“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged? Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he. Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened? He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight. Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not.” John 9: 1-12
This is a continuation of our study of the Gospel of John. We are just entering chapter nine today. There is no break between the narratives of chapter eight and nine. Jesus walked, without a scratch, through the middle of the rulers who were about to stone him, to a road by the Temple. At which point he and his disciples passed by a man who was blind from birth. The manner of their questioning indicates that they were not hightailing it for their life, but rather in their usual manner, walking toward some destination. Their question is one that people were asking back then and for that matter today as well. But Jesus deflects the question about the origin of the man’s blindness and simply says that what was about to be manifested in this man’s life is the glory of God. This man is a real man, yes; with real parents, yes. But he is also representative of every Jew and eventually we can say he is representative of Everyman. But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and sanitize the narrative. First of all this Jewish man was born blind. His neighbors identified him as the blind beggar and though some of his neighbor said he looks very much like the blind beggar they were not sure. “But I am he,” the beggar declared. Later on we will meet his parents who will positively identify him as their son who was born blind. Blind from birth, he had never seen anything. He did not regain his sight — he had no sight to regain. When Jesus healed him it was a matter of the blind man receiving “that which by nature he did not have,” namely the ability to see with his eye. What Jesus did was not contrary to nature, but rather Jesus perfected nature in the man born blind.
The emphasis upon the man’s congenital blindness is important. Why blind from birth? Why not just blind? This is what you should take away: the man’s congenital blindness is another way of saying what Jesus said to Nicodemus — that a man must be born again to see the Kingdom of God. How so? The true child of Abraham is not one who has recovered what he has lost, rather he is one who has received “that which by nature he did not have.” The Christian is not one who has recovered his sight but rather he is the one who has for the first time ever seen things the way they really are. He has not recovered a lost liberty, he has come to the Son of the Father and the Son set him free for the first time ever.
There was a British heretic in the Church in the day of St. Augustine whose name was Pelagius. In fact he was well known through out the Church and he was very popular, much more popular than his arch-enemy Augustine. He was accused of teaching that men and women did not need God’s grace to perform good works that were pleasing to God because though human beings had been soiled, smeared, stained by Adam’s sin, a good washing would clean them up. Pelagius, we are told, taught that no permanent damage was done to humankind by sin and if we muster up sufficient will power God will clean us up. It was a matter of washing off the dirty smudge that sin has left upon us. If one were to work in the fields all day and come home with muddy feet and splattered clothing all one has to do is to wash it away and be more careful next time.
In the Mass we all prayer the Prayer of Humble Access:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are no worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under our thy Table. But thou are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”
Now Pelagius would understand that prayer to mean we simply need to wash the dirt away because underneath that surface of dirt is a sparkling, fresh, free will. No real damage has been done men and women and our natural piety is sufficient to keep us from sinning and to please God. The Sacrament of the Altar washes away the surface stain of sin because we need nothing deeper. Thus Pelagius taught that what the Church called Original Sin did no lasting harm that we couldn’t fix ourselves. He would not like our Collect for Trinity XIX: “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; Mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” According to Pelagius, all men and women by nature, apart from the sacraments of the Church, have a free will and thus the ability to avoid sin and please God. St. Augustine and Catholic Church said, “no” to Pelagius. Man is not free. The Fall has wounded us deep inside of ourselves; and those wounds and lacerations have crippled and blinded us so that we cannot avoid sin and please God without God supernatural intervention.
But Christians by definition have received God grace through Holy Baptism. Baptism is the grace of God that regenerates men and women, but not by merely washing off a stain. When we were baptize we were born again, infused with the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, grafted into Christ’s Church, and the Holy Spirit made us his Temple. And yet we all know by hard experience that the wounds of the Fall are still in our life — the difference being that now we have the ability to resist sin and please God and as we receive more of God’s grace the wounds are being healed. So rather than thinking that the precious blood of Christ is simply washing off grime, realize that the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is washing out the wounds of the Fall. Just as the Good Samaritan took the man who was nearly beaten to death and “bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine,” so our Lord pours his healing life-giving blood into our wounds, and he seals in the medicine of his blood with the oil of the Holy Spirit. When we declare that baptism bestows upon the child, “that which by nature he cannot have,” we do not mean that baptism is contrary to the nature of a human being, but rather that the sacrament of Baptism completes, perfects our human nature. And that cannot be without God’s supernatural intervention. When Jesus gave sight to the man who was born blind he perfected the man’s nature, he did not restore something he had lost through his own sins or the sin’s of his parents.
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool… He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.”
This Jewish man was born blind. He had heard his mother and father call his name and felt their loving embrace as they helped him walk. He had heard the birds of the sky singing and he has heard the bushes and flowers of the field rustling. He has smelled the odor of the lilies and the holiness of incense in the Temple. But he had never seen anything in his life. When Jesus healed him it was a matter of the blind man receiving “that which by nature he did not have,” namely the ability to see with his eye. He did not regain his sight — he had no sight to regain. Jesus did not contradict nature, but rather Jesus perfected this man’s nature. The Christian is not one who has recovered his sight but rather he is the one who for the first time ever may see things the way they really are. As I said at the beginning, the fact of the man’s congenital blindness is another way of grasping what Jesus said to Nicodemus — that a man must be born again to see the Kingdom of God. The true child of Abraham is not one who has recovered what he lost, rather he is one who has been born again with God as his Father and the Church as his Mother.