Heretic or Hero?

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

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The story we just heard has an unusually long cast of characters for a Biblical story-all sorts of people coming and going. But the one constant, is the man blind from birth. I mean, yes, Jesus is in a way the star of the story, but he comes and goes. He shows up, puts mud on the man’s eyes and then disappears until the end of the story. In between, for most of the narrative, the man is on his own. Dealing with a situation that is wonderful, yes, but that turns his life upside down. He does not have a clue how it worked, why he was cured, or who the man who cured him was, but that is all everyone around him wants to know. And know right now. But as Barbara Brown Taylor, whose writings influence this sermon, wonders; isn’t it odd how in the barrage of questions that come at him as if he were at a press conference, no one, no one thinks to say “Wow-thank God”, or “This is wonderful.” Just how, who, where, and what.

The assumption behind all the questions is that the man is involved in something slightly scandalous, unsavory. And, for all he knows, they might be right. He has no clue what just happened and it seems the only thing he really does know at this point is that the world doesn’t seem to work the way he always assumed it did. Everyone around him is worried about whether or not what happened is right or wrong, but the only categories that concern him are “blind” and “not blind”. If the folks around him are going to insist that blind is right and not blind is wrong, then he is OK with being wrong.

At first he answers his inquisitors with one-liners, almost timidly. “I am the man.” “I do not know.” “I washed and now I see.” But the questions keep coming. And his own parents, perhaps not wanting to get dragged into the controversy, fade away, essentially throwing him under the bus- leaving their son to fend for himself against the powerful and the elite. But as time goes on he gets bolder and answers more confidently, with courage. “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to one who worships and obeys. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

I imagine that when the formerly blind man blurted that out the whole room got quiet—everyone holding his or her breath to see how the leaders of the synagogue, the town, would react to this nobody telling them they couldn’t see God if God bit them in the nose. And as the powerful tend to do when challenged, they responded with fury—reminding him that he is a nobody, a sinner, and now, most definitely, a heretic. To almost everyone in the room that was about the worst thing he could be called (though as one who was voted “most likely to be a heretic” by her seminary class, I kind of like it). And, the net result is that another man declared to be a heretic hears about it and comes to see the formerly blind man—a stranger—although as he talks the once blind man swears there is something familiar about his voice. This familiar stranger asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. His first reaction is to cringe as the question sounds similar to the onslaught of questions he just endured from the religious leaders. But there is something different about the way this man speaks—if almost feels like an offering from one heretic to another. And when the once blind man asks who this Son of Man is, the stranger responds “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” Immediately the man understands and blurts out, “Lord, I believe!”

In just a few paragraphs the man has gone from calling Jesus a man, to calling him a prophet, to calling him a man come from God. As if his vision keeps on getting better as the story progresses—he slowly sees more and more clearly the truth standing in front of him. And finally he fully grasps it, calling Jesus “Lord”.

The religious people of the day were not happy for many reasons, but among them was that this declaration, this confession of faith, does not happen where it is supposed to, does not happen in the synagogue—it is a free range confession. And there is no professionally religious person there to supervise and certify. And the religious community is not involved in any way-they had thrown both of these men out. This miraculous encounter happens outside the bounds of religious society, in complete disobedience of its rules, as one heretic confesses faith in another.

And yet we read it in church-so in some way we imagine this story to be ours. I am guessing most of us imagine ourselves to be the blind man. But that reading leads us to the obvious question of who, then, are the Pharisees? For years Christians decided that the Jews held that role—and it is easy, and disastrously dangerous, to keep on tapping them for it. But plenty of Jews followed Jesus, who was himself a Jew. Peter was Jewish and so were all of the apostles. So Pharisee clearly means something other than Jew. For John, whose Gospel we are in right now, the Pharisees are the religious authorities who devote themselves to worrying about ritual purity and preserving the law. They are the keepers of the faith, which means they decide who is in and who is out. So, if we are trying to figure out who our Pharisees are, here are some questions. Who are those who set themselves up as guardians of the faith? Who claim to be the only true Christians? The fully initiated, law abiding, dues-paying, creed-saying, theologically correct people who can spot a heretic a mile away. In our 21st century society we have plenty of folks who fit this bill—who are certain they hold the right beliefs—the only right way of approaching God, or of pretty much any other aspect of our common life. According to John, these are precisely the people to worry about because they think they can see. And not just see, but see much more clearly than others. And they will not hesitate to tell you that what you see is wrong-they do this because they love God and maybe even love you too-they do it to protect you from believing the wrong things.

There are lots of things that happen in this world, astounding things, that may or may not have anything to do with the power of God. They may only have to do with the power of human imagination, or even with the power of darkness. But what if something is not of God and I believe it is? This is a question the Pharisees love. And their answer is that you will get into trouble. You will become a heretic. And yet the man once blind cries out, there is something worse than wrong belief, and that is wrong disbelief. What if something is God and I don’t believe it is? This is the question the Pharisees never bothered to ask. They were so darn certain of everything; that God doesn’t work on Sundays, that Moses was God’s only spokesman, that anyone born blind had to be a sinner and that was also true for anyone who broke the sabbath, that God did not-would not work through sinners, that God did not work ON sinners, and that no one could teach them anything.

Meanwhile, the man who was born blind, who was not sure about a blessed thing, he was the only one who saw the light. He was certain of one and only one thing, that he had been blind, and now he could see. If that made Jesus a heretic, then he sincerely hoped he would be allowed to become one too.

What if it’s not God and I believe? What if it is God and I don’t? Who knows which of these questions the blind man asked himself while Jesus was rubbing mud on his eyes—or maybe he was too caught up in being healed to ask any questions at all, but he certainly had one thing to say when it was all over.

“I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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