Is spiritual death painful?

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649), oil on canvas. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Attribution: Moira Burke

I had a patient once who was diagnosed with stage 2b breast cancer. My understanding is that the treatment would be somewhat aggressive and her prognosis was quite good. But there was a catch. Her daughter was getting married in three months and she didn’t want anything to overshadow her daughter’s big day. This lady made the decision not to tell anyone; her husband or her two grown children about this diagnosis. Not only, was she not going to tell anyone, she was going to continue with life as if the cancer didn’t exist until after the wedding. No treatments and no visits to the doctors. When I saw her next, probably six months later, the cancer had advanced quite a bit. She was now in stage 3c and treatment options were not nearly as hopeful. Why do we ignore the things that cause us, or others, great pain? While most of us would probably not do what this lady did, we do other things that are not too different.

In our Epistle we are called to bring light into the darkness; to reveal those things that are hidden away. The things that we do not want to talk about either as individuals or as a society. I would think that each of us are aware of certain skeletons that may be in our closets, but it may be harder to see the societal skeletons that we are complicit in. Homelessness, hunger, or maternal mortality; these along with many other problems can seem too big to even understand where to begin. Sometimes this is true, yet sometimes I wonder if we avert our eyes, trying to pretend that these problems do not exist.

In Texas specifically, over 36 women out of every 100,000 die in childbirth. Though the maternal mortality rate is increasing through much of the United States, Texas is significantly higher than any other state in our union and is almost the same as Mexico. There is most likely no one cause for this disparity but some experts believe that this increase is connected with the State’s reduction of family planning services and a refusal to expand Medicaid. All this while the Texas Tribune reports that the Texas legislature has not included the matter on this year’s agenda. Women dying from childbirth has been overshadowed by issues such as the “bathroom bill” and sanctuary cities.”

Since this news broke six or seven months ago, I’d think that most of us have heard about it. But how many of us are talking about it. Whether with our friends or our politicians; many of us are rather silent. My point is not that each of us needs to take up this specific cause. There are many issues affecting our town, state, or nation. And if we don’t talk about hard topics, are we not being like that lady who didn’t want to talk about her cancer?

The letter to the Ephesians says “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” This isn’t talking about our physical death but our spiritual death. By hiding shameful things in darkness we are not living as children of light and when we ignore the truth, or decide it is just easier not to talk about it, then we are dying spiritually. In some ways, a spiritual death is not a painful death. Quite the opposite it is often the death we choose for ourselves.

This death is exactly what Jesus is speaking about in the story of the blind man. When the blind man met Jesus his life was profoundly changed. I’m not just talking about him regaining his sight, which was profound in itself, but that by the very presence of Christ his life was changed in many other ways. For example, after he regains his sight his neighbors no longer recognize him. Some question ‘Is this the man who used to beg?’ while others simply reject him altogether. ‘No it’s a man who looks like the beggar.’ When one of our friends or family members comes home from the hospital, from a life threatening illness, we celebrate. People send cards and flowers. Where is this man’s celebration? Where are the opportunities that he should now be afforded? He can now work and live independently. He can become a “productive member of society.” But no; no one wants him. His transformation seems to be too radical and he is still rejected. It seems that most of his neighbors think he is pulling a ruse.

When he is asked ‘Are you the blind man?’ he replies ‘Yes,’ but then the neighbors ask “Then how were your eyes opened?” They don’t believe his transformation. Isn’t this what happens to many ex-convicts? They spend their time in prison, they get out, and they cannot find a job because they have a record. Often they cannot even get a job interview because many applications ask, ‘have you ever been charged with or convicted of a felony?’ We do not believe in their transformation any more than the blind man’s neighbors do. Not only do the blind man’s neighbors treat him as a criminal so do the religious authorities.

Because of their doubts, it is these neighbors who bring him to the Pharisees. The man who was blind does not know how the mud and washing made him see. He doesn’t know where Jesus is or who Jesus is. The man guesses, “He is a prophet.” The majority of these Pharisees didn’t believe him either, and they call in his parents. His parents are scared and don’t want to answer, and pass the buck back to their son. So they bring the previously blind man back to interrogate him once again. We have the religious authorities asking deep theological questions to an illiterate man born blind. They ask, ‘Is Jesus a sinner?’ ‘Who is he?’ ‘How come you are not blind, because you were born into sin?’ And all he can say for certain is this, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He cannot give them any other answers; for it is a mystery.

The authorities in this story are the ones setting the narrative. Even though they have no firsthand knowledge of Jesus, it is them who become the judge of this situation. Those in power have the ability to exclude the others from the system. We see this throughout the world and in our country.

But we don’t need to drive people out of the synagogues, or churches anymore; we can prevent them from voting and reduce their access to healthcare. We can try to prevent people from getting other assistance including food by cutting funding for meals on wheels.

In the end, Jesus didn't abandon this man who was once blind; who is now more of an outcast than he was before. Jesus embraces him. For through his new sight he, metaphorically, sees more clearly than those who have always had vision. It is because they allow their human endeavors to overshadow the movement of God around them that they remain blind to what God is doing in the world. They remain in darkness and they cannot rejoice that this man can now see.

One of many false notions of Christianity is that through Christ, life is easier or safer. This is not the case. As we see in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, and as we see today with the blind man, being a faithful person, and especially a faithful Christian, puts you in the line of fire in which you are unjustly accused. As the Rev. Bill Loader says, “To walk in the light is not to be naive. It is not about being happy. It is about owning a commitment to justice and embracing a stance of compassion for all human beings.”

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