If we take the Gospel lesson of the Blind man (John 9:1-39) in its context within the entirety of John’s Gospel, we note that in the verses right before John 9:1 from John 8, Christ is in the temple and the Jews get angry with Christ and want to stone him, but Christ is hidden from them (John 8:59), or hides himself .
So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. (John 8:59)
The Greek word “hid” is the same as the word used in Genesis 3:8-10 when Adam and Eve hearing God walking in Paradise hide themselves from God after eating the forbidden fruit.
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:8-10)
There are interesting connections between Genesis 3 and John 8, one in the temple and one in Paradise. We know there is a relationship between the Temple and Paradise – they are interrelated realities.
In Genesis Adam and Eve are like young children covering their eyes and saying to God: “You can’t see me.” And God even seems to play along with them in Genesis 3:9 – But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”
In Genesis 3 it is clear that though they still hear God after their sin, there is no mention of Adam and Eve seeing Him walking in the Garden. They think they are hiding from God but it is they who can no longer see God. The awareness of their own nakedness is directly the result of losing sight of God. – they are exposed despite their trying to hide.
In the temple in John 8 – the people are hearing God in Christ who is speaking to them and they don’t like what they hear. They angrily want to stone Him but they can’t see Him for He is hid from their eyes. Christ is God incarnate, standing in the temple – and the temple was to be the place where one could see God’s face (see my Jesus Christ Seen in the Temple), but the people can’t see Him because they don’t want to hear Him. Eve and Adam were not happy when they heard God walking in the garden after they sinned, but though they still hear Him, they don’t see Him but they childishly think He can’t see them. We can think about the blind man confronting the temple leaders in John 9:27:
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”
The blind man comes to the point: the people knowingly and willfully refuse to listen to Christ. That is why they cannot see Him for who He is.
As we move from John 8 to John 9 we read this:
So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. (John 8:59-9:1)
The text moves smoothly and quickly from a group of people in the temple who cannot see Him to the man born blind from birth. He too can’t see Christ, but he too does hear Him. The temple is the sign of God’s presence and the place to see God’s presence, but they can’t see Christ in the temple. They all are blind but not from birth but by choice – blinded by their refusal to hear. But there is hope – the man born blind can come to see God – he will not only hear God in Christ, at the end of the lesson he sees Christ and so sees God. If one is born blind not by any choice or because of anything they have done, and yet can be given sight, then those who choose to be blind should also be able to give up their blindness and to see God.
It is in the midst of the people being blind to Christ, that today’s Gospel lesson happens.
Is the Gospel suggesting that this man’s blindness is different than that of the people in the temple? This man had no choice in the matter, he was born blind – an incomplete creation but not his fault nor the fault of his parents. Rather, we see that physical blindness is not the obstacle to knowing God that spiritual blindness is. Spiritual blindness is a choice. Being physically blind is not an obstacle to seeing the invisible God!
The people in the temple cannot see Christ because of their own choices. They refuse to believe Him and so he disappears from view. The man born blind on the other hand is willing not only to listen to Christ but to obey Him. And once the blind man obeys Christ, he is able not only to see but to see God! His eyes are opened as are the eyes of his heart, and so he sees God incarnate. He is willing to give up his blindness and doesn’t choose to remain blind. Thus God is able to work in him.
We all need to take note – we can stubbornly hold to our own ideas and remain blind to what God is doing in the world, in the Church, in the Scriptures. We can angrily reject things Christ says to us because we disagree with them or don’t want to do them, or don’t want to change.
OR, like the blind man we can humbly give up our opinions and choose to obey Christ.
We can take hope that even if we are suffering from some illness, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, that we have not in fact been abandoned by God but that God will work in us to His glory. AND we can learn compassion for others who are suffering from various illnesses, even if we believe the illness is a result of their own stupid sinfulness – from lust, gluttony, greed or drunkenness – and pray for them that God will work His power in them to God’s own glory. This Gospel lesson is totally one of hope for those suffering physical ailment, mental illness or spiritual blindness.
We come to understand that Christ works for the glory of God – in having the blind man wash in the pool, we have an image of baptism and we come to understand that we are not baptized only because we are sinners. We don’t baptize children because they are guilty of sin. We baptize in order to manifest the work of God in the person. We baptize infants that they might in fact experience the glory of God and be opened to their own spiritual nature. Baptism is not God’s reaction to human sin, but God offering to work His glory in each of us.
And note, that the man born blind did not have to know everything before washing in the pool to be freed of his blindness. Neither do we need to know everything before being baptized – that is why we believe the baptism of infants is essential to their spiritual lives. In the text we see all kinds of things the man doesn’t know:
He doesn’t know where Jesus is
He doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner or sinless.
He doesn’t know who Jesus is, even when Jesus is speaking to him.
So too we baptize children so that God’s glory can be manifested in them. Baptism is a spiritual birthing, we grow into it. We baptize not just because there is sin in the world, but because each of us born in this world through natural birth have the means to be born again in a spiritual birth.
As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:48-50)
Today’s Gospel lesson helps us understand the purpose of baptism which is not a reaction to past sin but a door into the future kingdom. Baptism makes it possible for us to move beyond being merely flesh and blood, beyond being genetic beings or evolutionary beings, beyond the limits of self and society into the divine life, into eternal love, to being fully united to God.
The obstacle to our seeing and knowing Christ is not physical ailment, but spiritual blindness. It is an obstacle that can be overcome in Christ.