Opening Sunday Homily March 30, 2014 John 9, 1-41
There is a story told about an Indian peasant who had a lifelong passion to visit Bombay. He talked about going there so often that his friends and neighbors decided to take up a collection and pay for the trip. When it was time for his departure the whole community gathered at the edge of town to wish him well. He thanked everyone and started walking down the road to Bombay to fulfill his dream. To everyone’s surprise, he returned much earlier than expected. When they asked him if something had happened to keep him from reaching the city, he answered, “Nothing,” assuring them that the trip had gone well and he had seen Bombay. When someone asked him what Bombay was like, he responded, “It’s quite a sight. About a foot and half high, two feet long, green with yellow letters spelling out B-O-M-B-A Y.” The poor man had gone no further than the sign marking the city limits, read it and returned to his village, content that his lifelong dream had been fulfilled.
Sadly that story describes too many of us who read or hear miracle stories in John’s Gospel without realizing that they point to something else. If we only pay attention to the signs without wondering what John is trying to say to us, we are imitating the peasant. There is always something beyond the sign. So we have to go beyond the sign, push deeper into the story or we will miss the opportunity offered to us every time we read and hear this living and life-giving Word of God. This is no story book. This is revelation. It is alive. This is not history or a book of old tales about what Jesus did way back when. These words speak of what is happening now in this place and of what is happening to you and me. We are always in these stories.
So look at what happens here. We can read a familiar long story about some man born blind and the big controversy that erupts with Pharisees and the man’s parents, and then we can go home and settle down into the usual Sunday afternoon routine. If so, we are like the Indian peasant who thinks he has seen Bombay by reading a sign. There is another option for people of faith, and that option is what I want to propose to you now and will explore with you three evenings this week. There is something more here than an old story told for two thousand years.
If we think that this story is about a miracle and what wonders Jesus worked with a man born blind, we’ve stopped at the sign, and I say to you, “Wait. Don’t turn around and go home.” This not a story told to impress us with the power of Jesus Christ. This is a story told about people who say they see and people who do not see. It is a story told about faith and about light, reminding us that we do not see anything without light.
John’s Gospel is very different from the three earlier Gospels. They all insist that faith is necessary for miracles to happen. When confronted with a lack of faith Jesus is unable to do anything. For John it is just the opposite. He presumes that faith comes after the miracle, not before. It starts early in his Gospel with the very first sign at Cana. Only after he changes water into wine do the disciples begin to believe in him. Jesus does not demand faith first in John’s Gospel. Look at this story. The blind man is just minding his own business when Jesus walks by, spits on mud, puts it on his eyes and sends him off to wash. The blind man never called out to him. He didn’t even know who it was. After all, he was blind! His faith in Jesus is a gradual process, and not an easy one. It comes because he is willing to go beyond the sign. You can see the development in the story. John never uses the word “miracle.” He calls these events: “Signs.” A “sign” is a thing showing that something else exists. It always points to something else.
So when we look at this sign, we can just get on with the weekend or we go beyond it looking for something else. If you want to look for something else, I propose you look at what is said more than what happens, and you look at the response of the people to the sign that is before them. The sign begins with a proclamation from Jesus that reveals what this sign points to: that God’s works are to be seen in people coming to faith like this blind man, and that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Then if we look at the response of the people in this story, we can begin to question our own response to this sign. There are Pharisees who think they see everything and know everything, but they cannot see God working right in front of them because they did not heal him. They refuse to share the joy and the faith of this man who is himself a sign of something else: a sign of what happens when you listen to Jesus Christ and do what he asks even if it makes no sense. “Go wash in the pool of Siloam,” says Jesus. Why would he do that, and how is going to get there. But he does it. There are his parents, so afraid of the Pharisees, so afraid of what people might say about them or what might happen if they acknowledge the sign and what it means. They are completely left out in the dark. They will go no further than: “All we know is that he could not see, and now he sees.” Well, they’re stuck and will never see what the sign means.
So, here we are at the beginning of a Lenten Mission and most of the way through Lent. I’m not going to tell you what to do the rest of the week or the rest of Lent. I’m not going to tell you what the sign means either. I want simply want to point to the sign. You can stop in front of the sign, or you can go on beyond. You have faith like the blind man; a faith that is moving along, growing stronger, and more refined. You also have the light of Christ by which you can see where you are, and where you want to go. The works of God are made visible through our works, so we might want to pay attention to what our works look like and whether our works are a sign that might tempt people to go further. The words of Jesus Christ at the very beginning of this story are words for our lips: “We must do the deeds of him who sent me while it is day. The night comes on when no one can work. While I am in the world I am the light of the world.”
(The people are invited to repeat these words in conclusion.)