4th Sunday in Lent
Walking the path of the adventure called the Christian faith…the adventure worthy of that name…we can expect to meet riddles. Is the glass half full? Or is it half empty? Is the sun going down or is it rising? Is this tragedy a punishment for sin? Or is it a test of faith? You have eyes. What do you say?
Ah, but…before you speak, know that Pharisees are listening. There are always Pharisees listening. And Pharisees always have the right answer, as far as that goes. They may be the legalistic type of Pharisee—everything is either black or white, it’s cut and dried, good or bad. They may be Pharisees of a more Epicurean taste—everything is gray, can’t really say, who are we to judge. But the Pharisees are there, and they’re listening. And unless your answer is their answer, they will cut you down, and cast you out.
In our long Gospel Reading today there are a lot of eyes, but not much seeing. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Whose fault is it? Who is to blame? Something bad has happened, therefore, someone must have been bad. Guilt. Blame. Punishment. Suffering. If he were good, it wouldn’t have happened! The eyes have it. But they do not see.
Jesus declares, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Only two eyes have it right—Jesus’ eyes. This happened “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Two eyes have it right. Soon it will be four. Four blind eyes seeing. The first pair—Jesus’ eyes, as Isaiah prophesied—are blind to everything except the work of the Father who sent Him. The second pair—this man born blind—sees in Jesus what all the other seeing eyes do not.
So many blind eyes. This Gospel Reading is hardly an ancient, dusty roads of Galilee kind of story. It is as contemporary as the anschluß by which Russia has snatched up part of Ukraine. This episode in St. John’s Gospel is as timely as the battle lines between Israelis and Palestinians, between gay and straight, between pro-life and pro-choice, between East and West. This story is as painful as any house divided up or down your street. “Who sinned that this has happened?”
And Pharisees rise up to stone the Russians and Pharisees rise up to stone the West. And they stone the Israeli and the Palestinian. Pharisees of one side cast out the homosexual person and Pharisees of the other side cast out anyone who doesn’t affirm same-sexed attractions. Pharisees step in to identify the sin, to assign the blame, to cast their stones. And Pharisees step in to excuse the sin, to deny the blame, to rise up and judge those they deem judgmental. “All in favor say ‘Aye.’” And the ayes/eyes have it.
But He who is blind to everything except His Father’s work says, “Who sinned is not important here.” This happened “that the work of God might be displayed.” This—and all sorts of things in our human lives—this happened so that blind eyes might be opened to see the beauty of God’s work. The issue is not what is good or bad. The issue is what is beautiful—and what is beautiful always means Jesus, and a beautiful Jesus always means a crucified Jesus.
It is the cross of Jesus which displays, first of all, the work of God, that work which theologians call God’s alien work, God’s contrary-to-His-nature work. The cross displays Jesus stricken, smitten and afflicted, something we would call bad! We see that work of God displayed in human suffering and death.
And with our eyes granted sight by the cross of Jesus, we can see this alien work of God in our world. It’s there all around us. He permits its display. The Pharisee looks for causes—a moral cause, a genetic cause, a physical cause—some reason to explain the presence of such a bad thing in life. Or in reaction to them the other kind of Pharisee removes the alien work of God by striking any meaning from it—it’s just something that happened. Who are we to say, to judge? The man isn’t blind, he’s just sight-challenged.
But Jesus, the cross-bound, suffering servant of God, Jesus neither blames nor excuses this display of God’s alien work. He says, “This happened to display the work of God.” In order to bring the good to light, God allows the bad to come to light. To bring release, He allows suffering. To bring life, He allows death. The cross of Jesus neither blames nor excuses. It displays God’s alien work—suffering and death—for the sake of God’s proper, beautiful work—pardon and life.
So this person in the Gospel Reading is born blind. Another is born with homosexual tendencies. Another is born into a world at war, another into a dysfunctional family. Are they to blame? No. Is it good? Hardly! It’s the alien work of God on display. It’s the cross laid heavy upon them. But…it’s a heavy cross by which God’s work is made beautiful in Christ.
The proper work of God is wholeness and healing. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead live. The cross of Christ shows us this as well. That cross displays how grace comes from sacrifice. How glory comes from suffering. Life comes from death. So the alien work of God is displayed in this world but only, only, only for the sake of God displaying His proper work.
In other words—and this is the difference between the blind eyes and the eyes which see—in other words, Jesus’ cross means that God intends a world of suffering for the purpose of bringing release from that suffering. It doesn’t make the suffering good. Not at all! But in it God displays His proper work, His beautiful work of release from suffering through Jesus Christ, whether that release comes now in this age or must await the age to come.
Even a disposition to what God Himself has deemed an immoral life is permitted by Him for His beautiful work of granting release from the same, or if not release, granting the grace sufficient to carry such a cross in the struggles of life.
No, that doesn’t make a so-called alternate lifestyle good in God’s eyes. And yet, even there, God displays His good grace through Jesus Christ. Just as God also permits war in this world. Not good. Not good at all. But by it God displays His good, proper work of peace in Christ.
We can see this only by the cross of Jesus Christ. Suffering and pardon in one cross. The bad and the good in one beautiful work. And only in Christ can we see this for the world.
Pharisees…well…Pharisees can only condemn what they see, this alien work of God. Blame. Condemn. Punish. Or they can only excuse and overlook the alien work of God. Ignore. Excuse. Call the bad good.
But the cross of Jesus Christ neither condemns nor excuses. The cross does not excuse the person in whom the alien work of God is displayed, but neither does the cross condemn that person. The cross is a beautiful display of God’s total work—pardon for sin, goodness for the bad, grace for the fallen, strength to bear the burden of God’s alien display.
By the suffering of Jesus on the cross we have eyes to see the alien work of God in all the suffering of this world. And by the sacrifice of the crucified Christ, vindicated in His resurrection, we have the eyes to see the proper work, the beautiful work of God in this world. And such eyes which see this work in Jesus are the eyes which see so much in the world!
Eyes which condemn are blind. Eyes which excuse are blind. Only the eyes which see the world through the cross of Jesus Christ—a cross on which sin is truly sin but at the same time, because Christ is there, there is now no condemnation—only the eyes which look upon the world through the cross of Jesus are the eyes which truly see. “For this I came into the world,” He said, “that those who do not see…may see indeed!” Beautiful!