trouble that follows this healing on the sabbath reads like a trial, like the trial that will soon come.  

Bystanders question the young man, and unhappy with his answers, turn him over to the Pharisees.  The Pharisees question the young man, and doubting the basic facts of the case, they summon the parents.  The parents confirm that indeed their son was born blind, but they won’t comment further—they’re afraid to testify.  So they recall the young man, but this time it’s Jesus that’s on trial.  The young man cleverly turns the tables on them (“Do you also want to become his disciples?”) before giving his final statement on the matter.  And this the where the theologian emerges:

"Here is an astonishing thing!” he says. “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."

This is where testimony becomes testimony, and the glory of God is revealed.  So I’m going to leave us in awe at the words of the young theologian for a moment, and this part of the healing story, and look at the human story.  Since this passage, perhaps more than any other, takes us to the heart of how we approach illness, and disability, and death.  

So how do we approach illness, and disability, and death?  To unravel the human part of the story I’ll focus on death, because it really brings the issue into fine relief.  When we’re at our best, we offer unconditional support and look for every way to help.  We deliver food, we send cards, and we remind others that when someone is hurting they’re often not themselves.  We try to find the sweet spot between active support and providing space.  We express regret, and we ask appropriately open questions like “tell me what happened?”  We do this because it’s helpful to say “I’m sorry to hear it,” and it’s helpful to allow them to tell the story.  In fact, telling the story, and telling it again, and again, is perhaps the best path to healing.  

But this is where it gets tricky.  Deep inside us, there is a longing to know more, to understand.  So it’s the question after the question that makes us human, because of the very basic need to know why this happened.  Now if someone dies at 115, there might be fewer questions, but anywhere south of 90 these days, and there is a very good chance we’ll want to know more.  And it’s a very thin line between asking questions as a means of support and asking questions to understand how they may have brought this upon themselves.  Again, we’re human.  Intentional or not, time and time again the bereaved will be faced with some form of the question that’s really just an echo of “who sinned, this man or his parents?”  

Call it a very healthy aversion to illness, and disability, and death.  And just as every funeral we attend is a rehearsal of our own, every death we hear about prompts the kinds of questions that can lead to judgement.  We need to discover that the story we’re hearing won’t be our story, even though we know that there is only one human story, and one human outcome.  

So we’ve looked at the healing story, and the human story, so now we can turn to the eternal story, the story that’s at the heart of our passage today.  And to do that, I need to torment you with some Greek verbs.  But before I do that, I need to introduce you to some Greeks.  

To begin, I give you one of the most famous sons of Ephesus, Heraclitus (Hera-CLE-tus) the Obscure. If you’re wondering why you don’t know Heraclitus, it seems the answer is in the name. But actually it’s not, because his nickname means “hard to understand” rather than unknown.

Heraclitus lived about 500 years before Jesus, but his reputation among Greek philosophers is solid, owing to a handful of ideas and some really great quotes beginning with “man’s character is his fate” or simply “character is destiny.”  It has elements of St. Paul’s adage, “you reap what you sow,” (Gal 6.7) but it’s less behavioural and more about the essence of who we are and how that tends to determine what becomes of us.  Good stuff.  

His other great quote, the one that speaks to today, is the equally profound “no one steps in the same river twice.”  He meant that the river, like everything else around us, is constantly changing, and therefore you never step in the same river twice. And like most philosophers, he had a rival, maybe a frenemy, by the name of Parmenides.  And Parmenides, being a rival, took the opposite view, summing up his view with the profoundly concise “what is, is.”  So either everything changes or what is, is.  You have to take sides, and you have to do it for proper reasons, and not just because it's fun to say, “what is, is.”

The answer to this debate—thanks to Plato—is a synthesis of these two views into a unified theory, perhaps best described as “being and becoming.”  According to this theory, we are all in a state of "becoming," whether it's growth, maturity, decline or death.  Even in death we are becoming energy for further growth.  You never step in the same river twice.

"Being," on the other hand, is the ideal and unchanging form in Greek thought.  There are the things that are transitory, and there are the things that eternally "are."  We’ve stepped in a succession of rivers, but we’ve had glimpses of something else.  And scripture gives us many examples of change and becoming, and then we find Jesus, who made the bold claim “I am.”  In fact, he did it about a dozen and a half times in John, giving us some of the most memorable declarations in scripture.  

Perhaps you can give me an example.

And this is where we have to do a little parsing.  The key here is the Greek phrase ego eimi, simply "I am."  And sometimes the examples are a little less obvious than the examples you gave me, but just as stirring.  Here’s John 8.57ff:

57The people said [to Jesus], “You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?”

58Jesus answered, “The truth is, before Abraham came, or came to be, I am."  

So hold that little bit of divine awkwardness for a moment and listen to part of the conclusion of today’s passage:

[Jesus asked the young man], "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"  

He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."  

Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you, is he."  

"Lord,” he said, “I believe."

That’s the same declaration, albeit in the third person.  And the same idea of being and becoming.  The young man, who first uttered the memorable phrase “I was blind, and now I see,” is the model of becoming.  He has an encounter with the Most High, he is given the gift of healing, and now can see.  His life changes in a moment, and has now become a material witness to the power of God in Jesus.  He is transformed.  

But of course, we know that gaining faith makes your life more complicated and not less.  The young man must explain the nature of his becoming, the changes that have happened to him, and the good fortune he experienced that day near the Pool of Siloam.  Suddenly—in the eyes of some—he is a co-conspirator, and must explain the nature of this encounter, and the steps that led to it.

And this is where being comes in, in the lifegiving encounter that he neither asked for nor expected.  “Never since the world began,” he said, “has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.”  But without the touch of eternity, there would be no healing.  Only God can draw us from becoming to being: Those who believe in him, even though they die, will live.

All of us have a date with eternity, not in the overly dramatic sense, but in the sense that Holy Week and Easter will allow us to witness the most profound example of being from becoming.  Because what is the cross—on which Jesus will die—other than the intersection between the becoming of death and the eternal being of the end of death?  May each of us witness this moment, and be transformed.  Amen.


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