Conversations Before The Cross 4:
What Are His References?
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Lent/A • March 26, 2017
What are his references? That’s a question most of us ask in one way or another from time to time. Employers ask it: no one hires someone without at least trying to find out how they did previously. And the answer doesn’t always have to be positive! I was fired from my first job as a ministerial intern in seminary after a long period of conflict with the senior minister. A while later I began looking for a new job and found a church and minister that really excited me. I told them about my experience, trying to be objective, not trying to hide any of the details; I remember the minister interviewing me saying, “So, you resigned from your last job? I said: No, I was fired. The minister said he didn’t feel a need to check my references, but of course he did, so he did something ministers do under the circumstances: he called a friend in a church nearby. So not long afterward I was called into the senior minister’s office to hear him say, well I decided to do a little checking on you after we talked, so I called a friend who knows the situation in the church where you worked…and he said the guy you worked for is crazy and being fired there is an honor!
What are his references? It’s a question that creeps into our relationship with Jesus in one way or another. We see his story through the glasses of our common sense, our life experience and our own individual histories. We look for the points in these histories that can connect and explain his story. These are Jesus’ references. There’s nothing new about this process, the earliest Christians did the same thing. They were in many cases Jews who looked for a special person from God, just as God had sent Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David and Elijah. In many ways Jesus met these expectations, but in others he did not. The story about the man born blind from birth was remembered because it spoke to the questions of Christians trying to live their daily lives in harmony with God’s intention—trying to understand whether Jesus of Nazareth was a part of that intention.
This story matches the story of the church. It is our story. We also are people who encountered Jesus, were changed by him and now live in a world where his presence is not always apparent. We look forward to a final time when our Lord will appear beside us and we will be able to see him and touch him. Our problem is what to do in the meantime.
This is finally an individual challenge: remember, neither the blind man’s friends nor his parents, neither the crowds nor the Pharisees, were any help to him in understanding how to live with his new sight.
There is a mystery here, a mystery that lies at the heart of the way God loves us. For in the structure of our relationship with God there is a scandalous particularity, an individuality, that shakes the foundations of every life that takes it seriously. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”, the Psalmist asks, and the answer is always someone’s name, some particular name, some particular person.
One Particular Person
Think of the anointing of David: Samuel comes to one particular village and one specific family where one by one the sons, the hope of the clan, are brought before him. Think of the father, Jesse standing there. It’s a time of devastating civil war. Is he proud? Afraid? Does he think that one son or the other is best for this mission, is he impatient to have Samuel make his choice and get on his way. Does part of him hope that none of his sons are chosen? It’s a dangerous thing to accept leadership in such times. Finally the choice falls on David, the youngest, the son of his middle years we suppose, a boy not yet old enough to even take a part in officially offering a sacrifice. Here is the scandal of this particularity: suppose that someone from our national church office came here, to Albany, and chose one nine year old child to do something that might be dangerous and must be kept secret—is there any parent here that wouldn’t wonder, just for a moment, his heart, “Why my child, Lord?”
Why one person and not someone else? Why you and not me? Why me and not you? This scandal, this particularity, lies near the heart of all our questions about suffering and meaning. Who is this blind man that he should be healed—while others remain blind. Is his moral life more faithful? Does he pray more deeply or more eloquently? Is his faith stronger or in need of strengthening? Nothing in the text answers such questions, nothing in the action of the story gives any explanation.
So it is with us, isn’t it? Since ancient times, one strand of thought in Israel held misfortune and disability and disease to be the direct consequence of sin, sometimes a consequence carried on through generations. There is a part of our religious impulse that always wants to quantify. So much sin, so much grace: measured out like the sugar and flour of a cake mix, balanced off like the weights on a jeweler’s scale. But Jesus directs attention away from the surface to the deeper realities of the situation. Sin is related to grace, of course, but not as the disciples think. The man’s life is not a result only of his own action but is part of the structure of God’s revelation. The blind man is about to become the living gospel, the person who bridges the gulf between God and human being.
Making God’s Glory Obvious
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall go for us”, the Psalmist asks, and the prophet too, and the answer is always some particular person at some particular moment of time. So Jesus came to a small village for a moment and opened a blind man’s eyes. We tend to think of such characters as special, different, not like us, but the fact is that he is precisely like us. He is a young man who has overcome the obstacles of his life, found a trade and is working industriously at it. He is just like us: pregnant with the possibility of epiphany, capable of becoming the candle by which the divine flame of God is seen to burn and give light. The disciples want to give this man a practical explanation, almost a scientific one. “Who sinned?”, they ask, “This man or his family?” But to Jesus the man’s circumstances including his blindness are an occasion for showing God’s presence. “This happened so that the work of God”—some translations say glory of God—“might be displayed in his life.”
The Pharisees of the story are puzzled because Jesus doesn’t follow what they expect: His references are nonexistent and his behavior is scandalous. Since they don’t know who he is they concentrate on the how: their concentration on the question of how Jesus healed the man is so striking that he finally asks if they also want to become his disciples. They are seeking a clue to the who through the how: They want the regular procedures followed; they want the rules to apply to everyone. They want to know who Jesus was: where he came from, where he’s been, what schools h attended, how he learned to heal. There is comfort in the past: it is predictable, it is safe, it can’t get out of hand and surprise you. “We are disciples of Moses,” they tell the man.
But they’ve forgotten Moses was once a wild, free spirit on fire with God. They’ve forgotten the Moses who asked to see God, though that was against all rules. They remember only the rules Moses left. Moses said, “Keep the sabbath holy” and they have transformed that into something else entirely: don’t work on the sabbath. They can’t see that healing is holy; they only see Jesus breaking a rule. Finally, they conclude, he can’t be from God. They don’t know his references and so they simply say, “As for this man, we don’t know where he comes from”.
But the blind man is amazed at this: here are the religious and political authorities of his life puzzled.
Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from yet he opened my eyes. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!
This is the ultimate testimony of the believer, the follower of Jesus Christ: that our lives have been changed, healed. And that this is so, regardless of how the world may see or understand that change. Sometimes the change is remarkable and radical. Sometimes it is internal and quiet. Sometimes it leads to moments of soaring courage; more often to the simple endurance of living life hopefully each day. The blind man’s history hasn’t changed but now he lives with vision. He is healed. His future is new; as Paul said, “In Christ there is a new creation.” Christ calls us to a new creation, a creation beyond the rules we knew and lived by.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” This blind man—this particular life, at this particular moment—is the means by which God chooses to work and call others. Who would have thought God would choose such people: a nine or ten year old shepherd, a blind man sitting by the road side. You, me, the person sitting in the pew next to you: are these really the means by which the Almighty God chooses to work and become known? Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? It’s us: there isn’t anyone else.
The people of these Bible stories are not the heroic figures we romantically assume. They are people who are busy about their lives and getting on with them. People who have their own hearts and hopes but who are changed when they become the particular way God’s work is demonstrated and moved forward.
The blind man’s story is our story as well, if we are the followers of this Jesus of Nazareth. The blind man is not any more prepared to become the visible agent of the invisible Spirit than you or I, and the whole event causes considerable disruption in his life. Friends desert him. His parents refuse to defend him. The religious and political authorities of the village and the area cross-examine him and threaten him and are finally puzzled by him. Through all this, the agent of his change—Jesus, the one who caused the change—is nowhere to be found. If this is, as I suggested, intended to be not only the story of the blind man but the story of the church and therefore our story as well, what does it suggest the task of faithful Christian people is?
Do You Believe?
The clue to the answer is near the end of the story. After all the shouting has died down the man meets Jesus again, though of course he doesn’t recognize him—remember, he’s never seen Jesus before. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks, and when the man asks who this is, Jesus reveals his identify: the man replies, “Lord, I believe.” What is the most important task of believers? Perhaps it is simply to be believers—to live as believers—to keep living as believers.
This is, a simple and yet enormously difficult formula. Our culture, like the culture of the first century Christians who remembered this story, is hostile to Christian faith and seeks to erase it by a concentration on the technological question, the question of how things are to occur, how life is to be lived. So our culture constantly offers us formulas: take control of your own life, read this book, listen to this speaker, see this therapist, try this diet.
In this culture, our faith offers not a how but a who: Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed, the Christ who comes into the world. We offer an invitation: not to take control of your own life but to offer your life to God who is known in this man.
To respond in this way is anything but easy. It’s striking to realize how difficult the blind man’s life becomes after he is healed. His friends and family desert him, his trade is lost and the local authorities keep after him. Does he have moments when he wished he had his simple life back, wished the l light would go out again and he could sit by the side of the road begging? Perhaps, but what the story suggests is a man so transformed by this experience that he can hardly imagine his former life.
At the end of the story, when he knows Jesus, the text simply says “he worshipped him”. Christian faith is finally this: the ability to worship Jesus, not because you have been given satisfactory references but because you have seen what he has done and know that if this man were not from God, he could do nothing. What are Jesus’ references? You are—I am—we all are together. “You are the Body of Christ and individually members of it”, Paul says. We are the ones he is healing; we are the ones he has taught to hope. Hope is ultimate healing. It comes not from a reference or a technique but from a decision about whom you will believe and what you will worship.
Nowhere is that decision more clearly defined than at the end of this story. There finally we have the alternatives we also face. The blind man responds to Jesus simply when Jesus reveals his identity: “‘Lord I believe’..and he worshipped him”. The Pharisees are still fussing, still asking, “What are his references?”. By the end of the story, the blind man has a vision that lights his life; the Pharisees are blind.
Can We Trust Jesus?
We walk in a forest throughout our lives. There are dark shadows that stretch out; there are places where the path is not clear. There are dangers and difficulties and moments when the way opens on inexpressible beauty. As we walk through this forest, we must ultimately decide whether we will trust the vision of Jesus Christ or stumble blindly, hoping on our own to avoid the pitfalls. Nothing guarantees our choice. Putting a cross on the sign does not mean we will not act like Pharisees inside. Only our decision to freely embrace Jesus as a guide can keep us on the path; only our commitment to come to him, as the blind man did, whatever our lives, whatever our history, and simply say, “Lord, I believe”.