“Amazing Grace: healing, sin and conversion” – Sun. March 26
John 9: 1-41 “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound; that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” It is one of the most famous hymns in history and it was written by a wretch of a man. In the 18th century, John Newton was raised in his earliest years by a devout Christian mother who died far too early. He went to sea while he was still a boy and worked on various ships, including merchant ships, naval vessels and finally in the slave trade. During one particularly bad storm at sea, Newton had a spiritual conversion. He turned to God in thankfulness for sparing his life but didn’t yet end his work in the slave trade. Eventually, though, he returned to England where he was ordained as an Anglican priest and became an abolitionist working alongside William Wilberforce to end the British slave trade. As he reflected on God’s work in his life, Newton wrote eloquently about his experience of grace amidst his wretchedness, never having forgotten the amazing moment of God’s revelation and salvation: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.”
In today’s Gospel story we also hear a story of spiritual conversion in stages, beginning as a blind man receives his sight. It wasn’t what he set out to experience on the day we meet him in John’s story. We don’t even know if he had heard of Jesus or not. All we know is that he was there, along the road, when Jesus was walking along. It is Jesus who sees the blind man. Jesus’ disciples see him too and ask Jesus about the source of the man’s blindness: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It’s an opening question that sets out a theological theme of the story: What is sin? In asking the question the way they did, the disciples reveal something of their understanding. Sin is something that is done, like bad behaviour, and it is something that can have physical consequences, such as blindness. The linking of illness with sin, or at least speculation about such a possibility clearly has a long history and I suspect most of us have heard such theology at one time or another. The linking of the man’s blindness with the possibility that it is an intergenerational consequence of sin – that it was his parents sins that lead to his blindness, is reminiscent of the later Christian doctrine of original sin.
Jesus’ response, however, disavows either understanding: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus dismisses any connection between the man’s blindness and sin – his or his parent’s – and seems to begin a process of shifting categories. It wasn’t sin that led to the man’s blindness. Whatever sin is, it hasn’t caused this illness. Without response or further questions from his disciples, Jesus makes mud with his saliva, spreads it on the man’s eyes and instructs him to go wash. Jesus then disappears from the story… he exits, stage left, and the story continues on without him.
The man does as Jesus instructed… he goes and washes and returns able to see. All that’s needed is a little gratitude and it would be a perfect miracle story. But instead, questions and arguments abound as the focus shifts to the people’s response to Jesus. First there are questions about whether the newly seeing man is actually the blind man they knew as a beggar. How ironic that as he receives sight, those around him can’t see him: “I am the man,” he repeats. But they keep asking, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He responds with a no-nonsense story describing what we’ve just heard in live action: “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.” Perhaps it just doesn’t make sense… or it’s just too hard to believe… so they take him to their leaders.
We only begin to understand why as the scene shifts. The man is brought to the Pharisees and we learn an additional detail: the healing occurred on a sabbath day. To do any work, including the work of healing, on a sabbath day is a violation of the law. It is, we soon learn, considered a sin. And the Pharisees are blinded by this understanding: “… he does not observe the sabbath… how can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” Giving up for the time being on the man shedding light on the strange situation, they call his parents to try and get clarity. When that approach fails to get them what they want, they call the formerly-blind man for a second time, saying “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” But the man is steadfast, articulating, again, both what he knows and the limits of his knowledge: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
The conversation continues as the now-seeing man becomes exasperated at the Pharisees’ stubbornness. He argues that God does not listen to sinners and yet he received his sight: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” It is as if the man needed all the questioning to be able to develop his own understanding. When he was first asked about being healed from his blindness, he tells a full version of his story: “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.” But as he is asked to retell it, the literal facts get briefer: “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” When the questioning finally reaches its zenith, he refuses to recite the facts of his physical healing at all, and instead offers a theological rationale for their blindness and a spiritual understanding of Jesus’ healing work in relationship to God.
It is a rather wonderful example of how the story of our lives can transform into meaning for our lives in relationship with God. It is possible both for the one experiencing the action and doing the telling, along with anyone willing to believe beyond the simple facts. More importantly, telling our stories beginning with the facts and moving through theological interpretation initiates a process of spiritual conversion. Amazing grace already caused Jesus to see the blind man along the road and give him his sight. But it is only as the man tells his story and reflects on what it means that his newfound ability to see helps him take another step in his spiritual journey.
It is only then, with the man well along the road of spiritual sight to accompany his ability to see, that Jesus finally returns to the stage to make explicit what he hinted at in his opening response to his disciples. Jesus seeks out the now-seeing man and asks: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man remains a bit confused, asking “who is he, sir?” and expressing his readiness to go the distance: “Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Having already revealed God in his work of healing, Jesus finally reveals himself as one with God: “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” And he goes to to fully express the upside world for which he came: “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees overhear and recognize something of themselves in Jesus’ words, asking: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Finally, Jesus brings together the metaphor of sight and blindness with the theological concept of sin that has haunted the whole story: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.”
Like all of John’s stories, this is a complicated one rich in depth and meaning. One of the keys in it swirls around the understanding of sin. It begins with the assumption that the blind man or his parents must have sinned to result in his blindness and Jesus’ healing on the sabbath is overtly identified as sin. Sin is understood as “a moral category, primarily defined in relation to actions,” but as the story unfolds, sin is redefined as a theological, not moral, category. In other words, sin is not about what one does but how one relates to Jesus and “whether one believes that God is present in Jesus.” It is the man who receives sight and then gradually learns to see Jesus for who he is who experiences God’s amazing grace of new life. (NIB, 663-4)
The process of spiritual conversion is one that can happen through dramatic moments of startling revelation or miraculous healing. We can come to see all of a sudden, or gradually over the course of many small insights. Either way, it takes a lifetime to live into the fullness of spiritual conversion. What matters to keep us moving along the way is that we remember we will always have blind spots. John Newton realized this years later as he reflected on his moment of conversion, the moment whose date he celebrated year by year, and wrote: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.” It was then, with a full view of the stages of his spiritual life, that we was able to express the impact of God’s work of healing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound; that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
As we continue through Lent, may we allow God to enter our stories, shake our theological understandings and bring us new sight. And as we each walk our own journey of deepening darkness, sudden sight and spiritual conversion, may we see God’s amazing grace in our lives.