Can I tell you a secret? I sometimes – well, frequently – choke up for a moment during worship. It happens when I sing a hymn, say a prayer, or receive the sacrament, and I suddenly realize that I am not just thinking about God or talking about God. I am actually in the presence of the creator of the universe. It’s all a bit overwhelming. It would be, wouldn’t it?
Do you know the story of the prophet Isaiah’s experience in the temple? It’s found in chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah. In one moment, the temple was just a building of stone and wood. Fires were burning on the altar. Smoke and incense were rising into the air. The sounds of sacrifice were echoing from the walls. In the next moment, Isaiah came to see himself as a participant in a divine drama. Unseen by most of the temple’s worshipers were choirs of heavenly six-winged seraphim crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Or do you know the story of Saint John in the Book of Revelation? John tells us that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. In other words, John was at worship. In the Spirit, John saw the same God Isaiah saw in the temple, with the same six winged creatures who were singing the same song: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty.”
The room in which John was praying was an ordinary room, maybe a dining room or a courtyard in a church member’s home. Perhaps John was alone. Or perhaps he was assembled with the church to worship on the Lord’s Day, as became the custom. But in the midst of his worship on the Lord’s Day, John came to realize that he wasn’t just assembled with some ordinary looking shop keepers and fisherman on a Mediterranean island, he was standing in the presence of the host of heaven, of angels and archangels. He was not just standing in a in a room of stone and concrete; he was standing at the throne of God where the Lamb of God reigns forever.
In our gospel reading for today, John wants us to see what Isaiah saw, and what he saw whenever he worshiped Jesus. He wants us to see God. Not necessarily the six winged seraphim and the whole host of heaven – although they are there – but God, nonetheless.
The healing of the man born blind, John tells us, is a sign. It’s a doorway into an invisible reality. John is not just trying to give us new information; he’s trying to lead us into the perception of a new and invisible reality.
Light in the Temple
Chapter 9 of John’s gospel belongs to a much longer passage that begins in chapter 7. This entire section takes place in and around the temple during the Feast of the Tabernacles, one of the three annual festivals which Jews from throughout the world were supposed to attend. John’s readers, who would have been familiar with the temple rituals associated with the pilgrim festivals, would have seen some things in John’s story that we most likely will miss.
For one thing, a number of giant lamp stands illuminated in the temple during the festival. It was said that they were so powerful that they lit up the entire city of Jerusalem at night. Knowing that makes it a little clearer, doesn’t it, why Jesus announced:
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)
Jesus is the light of the world, much more so than the lamp stands that illuminated the city during the feast. But, of course, Jesus is providing a different kind of light.
Seeing the Light
And to see the light that Jesus brings, God has to open your eyes. The healing of the man born blind shows what happens when the light of the world encounters my own spiritual blindness.
For a second time in as many chapters, Jesus announced that he is the light of the world. Then he made some mud and anointed the eyes of the man born blind. Then he sent the man to wash in the pool of Siloam. Jesus gave the man blind from birth new sight, and not just the kind that our eyes provide us. Soon, the man is able to see not just the beauty of the world in which he lives, but the beauty of the Son of Man whom he comes to worship.
That’s what John wants God to do for us as we listen to this story. John wants us to see what he sees when he worships the Father in the name of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. John wants us to see what the man born blind came to see. He wants us to see Jesus in a way to which our ordinary senses are blind.
Like the other gospels, John tells us that Jesus healed the sick and gave sight to the blind, and it caused quite a stir when he did so on the Sabbath. Like the other gospels, John tells us that Jesus’ ministry brought relief to the poor and desperate on the margins of society. But John has something more in mind. It’s not so much that he wants us to understand something with our heads, or even to feel something with our hearts. John is not pitching a particular emotional experience; everyone’s experience is going to be different. Rather, John wants us to see what merely human eyes cannot. He wants us to enter into the divine mystery of Jesus’ living presence. He wants us to see Jesus, the light of the world.
Ordinary human events signify and participate in heavenly realities. John sees something more in human events than human eyes can see. He sees the glorious “real presence” of the divine throughout the life of Jesus and in the life of the church that worships him. John was convinced that both those who met Jesus in Jerusalem and those who worshiped him in Ephesus were encountering the same glorious, eternal God in heaven.
The Gospel of John is the most sacramental and mystical of the four gospels, and its author wants us to see the life of Jesus within the worship of the church. And he wants the worship of the church to come alive with the living presence of Jesus.
John saw the life of Jesus in the sacraments of the church, and the sacraments of the church in the life of Jesus. In John’s telling, all of Jesus’ life and teaching is infused with sacramental imagery. He saw the waters of baptism in miracle at a wedding party, in a conversation with an old Pharisee and in an encounter at a Samaritan well.
And, in today’s gospel reading, he saw them in the pool of Siloam where a blind man received his sight.
When John tells us the story of Christ healing a blind man, he is telling us about ourselves. We are the blind men and women whom God has given sight in a new act of creation and the gift of Christian baptism.
A New Act of Creation
John carries the imagery of light and sight throughout the gospel, and it all has to do with God’s new act of creation in Christ Jesus. Remember how John begins his gospel by telling us this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. (John 1:1-12)
In the beginning, light and life. John wants us to think about how it all started in the Book of Genesis. When God said, “Let there be light,” he wasn’t just talking about the sun in the sky. He was talking, John would have us believe, about Jesus. Through him all things were made. And when he created Adam from the dust of the ground, the life that he gave him didn’t just consist of a beating heart and breathing lungs. For John, human life is not merely a biological function.
The kind of life John has in mind is not the natural endowment of human beings. It takes a kind of miracle – a new act of creation – to participate in it. It takes a mighty work of God for us to see the light of life. It takes a new birth, to see what the man born blind came to see.
Do you recall Jesus said Nicodemus in John chapter 3?
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. (John 3:3)
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6)
In the 9th chapter of his gospel, John tells us time and again not just that the man was blind, but that he was blind from birth. In doing so, John is telling us more about a spiritual birth defect than about a biological birth defect. Until the Lord opens our eyes with a new act of creation, we are all blind from birth.
So, Jesus took dirt – from which all God fashioned all humankind – and spit on it and anointed the man’s eyes with the mud.
Now spit is gross. Ancient people thought so, too. But spit is water, and spit is wind or breath or spirit – they’re all the same word in Greek and Hebrew – and what did Jesus say it takes to see the kingdom of heaven? To be born of water and spirit.
And if you think that that’s kind of a fanciful way of looking at mud pie salve, you should know I’m not the first one to think this way. Ancient Christian authors like Irenaeus, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria expressed similar thoughts about the healing of the blind man in John 9.
In the healing of the man born blind, we see both the sacramental ministry of the church and the miracle of new-birth working hand and hand to make us see what ordinary eyes cannot. And what is it we see? Not a new philosophy or new set of ethics. Not new principles for living. We see Jesus Christ, the eternal Son descended in our midst. We see Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and exalted.
Jesus the Center
Jesus is central point in the Christian community from which everything else flows. Around him orbits our life in the world, the love of the brethren in the body of believers and our hope for the age to come. There are lots of important things for the church to be and do in the world, but Jesus is the center from which everything else emanates.
Our Lord Jesus has many admirers who think highly of him, and who will try to emulate his life or his teachings, in this way or that. But that’s not really what John means when he tells us that Jesus is the light of the world. There are many who will regard Jesus as a prophet, a man sent from God to show us the way, one whose teachings we should obey. John wouldn’t disagree, but that’s not what he means by “light of the world”. Jesus is not just a man to be admired or a prophet to be obeyed, he is the divine Son of Man to be worshiped and adored.
Do You Believe?
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asked that of the man born blind. In the Gospel of John, the Son of Man is the one who comes down from above, is lifted up on the cross, is glorified in death, who ascends into heaven and who feeds us with his body and blood. John uses the phrase 13 times.
Do you believe in the Son of Man? It’s the most important question you will ever answer. The man blind from birth confessed his faith, and then he fell down and worshiped Jesus. For John, to worship – to really worship – is to see what human eyes cannot see. True worship – worship in spirit and in truth – is made possible through a new act of creation and the gift of Christian baptism.
The truth is that Jesus Christ comes to us personally and powerfully whenever the church gathers to worship, but sometimes we just don’t see it. We live in a world of spiritual blindness. It’s our natural state. Those who belong to Christ’s church, however, have been born from above in order to see the kingdom! God wants us to see the fullness of his glory in Jesus Christ! And if I cannot yet see that clearly or consistently, perhaps I still need Jesus to put a little mud in my eye.