The Hidden Light
A sermon on John 9: 1-41 by Garry Deverell, 10 March 2002
I suppose a number of you have seen a shadow-play. The shadow-play takes place in the darkness. Theres this big screen with a fire lit behind it, and the audience watches as the puppeteers tell their story by casting silhouetted shadows on the screen. Because the characters are all in shadow, you cant see their faces or the features of their dress, and there are no colours apart from black or white. Because of this, anyone who is watching must use their imaginations to fill in the gaps, to give form and emotional detail to the characters faces as they make their journeys through the highs and lows of the tale as it unfolds. Now, the story we read from Johns gospel just now works a bit like a shadow-play. The writer delivers his story not with colourful figures rich in detail, but with characters barely drawn, silhouettes in light and dark. And the reader, or the hearer in this case, is invited to read between the lines, to exercise discernment about the degree to which the storys truth is visible for all to see, or secretly hidden in the shadows.
At first glance, what we have here is a simple story about a Jewish man, born blind, who is healed by Jesus on the Sabbath day and cast out of the synagogue for his trouble. Eventually he becomes a Christian, a believer in Jesus. But look again. Is that really all there is to this story? On a first or even a second reading, most commentators will tell you that the story is really about faith, that faith is here represented as a seeing, with lack of faith as its opposite, represented here as a kind of spiritual blindness. Now, there IS some truth in this reading, particularly if one attends to the final few verses of the chapter. This is when Jesus finds the young man after he has been cast from the synagogue. Jesus asks the young man a question: Do you believe in the Son of Humanity? The fellow replies, And who is he, sir, tell me so that I may believe in him. Jesus replies, You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he. At that point, the young man cries out: Lord, I believe and worships him. Now, on the face of it, this passage makes quite a solid link between seeing and believing. When the man sees who Jesus is, suddenly he has faith in Jesus, the kind of faith which falls to its knees in worship. Seeing is firmly established as a metaphor for faith. And the case is apparently strengthened further in the commentary that follows, where Jesus says: I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do not see may become blind. In other words, Jesus comes to give faith to those without it, and to expose the lack of faith in those who pretend to have it. Faith is seeing, and lack of faith is blindness.
But hang on a minute. Im not so sure that this traditionally correct approach actually delivers the fait accompli it propounds to. Consider, if you will, the following questions. First, if faith is seeing, then why doesnt John have the young man make his declaration of faith when first he is healed by Jesus? Why the long lag between seeing and believing? Second, and intimately related to this first question: if faith is seeing, then why does the young man not see into the true identity of Jesus until right at the end of the story? When first asked who Jesus is by the Jews, the young man replies He is a prophet, which is true, but only partly true. In the gospel of John, Jesus is pre-eminently not a only a prophet but the Christ, the Son of Humanity, the pre-existent Word of God made flesh. And later, when he is questioned more thoroughly, the young man declares that Jesus must have come from God, which is true, but again not true enough. In Johns gospel, Jesus not only comes from God, but is God: he has been as one with the Father from the beginning. And there is a further point which the traditional reading cannot account for. When the young man finally makes his confession of faith, it is not a seeing which makes the difference, but a hearing. Jesus says to the man, You have seen the Son of Humanity, I, the one speaking to you am he. And it is then, and only then, that the man fall to his knees in worship. Did you catch that? The man had seen Jesus before, but it did not give him faith. Faith finally comes to him only in the wake of this self-revelatory speech of Jesus: I am he.
Now, why am I telling you all this? What does it matter if faith is a matter of seeing or a matter of hearing? What does it matter how faith comes, as long as it is faith? Well, it matters quite a lot actually. Because if faith comes by seeing, then it is not really faith. It is knowing. And knowing is the means by which we try to reduce God to our size and make of God some kind of idol that we can get our heads around. But a God we can get our heads around is not the Christian God, the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Jesus Christ. It is a God of our own making, a version of our dreams or fears, projected into the heavens and given the name God, a God we can control and domesticate. A tame God who never asks us to change.
The Gospel of John was actually written, in part, to combat that segment of the church that had begun to associate sight, knowledge and faith in this idolatrous way. These people, who were later called Gnostics, believed that one could know Jesus up close and personal, that one could have a personal hotline to Jesus and his power, that one could ascend to a direct knowledge of God through a secret path of wisdom which left behind the limitations and sufferings of the body and of ordinary life. To these beliefs and practices, John pronounced a resounding no! No, he says, one may not escape the body and its sufferings, because even the divine one of God took on flesh and suffered like the rest of us. Indeed, John has the divinity or glory of God coming to light not in beautific visions or theological knowledge, but in the disfiguration of a crucified man, raised above the earth. Jesus is indeed the light of the world for John, but this light lies hidden in the enigma of suffering and of signs that are difficult to interpret. So faith is certainly not about seeing and knowing. On the contrary, as Jesus says to the disciple Thomas, Blessed are those who do not see, and yet come to believe (20. 29).
If only these Gnostic ideas had died out with the Gnostics. But they have not. They are alive and well and living in your local branch of Christian fundamentalism! Fundamentalism is dangerous to genuine faith because it has no humility. It believes in right doctrine, and the ability to know what right doctrine is. It believes in wrong doctrine, and the ability to locate it in others. It believes that there is a war going on between believers and unbelievers, and that it can calmly discern the difference between the two. And it believes, finally, that God is on its own side, but not on theirs. Which means, not on mine. Fundamentalism is based on a faith which can see and know, rather than on a faith which believes and trusts in a God who withdraws from our eyes in the figure of the suffering one.
To these modern Gnostics, who ask as the Pharisees did, Surely we are not blind, are we? Jesus replies, If you were blind you would not have sin, but now that you say We see, your sin remains. You see, for Christians the point is not to be able to see, but to believe that God sees us, not to claim a certain knowledge or experience of God, but to trust that God knows us. The interesting thing about light, as the writer to the Ephesians notes, is that it exposes and makes visible everything in the world but itself. So if Christ is the light of the world, we can trust him to make visible our own paths through life, including the sin that so easily entangles. But we should not expect to see or experience Christ with any sense of certainty until that day when he is revealed in all his fullness. To stare into the sun is to be blinded. But blindness, for Christians, is not such a big deal. Faith is the intimation of things not seen, says the writer to the Hebrews (11.1). And Paul says something similar: We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5.7).
The life of faith turns out to be, then, not a full-colour motion picture for those who can see clearly, but a shadow play in which the fully sighted have no significant advantage over those who see not so well. The things of God are hidden in the enigmas of the world: in parables and signs which are difficult to interpret; and pre-eminently in the sufferings of Christ and those who suffer with him and for him. Remember that the healing our young man received was soon transmuted into persecution by those who refused to share his growing sense of faith. This is the way of things in a world that prefers the light of the Television and the enlightenment of advertisers to the dark light of faith, hidden in the career of a suffering God. In a world such as this, we are called not to know, but to be known, not to see, but to be seen by God, who gazes upon us with a love so wide and long and deep that it surpasses all our imaginings.