We call the present COVID-19 pandemic a crisis. Crisis can be thought of as a moment that makes decision necessary. We are pressed in a corner and must choose one way out rather than another.
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent was meant by the author of this work as a deep meditation, in dramatic form, on the daily significance of baptism. Martin Luther said, in his Small Catechism, that baptism isn’t over till it’s over, and that happens when we die. From the moment the living water of baptism touches our heads, till the day we die, baptism works its way in our lives when we die to our old selves and rise to new selves.
That’s the way Luther put it. The author of the Fourth Gospel puts it in dramatic form, with the man born blind showing us what it truly means to be baptized.
This blind man sees the light by being anointed with the water of the pool of Siloam. The name “Siloam” means “the one sent.” Jesus, of course, is the One Sent par excellence—sent from above–from the Father.
But the sight comes in stages as this man is tested. When he first sees physically he is asked by onlookers how his healing happened. He knows only that a man named Jesus did it. Brought before Pharisees who press him and his beliefs further, he then concludes this Jesus was a prophet. Threatened then with expulsion from the synagogue, his eyes are opened further and he recognizes Jesus is from God. Finally, after he is fully expelled from the synagogue (and, thus, probably from family), he has an ultimate encounter with Jesus who presses him to the end: “Do you believe in the Son of Man.” He answers, “I do.” All of this questioning and deciding and answering, is a part of the ancient rite of baptism in the church.
This dramatic theme takes us even deeper, because, while this blind man takes us all on the path of deeper and deeper sight, faith, and life, the Pharisees are undergoing their own crisis—a division in their ranks. Some are certain, despite all they do not know, that the blind man is a sinner by virtue of his handicap, his disobedience to the traditions, and his trust in Jesus. They know Jesus is also a sinner because he worked on the Sabbath. Others wonder how a sinner could possibly perform such signs of healing—when healing is God’s work?
The crisis is all about interpretation of Scripture and holy tradition. Israel had been made to work clay and make bricks as a part of their slavery to Pharaoh. The Lord then transferred their slavery from Pharaoh to himself. Part of that covenant of transference was a command that Israel not do work on the Sabbath. Working clay was the old kind of slavery—menial work that should be forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus broke that law of Moses when he made mud with his saliva to heal the man; so Jesus was violating a sacred taboo, founded on Scripture.
But some Pharisees gave Jesus the benefit of the doubt: Isn’t there a great difference between menial working of clay, and life-giving working of the same clay.
Jesus said he came from above to do the works of the Father. He recognized that he was, at the same time, reinterpreting Scripture. He was shining light, and that light at first can seem harsh and blinding to the religious. But it was necessary for people to be healed—to come into the light—to see things more and more as God sees them.
If we are church-going people today, we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. But those who wrote down God’s Word in ancient times interpreted it for certain circumstances. Israel wanted to remember that they were slaves of God, and of no man. So, no working of clay on the Sabbath. But Jesus demonstrated that there is another kind of working of clay, for the sake of God’s healing. All of this presented a crisis, or moment of decision, for the Pharisees. Those who could accept that God does new things—that God keeps changing to stay the same loving and healing God, made the right decision, and came to saving faith. The man born blind realized he was blind, both physically and spiritually. He recognized the obvious, that this must be a man from God—the Son of Man. He had to decide against traditional interpretation of God’s Word, and move into the light.
(One of the ongoing decisions we must make today is to think of the very few biblical passages about homosexuality in a new way. Are these few passages for all time and situations? Isn’t it true that believers have, for all time, reconsidered Scripture in the light of the new? We have decided that ethnic cleansing, slavery, and treating women as property are all wrong, in spite of the fact that the Bible does not condemn them, but in fact seems to endorse them. We have decided that, by faith in Christ Gentiles can be just as “chosen” and “treasured” as Jews. We have learned from good people of other faiths and of no religious faith at all. We have joined them in living for God’s work of justice. All of these crises of justice and morality are times Jesus calls us further up and further in.)
During this pandemic crisis we will have many decisions to make. Will we continue to see only fellow Americans as worthy of concern, or learn that the virus and God above, see us all alike? Each day, will we think only of our own needs, or will we think of others? Will we allow fear to guide us, or will we trust that the God who anointed us, and claimed us in baptism, is faithful, and ultimately in charge of this world? Will we let the Son of Man open our eyes? Will we die to our old selves and arise to New Life in Christ?
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