Sunday, February 27, 2022

Phil Kniss: Whom shall we fear? Serious question.

I am the Light of the World
The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 8:12; 9:1-41

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This morning’s lectionary reading in John does a funny thing.
It picks up one verse in the first part of chapter 8,
and then with a big leapfrog, jumps over 46 verses,
and drops down on chapter 9,
to tell the longest healing story in the Bible.

But it makes perfect sense to cherry-pick that verse in chapter 8,
because it summarizes, in one verse,
what the long healing story in chapter 9 is all about.

In John 8:12, Jesus makes another of his “I am” claims,
as he is in conversation with his adversaries.
He said, “I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness
but will have the light of life.”

That statement, along with other things he said and did in chapter 8,
resulted in a major verbal kerfuffle — a fight with words.
The conversation got so heated,
the religious leaders tossed Jesus one of the worst slurs
they could think of,
calling him a “demon-possessed Samaritan.”
That insult covers religion, morality, mental health, and race.

So the healing of the blind man happens right after all that,
at least in John, who seems to arrange it that way on purpose.
Measured in number of verses, 41,
no other healing story gets this much ink in the Bible.
The fascinating thing about it is,
Jesus plays a minor role in the story.
The healing itself takes only two verses.
In the rest of the chapter,
there’s a whole cast of characters reacting to that healing.

Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath,
and that stirred up the worst fears
the Jewish leaders lived with every day.

They couldn’t stomach Jesus’ popularity,
because it was calling unwanted attention by Roman authorities.

See, Rome was just fine with the Jewish people
keeping their Jewish identity
and practicing their religion,
just so long as they kept calm and paid their taxes on time.

In other words, Rome was saying to the Jewish rulers,
“Do your religious thing—
pretend like you have actual power (even if you don’t)—
we don’t care,
just as long as you keep the peace,
and keep the money flowing.

It was an arrangement that the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders
could live with.
Because, well, they could live… with it.
And because it kept some semblance of control in their hands,
Kept them in their jobs.
But they knew, if things got out of hand, the hammer would drop.
So it was not entirely unreasonable of them
to be concerned about Jesus and his impact on the people.

If Jesus started skirting the religious law,
and got crowds of people on his side while he did it,
it was undermining this convenient arrangement
they had with the Empire.
It could effect everybody’s well-being.

I think many Bible readers, myself included,
are sometimes too quick to judge the Pharisees,
as the power-hungry elite, who ignore the little people,
and game the system to their advantage.
That’s not really fair.

They were working on behalf of their people, in at least two ways.
They tried to maintain calm and social order,
to keep them out of the crosshairs of the Roman Empire.
And…they were trying to achieve ritual purity,
around Sabbath laws and other religious regulations,
not because they were fanatical, self-righteous conservatives
who didn’t care about the people.
No, they cared about purity because they believed
the Messiah would not come and deliver them politically,
until they had achieved purity religiously.
Now, were they misguided? Yes.
But were they well-intentioned? Also yes.

So keep that in mind as we review the plot of this healing story.
If you can call it a plot.
It’s less a sequence of actions, than it is a series of debates.
This would not make a great movie,
unless you like movies that are all talk, and no action.

The first conversation is between Jesus and the disciples —
before Jesus healed the man.
The disciples pointed at the man,
not out of compassion for him as a human being,
but as a theological object lesson,
asking Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind.”
Jesus confronted their faulty theology, and said, “Neither one.”
Then he proceeded to heal the man of his blindness.

Well, that set everything else into motion,
because, you guessed it, it was the Sabbath Day.

This story has multiple scenes and multiple debates,
over different issues.
Some just could not believe that a man born blind could now see.
So there was an investigation of sorts,
just to verify the story,
make sure it wasn’t fabricated.

But the central debate was driven by the Pharisees,
who were stuck on this issue of Sabbath.
At first, the Pharisees tried
to pull the man’s parents into the argument,
but they wouldn’t take the bait.

Eventually, it came down to a face-off
between the Pharisees and the formerly blind man.
And it’s a brilliant dialogue.
It probably would make a great movie, anyway.
The Pharisees end up looking like blustering fools,
and the blind beggar like a skilled orator,
who wins the debate with his superior intellect.
There’s a couple mic-drop moments in the chapter.

The argument came down to this crucial point—
is this man Jesus from God, or is he a fraud?
That’s the key question,
because the buzz all over the country,
is this growing feeling about Jesus,
“This could be the Messiah!”
And many are believing he actually is.
And things are not staying calm and quiet,
the way the Jewish leaders need them to be.
Rumblings of Messiah, mean rumblings of revolt.
Rome would not hesitate to clamp down.

Jesus is not once, but multiple times,
breaking Sabbath law,
or encouraging others to break Sabbath law
(remember the other week, Jesus asking the lame man,
to carry his mat on the Sabbath?).
And he is not keeping himself ritually pure,
associating with lepers and sinners and Samaritan women.
By definition (their definition)
it is impossible that Jesus could be the Messiah.
The Messiah will come when religious purity is achieved.
This man is drawing people away from religious purity.

The Pharisee’s entire world of constructed reality
is in conflict,
and they are afraid.
They are afraid that this fraudster
is about to ruin the whole project,
and bring the wrath of Rome down on everyone’s head.

But what this amazing Gospel story does, instead,
is unmask the Pharisee’s false sense of security.
It reveals the underlying fear
that is driving their whole way of living—
their fear of losing control over their situation.

Jesus has a way of shining God’s light of truth
into the shadow areas of whoever he encounters.

That’s why John 8:12 is the key that unlocks this healing story.
Jesus IS the Light of the World.
Jesus comes shining God’s spotlight
on all that is wounded and broken and unjust in the world.
The healing of this man would have been no big deal,
if it hadn’t violated religious law.
But these circumstances brought religious law
and God’s compassion into conflict with each other.
That was God’s spotlight.

In Jesus’ day, and perhaps in ours just as much,
sometimes giving someone the healing or justice they need,
results in the powers being unmasked for who they really are.
Operatives that rely on fear to maintain control.

I’m guessing we could all think of some modern-day examples
in the larger world of political movements,
and social change.
The powers of evil are everywhere present.

We can easily look to the human disaster befalling Ukraine right now,
where the people of one country are in no way enemies
of the people in another.
Extended families find themselves
on both sides of the conflict.
It’s seems so transparent to us,
that fear of losing control,
fear of a constructed reality falling apart,
is what is driving Putin and the Russian government
to invade a neighboring country,
and cause so much human suffering, without remorse.

We can also look to our own dysfunctional political system,
and point to where fear is a driving force
all across the political spectrum.
Where fear is the motivator,
and human compassion is a forgotten virtue.

Of course, those are easy targets—
Russia, and our own domestic political adversaries.

But I think the truth of the Gospel hits closer home.
What fears are keeping us
from following the light of Jesus?
Where are those shadow places in our own lives,
where we’d rather the light of God not poke around too much.
Is there a way in which God wants to offer healing,
and we aren’t quite ready for that,
because it would disturb the status quo.

Jesus IS the light of the world,
and the light of our own being.
And light is sometimes welcomed,
and sometimes not.
Light can illuminate us.
Light can also disillusion us.
And illusions are hard to let go of.

That’s what Jesus was getting at in the concluding debate in chapter 9.
He was talking to the formerly blind man,
and the Pharisees were in earshot, listening in.

Let me just reread the last three verses.
I can’t say it any clearer.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment
so that those who do not see may see,
and those who do see may become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him,
“Surely we are not blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them,
“If you were blind, you would not have sin.
But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Ah, the illusion of sight.
Even worse than blindness.

In today’s Psalm reading, we heard these familiar words,
“The Lord is my light and my salvation,
whom shall I fear?”
That question, “whom shall we fear?”
we usually read as a rhetorical question, and rightly so.
God is light, there is NO ONE we should fear.

But actually, we don’t have to read it as a rhetorical question.
“Whom shall we fear? Serious question.”
Whom do we fear?
Sometimes, we fear the one wielding the flashlight.

I invite us to examine ourselves in a moment of confession,
to examine what and whom we fear,
and after that confession,
to then sing, with all our being,
and invite Jesus, the light of the world,
to shine wherever—wherever the light is needed,
even if the light hurts.

—Phil Kniss, February 27, 2022

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