We are almost half through Lent, and if that sounds like an endurance contest, sometimes it feels that way. I prefer not to use “should”, but we really should be using this time for honesty before the Holy One to come closer to the mind of Christ in our earthly lives. Through service, prayer, scripture reading, ascetic practices such as fasting, we are given this time in the wilderness and testing, not through our own efforts. Never through our own efforts. But through faith, through the gift of Grace, the prompting of the Holy Spirit, of abiding Love, sometimes tough love and discipline as our Father prunes us. Today’s Daily Lection from Romans (9:19-33) and John (9:1-17) are not easy, especially Romans where we jump into the middle of the long and vitally significant teaching about justification, sanctification, and most of the theology that gave us the Reformation.
In John, as Jesus was strolling along he comes upon a blind man. His disciples ask did this man sin or did his parents to cause his blindness from birth. Jesus tells that that neither sinned, but that this was a gift of the Father so that God’s glory in healing him might be revealed. He goes on to say that night is coming, but he is the light of the world (see also John 8:12) and his work must be done in the day. The healing through spit and mud is traditional. Spit is mildly bacteriostatic, and there is a lot of good therapeutic clay around the Dead Sea still in use by expensive spas. And then, to complete the healing, the man is sent to the spring named Siloam, which means “Sent,” or more correctly “sent forth.” It is a natural spring, which means it may be used as a mikvah to perform the Jewish custom of washing for purification before religious ritual. It is a place to wash away sin. Layers upon layers of meaning.
Obeying Jesus, the man goes, washes, and is made clean, and his eyes are opened. Perhaps in more ways than physical sight. But his neighbors don’t know him, and don’t believe him when he protests that it is indeed he. How much that must have hurt, to be so glad, thankful for such a cure, such a gift freely given, and then to have to prove to those who should know you, who you are. And where was Jesus, whom he could have called as a witness, for this was becoming a trial in more ways than one. As so he is brought to the Pharisees, the judges and teachers of the community. Not evil men. Keepers of the Law of Moses. And their objection is that the healing took place on the Sabbath. Jesus has already faced the issue of healing on the Sabbath (see Mt 12:2, 10-11, Mk 3: 1-6, Lk 6:7, 13:10-17, 14:5, Jn 7:23). Obviously this is a major point of contention. Or an easy way to press charges against this subversive street preacher who performs signs. Was he from God? If not, how could he do such things? And so they question this formerly blind man, asking finally, who do you think Jesus is? And the man says he is a prophet. A prophet is not someone who tells your future. That is a fortune teller. A prophet is a messenger, one who speaks the words of God. So this man who received sight, and in the Greek it is put in that passive voice, is given some sight, but not all sight. He is like that man who first saw trees walking in his healing (Mk 8: 22-25, immediately before Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah).
This reading in Romans begins with the continuation of the dialogue concerning the Law of Circumcision and the Spirit of Jesus, that is, the rules governing the Jews and the freedom granted to the Gentiles who come to Christ. Where I saw the connection between Romans and John was the matter of grace. In John, Jesus isn’t surrounded by crowds begging to be healed. He is walking down a road. And it is his disciples who want to fix the causality to some sinful act for which blindness is the punishment. This man is a beggar. I wonder how he is going to make his living with his new found sight. God’s grace, through his Son, is changing this man’s life in so many ways. And this portion of Romans teaches that God molds. We do not. He is the potter, we the wet clay. Jesus chooses to heal this man (with clay and water) to show his Father’s glory. The Pharisees chose to follow the letter of the Law. In Romans 9, Paul contrasts the freedom awarded to the converted Gentiles, and how being trapped in the Law is still a stumbling block for the Jews, even the converted ones.
There is a lot in Romans which is complex. Romans 7 upholds the Law for teaching us righteousness, but says that our sinful nature, for which our inability to hear God’s voice in the Law, subverts it for sinful use. This is how the Pharisees here in John and elsewhere want to condemn healing as forbidden work on the Sabbath. A Law meant to give life becomes a law of death. What is seminal is Paul’s claim that having been baptized and dying in Christ, we also rise with him, dead to sin and alive in Christ (Rom 6). It is through grace that we have faith in God’s promise given by the Resurrection and through which we live. And see. We can’t barter, beg, or trade for anything. Prayer, sacrifice, all of it, is bestowed through God, by God, to God. Paul says that the followers of the old Law strove for righteousness, but failed because they lacked faith and put their trust in good works, not in faith. Whereas the Gentiles, who didn’t know the Law and were not accountable to it, entered discipleship in faith, the faith that Jesus was the Christ and had conquered sin and death for them. From faith those good works count. They are not self-centered, but created through the relationship between us and God through the Holy Spirit.
Do we see? How much do we see? This is the depth of the Lenten experience. How much more can we see who Jesus was, and is, and ever will be? To see through his eyes is not seeing a prophet. It is seeing God as God wished us to see him, incarnate in our incarnate lives. Healed, the man’s neighbors didn’t know him. Do our neighbors know us when we are healed? Do our neighbors see us as God sees us? Or are we only known by our blindness, our sins, our actions, titles, jobs? And do we gratefully depend on our faith in the mercy of God, knowing that we are not the potter. Our lives, our suffering, our blindness is endured by God to show his glory. In more modern terms, it is God’s abundant love for his creation, and that includes us, that can weep with Jesus, heal us though the Holy Spirit, wipe away every tear with the Father’s overwhelming balm of Love. That is the glory we can offer God, and God can offer us. Happy Lent.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.