Thursday, March 31, 2011

Appreciating John

Our lectionary texts for this fourth Sunday of Lent are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, and John 9:1-38, which can be found here.

In the spirit of our Lenten theme of "Coming Clean," I have a confession to make: The Gospel of John has long been a serious thorn in my flesh, to borrow Paul's metaphor. In the past, when I have had to preach on passages from the Fourth Gospel, it usually ends with me lying facedown on the carpet sometime around 11:30 pm on Friday night screaming, "I don't know what this man is talking about!" John's language is beautiful, but often convoluted--packed with imagery and so many layers of meaning that it can be hard to discover the meaning behind it all (which I guess, at least, was part of John's point in how he wrote).

Preaching John several weeks in a row, however, has helped me understand and appreciate John in a way I never have before. In taking on three of the stories unique to John--Jesus' encounters with Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Man Born Blind--in consecutive weeks, we can see things in our continued immersion in John's writing that we cannot see if we take each story on its own. To understand John, we need to read everything he writes in the context of his broader narrative--you can't take stories as isolated incidents.

There is so much we can see when we hold these stories side by side that we cannot see if we take them on individually. We can learn that for John, understanding is always gradually revealed--each of these characters took some time to get who Jesus was and what he was about; it was always a process, and this is what discipleship is for John! We can also see that encounters with Jesus take all sorts of different forms--we may slink off to him by night, or run into him in the heat of the day, or be approached by him out of nowhere on the street--discipleship not only unfolds in different times and ways, it begins in different times and ways. We can see that certain ideas were key to John--water, Spirit, light, seeing, hearing--all of these things show up in all of these stories in some way, and the meaning of these terms in each story sheds light on their meanings in the others.

Realizing that John's stories can be better understood in their broader context made me want to look at this story of the Blind Man in its wider context. Due to the way our Bible is laid out, we tend to take John 9 as an isolated unit, with a neat beginning in verse 1 and a conclusion in verse 41; in reality, however, Jesus keeps speaking into chapter 10. We rarely read Chapter 10 with Chapter 9; in fact, I don't think I have EVER seen Chapter 10 read with Chapter 9. Chapter 10, where Jesus talks about his identity as the Good Shepherd, is the appointed reading for the fourth Sunday post-Easter, not the fourth Sunday of Lent. But, if we remove our verse and chapter markings, it seems this discourse belongs with the story of the Blind Man's healing--it may even be Jesus' commentary on and explanation of this sign that he performed in chapter 9 since, in chapter 9 itself, Jesus' voice is heard very little at all.

So here's my "Appreciating John" exercise of the week for you: Read John 9:1 all the way through to John 10:20. I am going to post it below without verse markings. How does reading this in context as a single unit change the way you understand Jesus' decision to heal the blind man and how that scene unfolded, if at all?

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! 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.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘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.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’


Jeremy said...

When I read this, all I can think of is Caedmon's Call singing, "All I Know." Great song, and totally missing from all their stuff posted online. Lyrics are everywhere, tho.

Abby said...

I've been singing and listening to that song all week, Jeremy! If we had planned more ahead, we would have had you sing it on Sunday:)