Seeing With New Eyes

Jesus’ healing of the blind man invites us to acknowledge our spiritual blindness and be open to seeing Jesus with new eyes.  Our Anabaptist forebearers saw discipleship with new eyes, and it led them to baptize adults as well as love their enemies to the point of refusing to take up the sword.  The Church must be a safe place for people to question long-held beliefs in order to reconstruct an authentic faith that is rooted in the way of Jesus.  

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: John 9

One of the more contemporary authors whose books have challenged me in the past 15 years is Rob Bell.  Bell was the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he’s no longer pastoring or writing as much but he has a podcast, like just about everyone else.

Bell’s first book came out in 2005 and it has the provocative title “Velvet Elvis”: Repainting the Christian Faith”.  It’s called “Velvet Elvis” because in the first chapter Bell talks about an old black velvet Elvis Presley painting in his basement, painted when Elvis was in his younger years as a performer.

Bell then asks the question:  What if the artist who created that painting had said it was the ultimate painting of Elvis and no more paintings of him could ever be done again by anyone?

Bell then says that just as art is not meant to be “frozen” in time,, neither is the Christian faith.  Faith is like a painting that is not finished but is still in process.

He says:  We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus, and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”

Our story today is about rediscovering Jesus and his identity in a new way, seeing him and the world around us with new eyes, like a painting that’s still on the easel, not yet finished with the paint still wet.

The story is also about spiritual blindness and the unwillingness to see Jesus for who he really is, but holding on to our picture of him like an old velvet painting of Elvis that we don’t touch and just let sit and gather dust in the basement.

The story covers all 41 verses of chapter 9 in the gospel of John, and since we only heard the first 12 verses, I’m going to give a quick recap of the story.

And it’s really quite a story, and has the feel of a John Grisham legal thriller, or a made-for-TV courtroom drama, like Perry Mason, which I hear has come out with a new version.  I remember watching the original way back in the 1960’s.

The main characters in the biblical drama are Jesus, his disciples, a blind man, people in the crowd who witnessed the healing of the blind man, Jewish religious leaders called Pharisees, and there’s even a cameo appearance by the parents of the blind man.

In the Believer’s Church Bible commentary on John by one of my former seminary professors Willard Swartley, Swartley breaks the story down into 7 scenes:

In the first scene, Jesus and his disciples discuss why the man is blind. The disciples ask “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

That mindset was common in the ancient world, that people born with disabilities or suffering that people experienced was due to either their own sin or some sin that the person’s parents had committed.  They were considered “sinners”.

But Jesus tells his disciples that neither the blind man nor his parents sinned, but, he tells them, he was born blind so God’s works might be revealed through him.”

The second scene in this story is where Jesus heals the blind man.  And he heals him in a way that, shall we say, is a bit unconventional: he spits on the ground, mixes it with dirt to make a little mud, and then rubs the mud over the man’s eyes.

Apparently making mud out of spittle was thought to have healing properties in Jesus’ day, so Jesus is using a culturally known remedy here.  Obviously this was pre-COVID!

But as the story says a little later on, this is the first time that people had ever witnessed a blind person gaining their sight.

And Jesus’ miracle of healing here reveals that he is more than just a prophet, but truly is the Son of God and the true light of God who has come into the world.

Now to the 3rd scene:  Here the blind man’s neighbors start quizzing him. Are you really the same guy who used to sit around and beg?  Is it really you, or is it someone else? They go back and forth, and the guy keeps saying,  “It’s me!  I am that man!

Then some people go and bring a group of Pharisees to the scene, and they start interrogating the formerly blind man, and they try to discredit him for being a “sinner”, and also discredit Jesus for being a “sinner” because Jesus healed him on the sabbath when these things were not supposed to take place according to their laws.

And then in the 4th scene, the Pharisees call in the parents of the man who Jesus had healed to their “witness stand”, and they interrogate them.

And the parents felt so intimidated and afraid, they tell them: “we don’t know how this happened or who healed him.  You’ll have to ask our son.  He’s of age and can speak for himself.” (and their son is probably thinking, “Thanks a lot for having my back, mom and dad!”)

So in the 5th scene, they bring in the man who can now see, and they interrogate him again.  They turn up the heat some more, reiterating that both Jesus and he are both sinners, so they can’t be believed or trusted.

But the man is getting more irritated and bolder at the same time, and he tells them “Look, I’ve told you this already, and you wouldn’t listen then, and don’t seem to be listening now either.  All I know is that I was blind, but now I see.”

And after some more back and forth, the religious leaders have had enough, and they drive the man out of town.

Which takes us to the 6th scene, where Jesus hears that the guy has been chased away, and Jesus tracks him down.  And here Jesus reveals to the man that he is the Savior, the Son of God.  And the man believes in Jesus and worships him.

And finally, in the last scene, there were some Pharisees who overhead them, and they ask Jesus “surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

And Jesus tells them “If you were blind, you wouldn’t feel guilty”, “but now that you say “we see”, your guilt remains.”

Which is kind of confusing, but I think Jesus is saying, “you guys are still blind, in a spiritual sense, you’re still stuck in your old ways, because you refuse to see me for who I really am”.

End of story.  Somebody needs to make this into a movie or Netflix series.

One clear theme and takeaway from this story, and we see it throughout Jesus’ ministry, is that the people who got upset with Jesus were usually the religious leaders of his day.  They saw Jesus as a threat to their established order,

It was an order that leaders like the Pharisees were in control of, and they served as the gatekeepers of who were sinners and who were not, who was deserving of God’s mercy and love, and who was not.

They were sincere about being faithful to God, but at the same time they loved their power and the feeling of being the holy ones, the insiders, the privileged ones, and looking down on those on the outside who were beneath them.

But then Jesus comes on the scene and challenges their well-ordered worldview, ; in fact, he turns it upside down on its head.

In Jesus’ worldview, people who were considered outsiders were welcomed at his table and in God’s Kingdom, and people considered “sinners” were treated with compassion and grace.

By Jesus’ words and actions, he was challenging the authority of those religious leaders.  Jesus was displaying power and authority that people were actually being drawn to and were gladly responding to,

because it was power and authority rooted in the love of God, not in judgment and exclusion and a holier-than-thou attitude which so often characterized the   religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

So what contributed to the spiritual blindness of the religious leaders?  Maybe it was their pride and the privilege and the favored status they protected at all costs, by criticizing Jesus and his followers, and hoping they would all just either shut up or go away for once and for all.

When that didn’t happen, they decided to do away with Jesus for good by having him killed.

Like the blind man who regained his sight, throughout the history of the Church, people have been criticized and interrogated and rejected for seeing Jesus with new eyes, for who he truly is.

Our Anabaptist/Mennonite forbearers of the 16th century had their eyes opened to a vision of discipleship that took Jesus seriously, so much so that they believed people must know what they’re getting into when they get baptized, so they stopped baptizing infants and waited until people were ready to decide for themselves to count the cost before being baptized.

Our spiritual ancestors also saw Jesus’ teachings on love in a new light than what the dominant view of the Church was; God revealed to the Anabaptists that followers of Jesus were called to love not only their neighbors, but their enemies, to the point of refusing to take up the sword.

These choices were a threat to the established order, and as a result, led to interrogation, threats, silencing and persecution of Anabaptists by other God-fearing religious people.

And today, people who rediscover Jesus, who he truly was and what he really taught, also find themselves in hot water with Christians who have bought into an picture of Jesus that has been influenced by the desire for power and privilege and preserving the status quo.

Beth Allison Barr, the church historian and author of the book The Making of Biblical Womanhood that a group of us are going through, is getting a lot of pushback from Christian leaders who think she’s a heretic, because she is calling out patriarchy in the Church and sharing stories from Jesus, Paul and Church history that have been overlooked which show how women had equal value and authority with men in the life of the church.

And all around us there are lots of people who grew up in the Church, who have had the courage to question some of the things they’ve been taught about a Jesus who seems to be more American and white and power hungry than Middle Eastern and brown and humble,

And there are people who are wondering if there is a more faithful way of reading the Bible than the fundamentalist lens they were raised with.

They’re asking questions they’re not supposed to ask.  Sometimes this is called “deconstruction”, and people who are deconstructing are often criticized and interrogated and silenced and cast out, like the man who was healed by Jesus.

And as a result the church is losing a lot of people, young people, people passionate about Jesus, but who have been made to feel that there’s “no room in the inn” for them and their ideas and their questions.

But there are those, maybe some of us here in this room, who haven’t given up or given in, those who see deconstruction is a necessary part toward reconstructing an authentic faith, a resilient faith, a faith they can call their own,

And they’re seeing Jesus with new eyes, and reading the Bible with new lenses, and envisioning the Church in a new way, and as a result they’re finding new hope where there once was disillusionment and despair.

Now someone hearing this sermon might say “But, Pastor Tig, the book of Hebrews says that ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’.”

And I would say, “yes, he is, but we haven’t completely understood him yet.

God is still speaking and revealing who Jesus is to us today.   We’ve still got so much to discover and uncover, and learn and relearn about Jesus.”  I know that’s true for me.  This old guy is still learning.

And someone might say, “But Pastor Tig, the next verse in Hebrews warns against being carried away by all kinds of strange teachings”, and I would say,

“Yes, that’s true. I’ll look in the mirror, and maybe you can as well.  We all need to use discernment as we seek to see Jesus clearly, and a key to that discernment happens in community with others who submit ourselves to Jesus and honestly seek him together.”

So friends, like the blind man, may we allow Jesus to come close to us, close enough so that he can touch us and heal us from whatever blinds us from seeing who he really is.

And like the blind man who was healed, may we have the curiosity and the courage to see Jesus, see ourselves and the world around us with new eyes.  May we keep “longing for light” as we sang earlier.

And as the song we are about to sing says, may we open a window of light to those around us, and plant the seeds of Jesus’ love as we journey with him.  AMEN.