Fourth Sunday in Lent
The question is, How do you know what you know? I mean really. How do you know?
There’s a long study of this question in the world of philosophy. It’s called epistemology – investigating how it is that opinion becomes ‘justified belief,’ in the words of the OED. We arrive at what we know through several different routes. We figure something out through logic and reason – I have thought this through, and it makes eminent sense, so I know it is true. Or we know based on intuition, the felt sense that operates on a deeper level than reason, where we know how someone is doing even before they tell us. We know things because we’ve experienced them, certainly, it happened to us. We know things because someone else gave testimony to them and we trust what they say. And, some philosophers allow, we might know something because of divine revelation, a knowing that comes in some way from beyond our faculties. Of course, every kind of knowing involves the possibility that we might be wrong, or that our subjective experience – who we are, our experiences and background, how we’re feeling that day – is shaping our knowledge. That certainly comes up when it comes to matters of faith, questions about God. It’s one thing to say that we know the pew is hard, or that the train is late, or that a friend seems sad. It’s another to say with certainty that we know God is present here and now. That kind of knowing – well, how do you know what you know?
One thing I know is that this is the Lent of long gospels, as the deacons will tell you. They’re great stories, but long ones, all from the gospel of John. But they’re also each focused on one compelling character: the Pharisee Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Lazarus, the beloved friend that Jesus raises from the dead. And today, this man born blind, and the long state of confusion that follows after Jesus heals him and brings him sight. These are stories rich with symbolism – nighttime darkness and the bright light of day, water and thirst, seeing and not seeing, death and life.
But they are also stories with characters who are real, vivid and knowable. I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the man in today’s reading. There are a number of stories in the gospels about people who are blind being healed by Jesus, all with great rejoicing and delight. In this one, Jesus sees the man, and in response to his disciples’ stupid question about sin, heals the man’s sight. But then the story spends most of its time on the mostly negative reaction everyone has to this miraculous healing. Through it all, the man just keeps repeating his story over and over – working in some pretty great zingers along the way too. He healed me. I was blind but now I see. How do I know if this guy is a sinner? All I know is that he healed me. You want the story again? You wanna be his disciples too? …But for all his pains, the leaders and Pharisees throw him out. Too much truth-telling can be unpopular.
One commentator pointed out that this man who is healed follows a trajectory exactly like the one Jesus does in the gospel of John. His identity is questioned, even though he tells them clearly, I am the man – paralleling all of Jesus’ famous ‘I am’ statements in the gospel; he speaks frankly and logically, asserting the facts, but no one believes him; he resorts to sarcasm and truth-telling to put the Pharisees in their place, only to be cast out completely from their community. This is also the story of the early Christian community that produced John’s gospel, cast out from the mainstream Jewish community for their belief in Jesus. The Pharisees in this story are people who do not want to be troubled with the facts. None of what the man says, or what Jesus says throughout the gospel, is enough to persuade them. They simply can’t see the truth.
In our Lenten forum series, we’ve been exploring what the Bible says about reparations, the action to redress wrongs done to those whose enslavement built this country. It turns out there’s a lot the Bible has to say about this, numerous passages throughout Hebrew and Christian scriptures that call us to make our repentance and reconciliation tangible and meaningful. Slavery is often assumed in the biblical worldview – but so is the need to make restitution for it in the community of God’s people. Pair these scriptures with the facts of our American history, including our economic history and the history of the church, and it is not hard to make a case for morally and financially redressing the wrongs done. But the idea of reparations remains controversial in our country and in our churches – to put it frankly, it’s hard to give up money and status. It’s obvious that conveying the facts alone is not enough to persuade people to take this uncomfortable step. It is only when we connect with empathy, shared feeling, to one another that the conversation turns from ‘why should our group do something for your group?’ to ‘we all have suffered this, we all need this healing.’ Empathy, not the facts, leads to a different way of seeing that takes the conversation from us-them to us-we. And from there, we can begin to take action to change.
This is just one example of an issue we are struggling with in our world today. We live in an age when facts often fail to persuade, and facts are subject to opinion far more than the other way around. Yet we return to facts over and over again, attempting to get others who disagree with us to see, as if we can argue them into seeing differently. It never works. And if we do some honest self-evaluation, we have to admit that we also aren’t always accepting all the facts. Just notice how the same set of facts about COVID resulted in such a wide array of responses from us, to take one recent example. Our own worldview, whatever it is, our assumptions about what is right and how things came to be, that also blinds us to what may be obvious to others. We all struggle with knowing what we know – even more so with acting on it. We all struggle with truly seeing.
The beloved hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – which we’ll sing later on in this service – quotes from this gospel story today: ‘I once was blind, but now I see.’ John Newton, the slave ship master, came to see and realize the great sin of the work he was doing. But not all at once. He was converted to Christ after surviving a terrible shipwreck – but he kept on in the slave trade for many more years. It was only in the midst of an illness that something at last showed him the full horror of his ways, and he made such a full repentance that he became a committed abolitionist, seeking to ban the trade he’d profited from before. Something helped him truly see, and then truly change his ways. Somewhere in there he had to make a choice. It couldn’t have been easy, and yet it saved him – and the hymn he wrote has saved many of us ever since.
The man who is healed in the gospel story is healed by Jesus, made to see by the pure grace of God’s action in his life. But he comes more truly to see as he engages more and more with this miracle, telling the story over and again in the face of opposition. When Jesus finds him again at the end of the story, he sees clearly who Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of Man. First his eyes are made to work again – but what truly changes him is the healing he receives – he sees and believes Jesus when no one else does, because he has a full, deep experience of the presence of God. His life is changed and he knows it. And he chooses to know it: ‘Tell me, sir, that I may believe in him.’ No facts told him by someone else could have opened his eyes this way. He knows God because he has felt God, and lived into what it means to feel God, and chooses to continue to know God in his life, and to share that for the good of others. From a man known only as ‘the man born blind,’ this man is fully healed to become a true apostle of Jesus’ good news.
How do you know what you know? And what difference does it make?
The thing is, in the life of faith, we are often asking ourselves that question. We experience God, and then we don’t. We see healing, and then we see suffering. We think sometimes how irrational faith is, and yet we feel something deeper than ‘rational’ all the same. We hear the testimonies, we read the stories, and sometimes, maybe only rarely, we feel a spark. Or perhaps we live and breathe the presence of God every single moment, light and air all around us. It is different for each of us; it is different throughout our lives. And yet, somehow, we know what we know – or we choose to know – or we long to know. And we choose to live accordingly. Jesus see us, and says, You have seen God. I am he, the one who is speaking with you. I am. God is. Love is. There to be seen. So now live.