By Steff Fenton
A note from Michelle
As the season of Epiphany draws to a close with Ash Wednesday just days away, I offer you the last of this series, Eyes to See. I hope you have been invited and challenged in each piece to see in new ways the path of liberation that leads to flourishing. If you haven’t had the chance to read them all (or want to read them again), here’s where you can find them. Please consider supporting their work (info and links at bottom of each post).
- “Untangling & The Journey Forward” by Tonetta Landis-Aina
- “A Journey Toward Liberation for All” by Jason Carson Wilson
- “A Long Resistance” by Regina Shands Stoltzfus
- “A New ‘Normal’ in Pastoring” by Emma Loane
- “Worthy to Be Seen, Loved and Called” by Eli Palacios
- “We Have Not Arrived” by Eleanor Anne Dote
The following is a sermon recently preached by Steff Fenton at New City Church in Sydney, Australia. You can listen to their sermon online, use the player below, or read the following transcript (Used with permission. Transcript edited for readability, and begins after introduction, scripture reading and congregational conversation).
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found them, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “How who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sins remains.”Excerpts from John 9, NRSV
I drew out three things that I think are important for us to delve into when we’re going through this passage. The first one is disability and suffering in the world. The second one is the nature of sin. And the third one is the way that we see, and ways of seeing. I’m going to touch on those, and if at the end there is more to say – wonderful. That sounds great. Let’s go with those questions. Thank you very much for engaging.
Our passage opens. There is this theological pondering of the disciples. It’s a tradition of there’s which has engaged verses in the Hebrew Bible that link a person’s sin to sickness or disability. And so they ask, “Who was it that sinned, that he was born blind?” An assumption that it’s bad.
However, even though the question from the disciples is a question about the cause of disability and suffering, I actually don’t think this passage is trying to answer that question. But rather to confront how problematic that question is. I think as humans we often try to seek answers and rationales to help us solve hard questions about pain and suffering in the world that relieves some of that emotional burden. Questions like, Why me? Why them? Why this? Why now? And they are really, really important questions to ask, and very natural, and we need to give space for them.
What I think is unhelpful and spotlighted in this passage is that sometimes people will want to come in with black and white answers, answers which are too full of judgement and blame. Where others actually position themselves above the person in the midst of struggle. It can be egotistical, self-righteous, we see it in this passage. We turn someone’s pain into a speculation or a theological debate rather than sit in the pain with someone else. Really see them. In a space where there may not be any easy answers. We see Jesus try to care for them in this passage. And we can rush to ideas and explanations, which are actually not life-giving for anyone who are actually sitting in that space with hard and complex injustices.
I think we see in this passage that Jesus is completely rejecting the disciples’ line of questioning. Saying its non-productive, and rather chooses to provide care and mercy for suffering instead. He does that weird thing where he spits on the ground, creates mud with saliva, shows mercy in the grace of hard things. Doesn’t even enter into – well, confronts the question. I think he’s shifting things away from a theological debate where there’s reason and cause and judgment, which is self-righteously centering us. The disciples come, they see this guy on the side of the road begging, and it’s like, “Hey, we have a theological question for you.” And they completely ignore this guy who is struggling. We’re going to put ourselves in the midst and say, “Is there something I can learn from this?” Jesus flips that and shows care and love and grace. And the grace of God in the face of human need is what I think we’re meant to see here.
My reflections are that we may never get a good reason for why there’s disability and suffering in the world. Sometimes we might be able to draw a cause, like – the person was driving drunk. But for a disability or a chronic illness that people are born with – my sister’s disability, for instance – things get more complex and messy. And it’s actually not helpful when people try to reason why. I think we’re being nudged here to see the person. To see the pain. To see the humanity. And resist seeing problems or ideas or categories.
And I wanted to name the very unhelpful theological ideas that we do confront in this passage: that people’s disabilities and chronic illnesses are their own responsibility, and that they are the problem which needs to be fixed.
And for that, I’m hoping we can go to a quote from Shane Clifton who’s a good friend of some of us in this community. He’s a theologian who had a spinal cord injury just before his 40th birthday. And he speaks about disability and theology.
“There’s a technical difference between what they call the medical and the social model of disability. We tend to think of disability as a problem in the body. And it’s a problem with the individual whose got the disability, and the solution to that is to fix the body in one way or another or the brain. Whereas disabled advocates have realized that actually, disability is a social problem and that people are disabled because we don’t shape our environment to accommodate people’s embodied differences. And that might be simple things like ramps to get into buildings, sign interpreters in our meetings, or various other things. So I think society and the media tends to present disability as a problem with the person. That also comes out in the way in which they talk about disabled people overcoming their problems. So there’s this thing which I call the positivity myth which has this idea that if you’ve got a positive attitude, you can overcome the constraints of your disability.”
“The winner of The Voice every year will go, ‘I dreamed a dream, and if you dream it, look what will happen to you.’ Well, the fact is we’ve just watched 99 people get knocked out of the competition – it didn’t work for them. And look, you can’t overcome the constraints of disability, especially if it’s society working against you. So I get really tired of the positivity myth… the stories in the media will be the person who got a spinal cord injury who managed to walk at the end of it. And, you know what, that’s not generally the consequences of a positive attitude – he was just fortunate or she [or they were] just fortunate that the spinal cord healed up.”
There is bad theology in teaching people that to think positively, God will make things well for you. The examples of inspiration porn – where one person’s ability to overcome hardship is uplifted as this inspiration. And Christian teachings about faith and healing if you believe and pray it enough, you’ll be healed. Or if you’re good, good things will come to you. Jesus disrupts any line of this thinking. It’s neither this theory nor that theory.
But then also prompts a more unhelpful way of viewing disability, which some of us flagged this as well. He was actually born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Problematic Jesus went from really problematic theology to even more problematic theology, potentially. Which almost suggests that people are given disabilities and suffering because of some higher reason. Which is about God’s works and mission. That it’s even good they suffer, because God’s glory is being revealed there.
It’s a theology I’ve been taught as a queer person. That my suffering and loneliness and dissociating my sexuality and gender identity away from myself is holy and it’s for God’s glory. This disability or illness was given for a good reason. That’s another form of bad theology.
I think Jesus is actually pointing to something that’s being completely overlooked. This theme of seeing. He’s pointing to something unseen in the entire story. And actually unseen by this question or this frame of understanding altogether. That he’s not trying to create another black and white answer, but actually to blow up and expand entirely what this man’s life reveals about sin and about God.
That’s a nice little segue way into the second part which is about the doctrine of sin. This passage teaches us a lot about sin as well. And the way that we might helpfully or unhelpfully talk about sin. And we’re introduced to an understanding of sin which many of us will know in different forms or recognize: You’re responsible for your disability. You’re responsible for your ill health, your difference, your diversity, your hardship, your pain, your inner quality, the racial discrimination you experience, or your gender inequality. Your struggle in life is actually your own fault, or your family’s fault. The fact that you’re blind and have to sit out here on the street begging to get by is punishment for something you’ve done. And this view is completely blind to everything else happening in the world.
The more subtle ways that we hear this attitude: She left her drink unattended. She was wearing a revealing shirt. She was asking for it. She should know better. Or, They’re just lazy. And if they actually cared about getting out of poverty, they would work harder for it. They had an overly strong mother or an absent father, and that’s why they turned out to be gay.
In the quote earlier, Shane Clifton talked about the structures which reduced the ability of people with disabilities to live lives like others. The way their personhood and freedom and autonomy is reduced because of the community and the society around them. So building ramps and funding people addresses these structures which reduce autonomy and freedom.
So back to sin. We need to start thinking about sin at more of a communal level rather than just individual. And start thinking that sins might not be blanket universal rules but potentially highly contextual and nuanced. For example, it’s actually not good news to tell someone who’s grown up with intergenerational trauma because they’re indigenous or their family sought asylum or their parents can’t pay their mortgage, to respect their parents when they may or may not be abusive towards them. Or, on the other side, we actually might not be able to find that individual billionaires have stolen something directly from someone else. But the fact that structures exist in which the 10 richest men doubled their income during the pandemic when 99% of people’s incomes fell. And a fun fact I learned this weekend – and by fun I mean horrifying – if those men were to lose 99% of their wealth tomorrow, they would still be richer than 99% of people on the planet. This disruption of equality is sinful. So to tell those individuals not to steal, in a way it’s historically been understood, might not get to the crux of it.
I think this passage is trying to spotlight that there are much more complex ways of understanding sin going on in our lives. That the disciples and rabbis and Pharisees were completely blind to in the life of this man born blind. The good news of gospel very early on in the first chapter is proclaimed: Here is the lamb of God who takes way the sins of the cosmos. I actually think the good news is not just that Jesus came into the world to save individuals from their individual sins, but also to save individuals from the sins of the rest of the world which operate in structures and systems against them. This is a whole-worldly communal salvation.
So, recognizing that it’s not the individual’s problem. He’s forced to beg out on the street because his society does not support him. Sin is not that simple. Systems of racism, colonialism, inequality, patriarchy – there are laws and structures which push people into these situations. I think we have this language here, but maybe I’m just drilling it home. And rather than see the person in the middle as the problem, adding blame and judgment to their life, we’re invited to see differently. To confront the way things have been done, the structures which oppress people. And we’re really to see the way that we as individuals join with other individuals to live as a community that uplifts everyone equally, which promotes healing. Maybe we won’t get on the ground and spit and do that thing, but let’s do healing and life in other ways.
And actually from there, I just want to springboard that question into this community. I want to pose the question to you: What does it look like to be people who follow Jesus into the light? What does it look like to reject sinful ways of living in our context? What assumptions have we made about sin that may not be right? And how do we promote God’s liberation and life?
Which leads me into that third little point of our passage. Ways of seeing, and particularly, ways of seeing differently. There’s been heaps of symbolism if you’ve been following along in our gospel of John, around light and darkness and sight and blindness. In the first section of John’s gospel, it echoes Genesis 1, “What has come into being in him the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. And that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” And in this passage, we hear it said in verse 4, “I am the light of the world.” We’re getting really familiar with this light thing, and this seeing thing by now.
I just wanted to spotlight something really cool that the author of John does… There’s a really, really cool literary contrast in this story if you follow closely. Which shows the way that Jesus’ light works in the world. There’s a really cool little flip: those woh think they see are actually blind, or don’t see, and those who are blind receive sight. And John does some fun things in the dialogue between the man formerly born blind who comes to see and the Pharisees who are declared, at the end, unable to see.
In verse 9, the words of the man who comes to see – he names him “the man called Jesus.” Pretty simple. Then, in verse 17, he calls him a prophet. Then verse 33, he says he’s from God. And then finally, in 36 and 38, he calls him Lord. And this is contrasted with the fumbling descriptions which get worse and worse by the Pharisees. Firstly in verse 12, they’re accusedly asking where Jesus is. Then in verse 16, they’re saying Jesus is not from God because he breaks the sabbath. Then in verse 22, they’re stating that anyone who confesses Jesus as Messiah will be put out of the synagogue. Then finally in verse 24, they call him a sinner.
Look at this fun little contrast of the man who was formerly born blind comes to say, “Jesus, prophet, Son of Man, Lord.” And the Pharisees are actually seeing more and more muddily. The one who was born blind is the one who sees. And there’s actually a judgment declared at the end against the Pharisees. Because they continue to bang on about seeing, they continue to say, “We see. We see the way things are.” When in reality, they are the men born blind.
And it’s pretty fun because we’ve seen stories like this happen throughout the gospel of John. The man born blind is actually one of the few people in the gospel who aren’t named. They don’t have a name. It’s really cool because there’s the Samaritan woman at the well. There’s the woman caught in adultery. It’s stories where we see the disciples and the Pharisees – they’re expecting judgment or exclusion or separation of these people. They don’t even deserve a name, because they’re so insignificant, but Jesus sees them and acknowledges them as full humans. Not just as their social categories. And Jesus welcomes them with grace and mercy and healing and love. And in all of these situations, the religious leaders are spotlighted to be in the shadows: they’re overconfident, self-righteous, they’ve got it figured out. But they don’t see.
We see this in John 9 – the disciples, the rabbis, the Pharisees see a man born blind as a theological debate. They’re blind to structures of oppression and exclusion, and they seek to blame him for having a disability and needing to beg. And then, when the mercy and compassion and grace of God through the healing of Jesus is shown to be springing forth from his life, they want to accuse him, they want to other him, they want to alienate him, they want to gaslight him, they want to exclude him. And his leaders and his family and his community are all ready to reject him. Something, I think, many of us might personally resonate with because it’s been some of our experiences too.
And what’s really, really beautiful, as we come to land somewhere with this. The man born blind begins as a beggar, in verse 8. He’s on the streets. Doesn’t have much agency. Verse 11, he’s got a voice. He’s in there speaking. And finally we see him, in verse 27 – he’s someone who is able to proactively and confidently engage at the level of the learned Pharisees. He debates with them, and even calls them out. And I want to say, that back in that awkward verse 3 thing about “What are the works of God” and “What’s this bad theology that you’re banging on about, Jesus?” I want to say, this is the glory of God. This is what it means in verse 3 to say God’s works are alive in this man. Mercy and grace and welcome empower those who have formerly been powerless, who have been flung to the sides, who are unseen. And then they declare the good news of God to us. This is the light of Jesus, the presence of God in our lives.
There are those who look for judgment and blame. Those who look to cast people out, alienate, exclude them from the community. And this, again, feels very poignant in a week where we’ve seen a piece of legislation rejected because it was unable to enshrine in law the right to exclude trans kids.
There is another way of seeing. Where we don’t see people as problems, but systems which oppress them as problems. Where we look for life and liberation, mercy and grace, invitation and welcome. So, beautiful family, in Jesus we’re called to see differently. We’ve invited to see the light of the world, and the way that God is moving differently through the kingdom that Jesus installs. It’s a new reign of God, a new ministry of God. The works of God – alternative forms of structuring community, grace, healing, inclusion – that actually confront the judgment, blame and exclusion. And in places where we least expect it.
And our vision at New City is that all will find refuge and life in Jesus. So maybe you need to be reminded of the way that you have seen God. Or the way that you have received sight. And that the mercy and grace and welcome of God is powerfully being revealed in your life. That that’s a beautiful thing. Which actually may have caused you to be othered or alienated or excluded by religious leaders who seek to condemn.
Alternatively and concurrently, you may need to be reminded to see the people you have overlooked and excluded. How you have cast judgment or made assumptions. You’ve not seen a person or their pain or the systems which oppress them. You’ve tried to create black and white answers, maybe, where care and love were more appropriate. And I actually think it’s important to be explicitly reminded of the ways we in an ablest society participate in relegating those with disabilities and chronic illnesses to the margins. And while we consider ourselves whole or more whole – these ideological assumptions that we’ve challenged at the beginning. We’re invited to be more inclusive, inviting, empowering individually and systemically in our community here at New City.
So I just want to leave you with a question: How are you being invited to see and have faith? How are you being invited to walk in the light of Jesus? What have you overlooked or who have you overlooked? And what are you going to do about it?
Steff Fenton (they/them) is Co-Pastor and Co-Founder of New City Church, an inclusive community in Sydney, Australia, exploring faith in new and engaging ways. Steff has just finished a Master of Divinity through the University of Divinity, writing a thesis about masculinity, male entitlement, and gender-expansiveness in the Gospel of Matthew. They are a Uniting Church Chaplain at the University of New South Wales and Chair of Equal Voices Sydney, an interdenominational network of LGBTIQA+ Christians and allies across Sydney. Steff is passionate about creating safe spiritual spaces for LGBTIQA+ people and sharing stories to cultivate a more equitable and expansive faith. They’re a self-identified imperfect vegan who loves to scroll Instagram for puppy photos.
Twitter & Instagram: @steff_fenton
Websites: www.steffenton.co & www.newcitychurch.com.au
Note: If you notice any errors in transcript, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to make corrections.