Illumination (Exodus 33:12-23; John 9:1-41)
One of the most difficult parts of discipleship is knowing how we can see our way clear to do the things we ought. Our spiritual vision is not always 20/20, any more than our physical vision is. Our scripture lessons today speak to the clarity and completeness of our vision, and both need to be taken into account when we think of living fruitful Christian lives.
The Old Testament Lesson reminds us that even Moses, the spiritual giant, who was permitted a direct vision of God’s glory and goodness (an almost unheard of thing in the Bible), discovered that he could catch but a little glimpse of God’s back, not God’s face. No matter what, our spiritual vision is just not acute enough to penetrate the deep and thick mystery of Almighty God. The words of Isaiah 45:15: “Truly you are God who hides yourself,” can be endlessly demonstrated. We need to learn to live with the fact that as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly…now we know only in part.” God is really unknowable except as God has chosen to be known. So we walk by faith not by sight in our world, and this isn’t a choice, but a statement. We walk by faith or we stumble in the dark, there is no walking by sight in this world.
Jesus said, “God is spirit.” By this statement, he reflected not only the Hebrew tradition that God was not a physical being like us, but also the conviction that it is difficult for human beings to see God. Because of that the Bible commonly speaks of hearing God, but not of seeing God. Hearing is, somehow, less immediate than seeing. With our human limitations we can tolerate hearing God’s word more than seeing God’s face. So Jews and Christians through the millennia have believed that they are able to hear of what God has been up to in the world through the words of the Bible where the prophets, psalmists, story-tellers, historians, and wisdom teachers have traced out the divine ways. One of the weaknesses of “hearing more than seeing” is that we can conclude that just affirming certain words from the Bible is what Christian discipleship is all about. That clearly isn’t good enough, no matter what some may tell us, because, even in all that we can hear portrayed in the Bible, the mystery of God remains deep and thick. Of course, Christians are also committed to the truth that Jesus incarnated God. That word “incarnate” means “to embody in a human person.” Christians are convinced that Jesus shows us what God is like, that we “see God,” so to speak, by looking at Jesus. He is our light, by him we find illumination. By following him we find enough light to walk by faith.
A good biblical definition of such illumined discipleship might be imitating in our own actions what we see in Jesus. One way that, as Christians, we can take our discipleship seriously is by imitating what God in Christ does. In all we say, do, and are we do our best to embody what we see in Jesus, so that people might see him in us. Christian discipleship is a life to be lived, not a system to be affirmed. A wonderful example of how Jesus embodies what God is, and how we might see and embody Jesus for our world is found in the Lesson from John chapter 9. Here’s the basic story.
One day Jesus saw a man who had not ever had sight. All of us might agree that this was a tragedy – just one human tragedy in a whole world full of human tragedies. One way of dealing with human disability (and other bad things) in Jesus’ day was to affix blame for it. So the disciples’ question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind”? would have expressed a common assumption that we’ve not outgrown, for some religious people still have this desire to affix blame when things aren’t as they should be. Blame makes for a neat, tidy universe. But the universe in which we live is neither neat nor tidy and things do go horribly wrong fairly consistently.
Jesus refused to enter into that way of explaining the world. He didn’t look at it from the point of view of what caused this man to be born blind. He broke the power of that cycle of blame and punishment, and talked about this man’s life-long lack of vision from another standpoint altogether. Let’s be clear as to what Jesus responded to his disciples. I dislike most English translations of Jesus’ response here including the one that I read, because they give the impression that, although God did not cause the man to be born blind to punish him or his parents, God did cause him to be born blind for God’s glory. And frankly that’s just as monstrous a view of God as the other. At the same time I can’t offer you a nice, crisp, alternative translation, but a longer paraphrase. Fortunately, perhaps, the Greek is ambiguous for several reason, allowing me to do that. Jesus meant that, neither this man nor his parents’ sin caused his blindness, rather, his blindness was an opportunity for God’s grace and glory to be revealed as a result of it. Eugene Peterson paraphrased as follows in “The Message”: “Jesus said, ‘You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.’”
The reality is that asking what causes these mysterious tragedies in the world is useless and leads only to blaming sin or the devil or worse holding that God kills some as pressure on others to repent. All, as I say, are monstrous malformations of the loving and gracious God. I have come to believe that there simply is a fair amount of chaos in this world, but, that even these tragedies can be opportunities for the working of God’s grace. Nothing is impossible for God.
As a community of disciples, we can be illumined by Jesus’ refusal to affix blame to people or things, and having faith that God’s glory and grace may be extended in places where things go horribly wrong through the active love and care of ordinary folk in such a faith community determined to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
It’s unfortunate that in John’s story, however, what we see is a religious community in starkest contrast to Jesus’ work. In that community religious folk kept trying to beat the healed man into affirming their creed, thus trying to make the case that religion really is a system to be affirmed not a life to be lived. All the blind man can keep saying is: “I was blind, but now I see.” “I don’t know the answers to all your questions, if you’ll excuse me, they seem a little silly” “Listen to me, once I was blind, but now I see.” The man even gets what the British would call “a little cheeky” and calls their credentials into question. “Do you want to become his disciples”? “It isn’t hard.” These religious folk, all withered up in their doctrinal tightness, could not deal with transformation they couldn’t control. They couldn’t re-make him in their image, and so, he became a “great danger to others,” so they drove him out of their fellowship. I wish this were a problem of an ancient religious community that had no present relevance.
After the man has been excommunicated, Jesus heard of it and looked him up, and he and the once-blind man had a life changing conversation that illuminated his life with spiritual vision as acute as his newly found physical vision. What a great story! And scary!!
Let me offer just three thoughts on this story as illumination for a community of Jesus’ disciples today. First, please don’t think that people’s problems are normally resolved or healed as quickly as Jesus did it in our story from John 9, because, as much as we want to imitate Jesus, we’re not Jesus. For most of us this kind of embodied ministry takes patience and time. We often want to skip the pain to get to the victory. Most of us would rather have Easter than Good Friday or Lent. Most of us would rather have the resurrection than crucifixion. But there is no resurrection without death. There is no empty tomb without a cross. People’s problems are difficult, and we cannot get so impatient that we force them to do what they are not ready to do. Yes, patience is a virtue, and a difficult one. Nonetheless, our call is to do as Jesus did and suffer with people’s tragedies and blindness, rather than load people with guilt, blame them for their problems, force them to say they’re sorry, make them repeat our list of words, and do it our way so as to be in our control, according to our time frame. That would look more like that other religious community, the one in the story of John 9.
Second, although our story makes much of the contrast between the official religious community and Jesus’ way of ministry, please don’t think that the primary job of embodying Jesus’ ministry in our own discipleship is to point a finger at other religious communities. In John 9 this negative way is symbolized by Jewish leaders. It’s no part of copying Jesus in discipleship to bad-mouth Jews or any other community of faith. The positive work of embodying Jesus in the world leaves no time for that. What other faith communities do with their time is something for them to worry about. The contrast between a kind of fault-finding, blame-affixing, power-insistent community and what I’m talking about is obvious. My opinion is that some folk have been hurt by such communities and are looking for something different. Our primary interest as Christ’s community is in being with these who hurt “out there,” not against those whose methods are not ours.
Whatever others choose to do, communities of faith that embody Jesus’ way choose to give folks access to God’s healing love and liberating grace through what they do and who they are.
Last, as this kind of ministry was costly discipleship for Jesus, it is also costly for those who would follow. I believe that there is a need for churches to follow Jesus in such costly ways, but I doubt that such churches will ever be large numerically or prosperous financially. It is easier to prosper in our power-driven, success-oriented culture by asking how we market ourselves to attract the most people, and allowing that to guide our mission, rather than being incarnational agents of transformation. Of course, for those with this vision of God in Jesus who heals the blind, numerical and financial success isn’t the key issue for discipleship.
Ought we to think through this vision of the church more carefully? There is much that we do here already that attempts such a way of following Jesus, but we all know that this kind of discipleship is a costly thing. This is the not the most comfortable way to be the church. Today we simply need to hear this text about Jesus as pointing to a vision worth thinking through. It would be a precarious thing to catch such a vision of God in Christ and follow it. Of course, the very word “precarious” comes from a Latin term that means “dependent upon prayer,” and where else should we be?
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.