Note: Please read John 9:1-41 first or this piece will make even less sense.

I once heard a radio commercial in which a man explains that when he gets in a check-out line, it suddenly becomes shorter. Batteries are always included with any electronic device he buys. Everybody laughs at his jokes, which are always hilarious. All around, his life is great. It turns out that such bounty is due to his having a checking account at a certain bank.

I’ve heard some Christians describe their lives in much the same way. The typical spiel goes like this: “Isn’t it great to be a Christian?! I’m blessed every day! I’m so happy and full of joy all day long! I sing and shout the praise of God. Whatever I want, I pray for and receive. New car? I have it. Money for bills? It suddenly appears. I don’t ever feel sad or lonely, because I am sure Jesus is right by my side.”

When I hear such talk and compare it to my own experience, three possibilities come to mind: a) I’m not a Christian, because my life isn’t like that; b) God must hate me and has abandoned me, because my life isn’t like that; or c) such talk simply doesn’t describe reality. I know (a) isn’t true, since I do in fact trust Jesus as Lord and Savior, and have since childhood. (B) also is false, no matter what invectives I might hurl at God, psalmist-like, from time to time, because the abundance of the evidence from Scripture and life is that God does love and provide for me. So, I’m left with (c): the “victory in Jesus” crowd is out of touch with reality.

You need not trust me on this. John the gospel writer would say the same thing. Yes, he would tell us, followers of Jesus have times of joy, assurance, and comfort. Sometimes churches are filled because the gospel is being preached, and people are hungry for the Truth. But he would insist that when we look at the larger picture, “everything’s goin’ my way” is not always a lyric Christians can sing.

Instead, the experience of the man born blind is more typical of the life of the believer. He didn’t ask to be healed, but was chosen by the Son of God as one through whom God’s work would be made known. Now he’s thrust onto center stage without having had so much as one acting class. His neighbors don’t know what to do with him. His parents won’t stand by him. The religious leaders get mad at him and call him names and throw him out of the house of worship. Finally, he’s on his own. His faith grows stronger, clearer, and more developed. But he’s alone, rejected by friends, family, and the religious establishment. Illumination, recovery of sight—and for the ancient Church, that was the effect of baptism—illumination often brings with it suffering.

That’s how it is to be a Christian living between Christmas and the Consummation. Especially if your experience and your very presence threatens those who claim to have everything figured out, who are in power, who want everything to go according to rules they made up, who believe they have a corner on interpreting the Bible. That’s how it is when your neighbors think you’re some sort of nut for sharing how Jesus has become the center of your life. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ and the gospel you challenge long-held traditions and doctrines. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia, war, greed, and the degradation of the environment. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you act for justice for and with the poor, the hungry, the excluded. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you challenge the power, the presumption, and the priorities of the powers that be. You’re likely to be shut out, shut up, shut down. And you will be lonely and discouraged and disheartened.

Fortunately, the drama that is John 9 does not end on such a despairing note. There’s a wonderful and encouraging epilogue. Jesus comes back and seeks out the man he healed. Our Lord strengthens and vindicates the new disciple, bringing him to a new level of comprehension. Indeed, it’s only at this point in the story that the man born blind says “I believe.”

So it is with the beleaguered believer and the Church struggling against great odds to proclaim an authentic gospel. People cling to power and prestige; such things are today’s favorite idols. They reject Truth as plain as the nose on your face because it would mean change. Therefore, we struggle now. Sometimes, often, we feel alone, and ask where God is, what God is doing. But there will come a day when Jesus will appear again to reveal himself fully and say a word of commendation to faithful servants. If there is peril in illumination, baptism, and witness, so is there great promise. Jesus will care for his own, leading them to a new place of faith and faithfulness.

It would be nice to end there. But there’s a footnote to the script that has to be read and heard. It’s a warning to the Church and the individual believer in every age as much as it was to recalcitrant Pharisees and skeptical neighbors in Jesus’ day. John knows that even the most iconoclastic and revolutionary movement can become the calcified, unmovable Establishment. What once was a dynamic movement of the Spirit can be threatened and frightened by new ways of thinking. It can want to silence prophets with a vision. It can seek secure certainty rather than relishing and inviting the ambiguity of faith (see John 3:8). It can work mightily and steadily and efficiently to quantify and box up/in what can’t be contained, what can only be apprehended by complete surrender of ourselves to the Divine.

So the writer has a solemn reminder for anyone and everyone in the Church who believes there is nothing more to see, nothing new to learn, nothing we can’t fit into our theological categories. A solemn reminder to anyone who claims “we see; I see.” It’s this: the claim to know for certain blocks an encounter with the Truth, because the Truth who is Jesus Christ can never be fully known this side of heaven. And the claim to clear sight with not a bit of distortion is a sure sign that we can see nothing at all, and our sin remains.

May God keep us free from such arrogance! And may he help us be but humble witnesses to the Light, sharing what we have seen and heard, until that day when we bend the knee before our Lord and find clear sight at last.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.