A Drama of Conversion
The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day presents to us what I am calling a drama of conversion. The term drama is an appropriate one to use here. Many Bible students claim that the Gospel of John is the most dramatic book of the New Testament. After an opening chapter in which it proclaims the significance of Jesus for all reality, the Gospel moves into a series of well-crafted scenes. There is action; there is suspense; there are characters who are compelled to interact with each other after the “unexpected” brings them together.
Perhaps nowhere else is there more support for this claim than in this lesson. The cast of characters includes Jesus and his disciples, the man born blind, his parents, and the Pharisees, among others. The action is complex; the dialogue among the characters is subtle and engaging. It’s a scene that demands more than one reading. With each re-reading, something new appears that we didn’t notice before.
Today, however, I want us to isolate from our reading a single theme, the theme of conversion. Now conversion in John’s gospel always means a transition from unbelief to belief, from ignorance to knowledge. That dramatizing conversions should be a focus for John makes sense in light of the purpose of his gospel. He tells us this purpose in 20:31: “I have written these things so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
What specifically can we learn about conversion from this drama? Let me suggest it can be broken down into three points: First, God is for suffering humanity; Second, God touches us before and apart from our knowledge of him; and third and finally, God desires us to place our faith in him. Let us then devote the next few minutes in considering each of these in turn.
When I was a student shopping one day for textbooks in our school’s bookstore, I saw one whose title made me pause: “Why, God?” I’m sure we have all asked this question. We ask it especially in times of pain and suffering. “If you are good and all-powerful, why did you let this happen to me?” Since as human beings, we are meaning-making creatures, we’re not content to live without an explanation. It’s intolerable for us; we must have an answer. That’s why we search our past to see whether or not our suffering has its cause there. We must be suffering as we are now because of something we did then. Some today say that the world must be suffering now from the coronavirus because of something we have done collectively to provoke God’s wrath. That’s what Kourtney Kardashian maintained in her tweet a couple of days ago.
“Who sinned, this man, or this man’s parents, that he has been born blind?” Note that Jesus does not go down this rabbit hole with his disciples. Instead he denies the connection between the man’s present condition and his past or his parents’ past and redirects disciples’ attention to the present.
How do we react to this? Can this be a totally satisfying answer to our question about our suffering? But perhaps we should step back and ask instead: What gives us more comfort? That God can make sense of our past, or that God continues to work in our present. “While daylight lasts we must carry on the work of him who sent me,” Jesus tells his disciples. The fact is that we may never find a satisfying explanation for the bad things that happened to us. But we can trust God here and now, the God who is working to heal and restore us and all creation, in order to display his power and glory.
This is an important point. Whenever we cannot make sense of our lives, whenever we cannot connect the dots, God invites us out of our preoccupation with our past to what he is doing now. Our God is a living God. He does not abandon the world, but is present and active within it. Of this God Jesus says: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). A wise preacher once said: “God does not meet us in our past, so don’t go there to look for him; rather God meets us in the present. Search for God in the here and now.” He is still working in and around you.
Now if God is for suffering humanity, it stands to reason that he actively searches us out. Note that the man does not seek Jesus out. Rather Jesus sees him. Jesus decides to act before and apart from the man’s request to be healed. We have now arrived at our second point. What Jesus does for his man in response to his suffering is an act of sheer grace. Now let us reflect for a moment on the implications.
All the man knows is what happened to him. He can recall the meeting with Jesus; he can recount what this man did to him, what he instructed him to do, but that is all he really knows. When his neighbors ask him where this man who healed him is, he replies, “I do not know.” When the Pharisees ask him about Jesus, he tells them only about what he did for him. When they press him to blaspheme the name of Jesus, again he can only say: “whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.” Again, all he does know is what Jesus did for him: “once I was blind, now I can see” (9:25).
When God meets us to heal us, to change us, to set our life on a new course, to give us new hope, we don’t necessarily know how to name this God, at least not very well, at least not at first. We do know, however, that we are different. We do know we are no longer who we once were.
What is it that most draws people to consider seriously the claims of the Christian faith? It’s what they see in another person. We may know of someone who once lived self-destructively. Today, however, he is changed. His problems have not disappeared. He is by no means perfect, but he is no longer who he once was. When he tells us it’s because of the God who met him, then we are inclined to listen.
Then there are those who claim to know God. They tell us about this God. They explain to us how God acts in the world. They are sure about those whom God blesses, about those whom God curses. They seem to be knowledgeable, but there is nothing about their lives that make their talk about God attractive to us.
In this regard the healed man in our drama appears as a foil to the Pharisees. This man, whom the Pharisees regard of no account, whom they expel from the synagogue, whose sin, they claim, disqualifies him from teaching them about God—this man sees. He can tell us something about God. The Pharisees, on the other hand, who insist they know God’s law, who presume to be disciples of Moses, who imagine they can distinguish a true prophet from a false one–they are blind. They can tell us nothing about God.
Of course, the healed man does not yet know as he ought to know. After he heard that the Pharisees expelled him from the synagogue, Jesus finds the man. He asks him directly: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man has still to come to a knowledge of the God who healed him. Jesus encounters him a first time to heal him; he encounters him a second time to reveal himself to him. This elicits in him faith, which in turn prompts him to worship.
Here we arrived at our third and final point. God desires us to place our faith in him. We should be clear. God is gracious and compassionate to people regardless of whether they place their faith in him. He does good to them apart from their response. But implied in the question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” is the invitation to receive God’s gift. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Amen.