The ninth chapter of John’s Gospel is centered entirely on the story of Jesus healing a man born without the ability to see. The passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” He responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Although the Sabbath was to be a day of rest, Jesus told them that they must do the work of God while there was still time. After that, he spat upon the ground, put mud on the man’s eyes, and sent him away to the pool at Siloam to cleanse himself.
Upon his return, the man was not met by Jesus, but by the neighbors and community that had known him and seen him from birth. Throughout his life, they saw the man and the impact that his lack of sight had upon his well-being and sense of belonging. Living with an impairment in that day positioned him securely on the outskirts of social and religious life. He had no means of working and got what little he had by begging. His lack of sight relegated him to poverty and life without care, compassion, or support.
When the people witnessed the man seeing the world for the first time, they were shocked. Those who knew him as a beggar could not believe their eyes and some even said he was not the same person. How could it be that one who had been born blind now had sight? The man stood strong and told his neighbors and the religious leaders that he was indeed the same man. Some protested and said it was impossible, but the man would not deny the truth of his story. He had spent a lifetime not being able to see or share fully in the life of his community. He had been at the edges of society, but now, Jesus had changed his position. He became the center of everyone’s attention. The man had vision and a voice that could not be taken away.
What is your story of transformation? It might not have been something as miraculous as gaining sight, but each of us has a story of how and when we were changed from one way of being to another.
For me, coming of age in a religiously conservative town in rural Florida, it was very clear from my family, the larger community, and church what was considered an acceptable way of being for a young man. Knowing that I was physically attracted to people of my same sex was a secret shame that I carried deep within me. Although I worked hard to keep my truth hidden, not feeling free to express my heart made me feel like an outsider, never fully capable of sharing in the life that my peers did. It also caused me to hate my sexuality and my body – to view myself as unclean and unworthy of God’s love.
It took years, but in time, I came to believe and accept that God fully loves and embraces me as a same-gender loving person. It wasn’t as simple as getting mud rubbed in my eyes. But there was a point or, to be more accurate, a series of points when I began to see God’s grace and see myself in a different, clearer light.
Along the journey, there were definitely people who told me that the growing sense of love and acceptance I had for myself was wrong. Even now, there are people around me – religious voices and political leaders – who say it is impossible to be queer and beloved by God. But like the man who was given sight, I know the truth of my identity and how my life has been transformed by the love and power of Jesus.
Jesus’ disciples asked who sinned for the man was blind. According to Jesus, sin was not the issue. Lacking sight did not distance him from God or limit how Jesus saw him. What if ‘blind’ was simply a modifier used to describe one aspect of who he was? What if Jesus was really saying that this man, this person, this child of God was born so that God’s work might be revealed in him?
The experience of the man who was given sight is representative of the experiences shared by oppressed peoples in every time and land. Whether it is physical abilities, sexual or gender identity, skin color, country of origin or social standing at birth, there are always systems and structures working to limit and control a person’s place and potential. And even when one is blessed to discover a means for liberation, these same systems conspire to deny agency over the gifts, wisdom, and blessings that God has given.
Regardless of the labels we use to separate us from each other or the perceived imperfections of our bodies, each one of us, like the man, was born so that God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s justice might be revealed in us.
During your Lenten journey, I invite you, this week, to take some time to consider the ways you have changed and are changing. Think of the ways you used to know yourself, but now see that you are someone different than before. Reflect on the labels you used to accept, the ways people used to regard you, or you used to regard yourself, that no longer fit with how you have grown. Remember the changes in body, mind, or spirit that have led you to an ever-evolving knowledge of the mystery and grace of God. And even in this new place, know that as we look toward Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, his cross, and the empty tomb, God is still inviting us to let some old part of us be washed away so that something new might be born in us this day.
In 2014 Rev. Bertram Johnson became the first out African American ordained by the PC(USA). For over two decades he has worked for churches, non-profits, or faith-based organizations dedicated to social justice, spiritual care, and public health. He is a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and was a contributor to The Sarasota Statement. He currently serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Married in 2019, he loves exploring the world with his husband, Jason.