March 30, 2014 John 9: 1-41
Rev. Catherine Purves
We all know the expression, “Seeing is believing.” But I think it isn’t quite as simple as that. It would be nice if it were that straightforward. We would probably all like faith to be that easy.
A number of years ago I was invited to be part of a group that was going on a trip to Israel. This group would be spending time in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They planned to go to Galilee where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and fed the 5,000. They were going to hike along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, that Jesus mentioned in his parable of the Good Samaritan. They would be walking in the very footsteps of Jesus as he made his way to Golgotha and the cross. This was the opportunity of a lifetime: to see the very places where Jesus lived and taught and healed and prayed. To see his birthplace and the hill where he died, the garden tomb, an upper room… Surely, seeing is believing, and this experience would strengthen my faith. I quickly agreed to be part of that group that was going to the Holy Land.
It was a very meaningful trip, but not for the reasons I expected it would be. The Sea of Galilee is very beautiful, but it didn’t deepen my faith. Parts of the city of Jerusalem are very old, but they didn’t transport me back to Bible times. The road to Jericho is still bleak, dry, and dusty. Bethlehem is on the West Bank; it is now a heavily guarded Palestinian town. Many of the places that I wanted to see with my own eyes have been largely turned into tourist attractions. Some of those places are mutually claimed by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, so there is competition over who owns the holy ground. Seeing it all did not make me believe. It’s just not that simple.
Our lengthy story from the Gospel of John shows us that it was never that simple. We should remember that, when we are tempted to think that if we had only been there, mingling with the crowds or following along after Jesus, then we would have had a strong and unshakable faith. Seeing is believing, right? We might think that our only problem, and the reason why our faith is sometimes a little shaky, is that we just weren’t there to see everything with our own eyes.
The story of the man born blind should convince us that seeing isn’t always believing. It should convince us that believing is actually hard work. Believing is a process. It’s like having a thick layer of veils lifted from before your eyes one by one. Believing actually takes some effort. Most of the people in this story were not willing to make the effort. Most of the people, in fact, were actively resisting belief. The fact that they saw this sign that pointed to Jesus being the Messiah like a full-sized billboard right there in front of their eyes made no difference.
The man’s neighbors and those who had seen him begging, day in and day out, weren’t even able to agree amongst themselves that this was the same man. The Pharisees couldn’t see past the fact that it was the Sabbath. The more people they talked to, the more they disbelieved, convincing themselves that Jesus was a fraud and a sinner. The man’s parents were so afraid of the religious authorities that they would only admit that the man was their son and that he had been born blind. And even the blind man himself was not an instant believer. At first, all he said was that Jesus had healed him. Then he said that Jesus was a prophet. Then he began arguing with the Pharisees, insisting that Jesus could not be a sinner, but that he was from God. Finally, when Jesus once again stood before the man and called him to faith, the man affirmed, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped Jesus.
All of those people saw the sign. Every one of them witnessed a miracle. And this was not just any old healing. As the blind beggar said, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” But it happened that day, and they were all witnesses. The man born blind could now see. And Jesus, who had opened his eyes with just a little mud, was right there in front of them. But still they did not believe. Seeing is not believing.
Believing is like a long journey. Sometimes there are detours and dead-ends. Sometimes there are signs, sometimes not. Sometimes we feel like we can see clearly, but not always. Sometimes we know we are on the right road, but sometimes we lose our way. Believing is a process for us, just as it was for the blind man. Even though he experienced the sign himself, in spite of the fact that he lived the miracle, still, faith came to him gradually. And for those (then and now) who resist belief, like the neighbors, the man’s parents, and the Pharisees, believing is virtually impossible, because they have made themselves blind to the possibility of faith. Seeing is not always believing. And, certainly, if you’re not looking, if you’re denying the signs, and resisting the persistent presence of Jesus you will never be led into faith.
I did have some pretty amazing experiences on my trip to Israel. We spent time with a pastor who works among oppressed Palestinian Christians; this was a very dangerous ministry. We went to the home of a Jewish family and joined them in their Sabbath prayers. We visited the Holocaust Museum and experienced both the remembered pain and the hope of the Jewish people. We climbed up to a monastery built into the hills above the road to Jericho and saw solitary hermit’s caves and hard the monks chanting their prayers. We prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem that peace would come to that war-weary land. Each day as we journeyed, we worshiped and read Scripture together. Many of the experiences we had were real eye-openers, but they would not have led to a deepening of faith unless we were ready to travel down that road, or, rather, to be led down that road.
This is the thing. There is no magic mud that instantly lets you see and believe in Jesus. Whether you lived in the 1st century or whether we live in the 21st century, just being where Jesus was will not make you believe. It’s not as simple as that. Even the man born blind did not come to a full and mature faith instantly. He had to be led down that road through his other experiences. Then, when Jesus stood before him and told him who he was, the man took a giant step forward and said, “I believe.” But even that was just one step, and there would have to be others.
On my trip to Israel, it was not the scenery or the old city of Jerusalem or the churches built on sacred sites that led me forward on my journey into a deeper faith. It was not reimagining Jesus walking on the roads or preaching on the hillsides. It was sharing in the life of faith and in the struggles of other believers. It was seeing what Jesus is doing today among the poor and the oppressed. It was walking away from the Holocaust Museum saying, “Never again!” It was seeing Jesus alive and active calling people to a simple faith, a costly faith, a joyful faith in the midst of the complex times in which we live.
And that didn’t happen in an instant. And it didn’t happen automatically. It was like layers of veils being lifted from my eyes one at a time until I could see Jesus more clearly, and seeing, believe more deeply in him. In that sense, seeing is believing, but we must be led to see, and we must want to see, and to see more and more, remembering that only Jesus can restore the sight of people who are born blind.
Of course, you don’t need to travel all the way to the Holy Land to have these sorts of experiences. That is the whole point. Jesus is alive and active right here and now. He is inviting you to begin a journey, or resume a journey, a journey into a deeper belief that will allow you to see and know him more and more. What are you waiting for? Open your eyes! Take the first step, and then the next, and the next. This is truly the opportunity of a lifetime. Once our eyes are opened to that fact, we can begin the journey of belief, knowing that it is a journey that will last a lifetime.