Have you ever noticed that some people in the gospels have a really hard time with Jesus being gracious? Let me give you a few examples: Some people brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them. The disciples told them to stop bothering him because he had more important things to do. When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said, “Let the little children come to me. Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” [Mk 10:13-16]
On another occasion Jesus was eating dinner with a less than reputable crowd. The Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard what they were saying and replied “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” [Mt 9:10-13]
My favorite example happened while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. A woman approached Jesus who had been disabled for 18 years. When Jesus saw her condition he healed her without either of them saying a word. The woman was so overjoyed that she stood up straight and started praising God. The leader of the synagogue was furious because Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath. He was unable to praise God for her miraculous healing. [Lk 13:10-17]
You see what I mean? Some people in the gospels have a really hard time with Jesus being gracious. As he went about his ministry, doing one grace-filled act after another, Jesus would be called such flattering things as “a drunkard, a glutton, a blasphemer, someone who had no respect for the Sabbath, demon possessed, and completely out of his mind!”
That’s the thanks and praise Jesus received for being the One whom John described as “The Word who became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And “from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” [Jn 1:14-15]
Apparently, receiving grace upon grace is too much for some people! They’re not going to let THAT happen! They want Jesus to act like a parole officer who keeps a watchful eye on his wayward children and only rewards them for good behavior. They want Jesus to measure out grace like it’s a precious commodity that’s only reserved for the most deserving among us.
When Jesus doesn’t behave this way, they become angry and hostile. It’s true in the gospels. It’s true today as well. I have seen far too many followers of Christ, who serve a Jesus I barely recognize; a Jesus who is judgmental, narrow-minded, and never had a fun day in his life. Apparently, they’ve never read the gospels because the Jesus they worship isn’t there.
Instead, he’s the one who has an unlimited supply of grace upon grace. He’s the one who left the 99 sheep and diligently searched for the one lost lamb. He’s the one who fed 5,000 people and didn’t bother to ask if they were worthy to receive the gift. He’s the one who ministered to people a good rabbi should NOT have been speaking to. He’s the one we find in our gospel lesson, offering grace upon grace, once again. As we explore the story, we will see that this drives some people absolutely bonkers, while others praise God for it. The big question left hanging at its conclusion is which camp will we fall into when we encounter grace upon grace.
The story begins with a man born blind. Instead of always referring to him as this, we’ll give him a nice Biblical name and call him “Aaron.” Jesus is walking down the street and he meets Aaron who is begging for money. His disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Now, THAT’s a big question! What it represents is the belief that everything happens for a reason, including disease and tragedy. Blindness is not a medical condition, it’s a sign of God’s displeasure. suffering occurs because people deserve it!
Now some of us may scratch our heads at this kind of logic. It seems absurd. But some people still believe this in our so-called modern world. They are the ones who can’t handle grace upon grace. They are always looking over their shoulders, afraid that Jesus is waiting to punish them for whatever sin they think they’ve committed.
I see this all the time in my work at the hospital, as people wrestle with unimaginable tragedy and heartache. They believe God has a “perfect plan” for their lives. Therefore, when something bad happens God must be behind it. More often than not, they see it as a sign that God is unhappy with them or their family.
But Jesus destroys this kind of logic with one sentence: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Now, you may think Jesus is saying Aaron was born blind on purpose, so that Jesus could work a miracle in his life. But this is NOT what he is saying. The Message paraphrases Jesus intent quite clearly: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”
Osvaldo Vena, Professor of NT Interpretation, at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, says “How John 9:3 is punctuated makes a difference in the way one interprets the story. The NRSV, by adding ‘he was born blind,’ which is not in the Greek text, suggests that the man’s blindness is an ‘excuse’ for God to show God’s power. A more accurate translation would be “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me.”
What I hear Jesus saying is something I tell people over and over again as they deal with the trials and tribulations of life: “It has been my experience that God walks with us in the midst of of tragedy and heartache. God is always working behind the scenes to bring healing and new life.”
So Jesus is saying that Aaron’s blindness is not a punishment from God. It’s just something tragic that happened to him. Fortunately for Aaron, the “Word who became flesh and lived among us” was not content to leave him in this desperate condition. Instead, he offered him “grace upon grace” and healed him.
If we trace Aaron’s entire story, which ends in John 10:21, we will see that Aaron received more than the restoration of his sight. He also came to see more clearly the identity of the One who healed him. When first asked about how he was able to see, Aaron says “The man called Jesus made mud and spread it on my eyes.” [9:11] In verse 17, he says Jesus is “a prophet.”
In verse 30, he says “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Finally, in verse 38, he encounters Jesus again, who asks Aaron, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Aaron answers answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” Aaron replies, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped Jesus.
So we see in this story that the one who was the recipient of grace upon grace was transformed by the encounter not only physically, but spiritually as well. This is what Jesus desires of all of us. As we are touched by grace upon grace, it has a profound effect on our lives. We begin to see more clearly who Jesus is, and our relationship with him deepens. The desire is that we would become disciples, just like Aaron became a disciple. I have no doubt that Aaron shared his incredible story with others who also become followers of Jesus.
But there is another response to hearing of someone who received grace upon grace. We see this in the reaction of the Pharisees who become blind and blinder as the story unfolds. When they first hear of Aaron’s healing, they believe he was faking his blindness. They go to his parents to ask them about the situation, and they verify that Aaron was indeed blind from birth. When the Pharisees press them for an explanation as to how their son’s sight was restored, they simply tell the Pharisees to go ask Aaron. He’s an adult and he can speak for himself. When they interrogate Aaron, they don’t like his answer. They call Jesus a “sinner” and throw Aaron out of the synagogue when he suggests that Jesus was sent from God.
Finally, in chapter 10, after Jesus and Aaron meet a second time in the Temple, Jesus begins teaching the crowd. He calls himself the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The sheep follow him because they know his voice when they hear it. This passage is one of the most beloved images we have of Jesus in the gospels. We read portions of it every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter. However, Jesus’ words are never read in the context of the story of the man born blind. This helps us to appreciate them even more.
Aaron is the lost sheep who comes to know the voice of Jesus. He is the recipient of grace upon grace, and it changes his life forever. But not everyone who was gathered in the Temple that day was able to understand what Jesus was offering them. John tells us, “The Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?'”
Friends in Christ, there is so much more I can say about this story. My suggestion is that you read it for yourself in its entirety and drink deeply of its wisdom. This morning we have the opportunity to reflect on how we will respond when someone is the recipient of grace upon grace. Will we rejoice in the gift, and let it draw us closer to Christ? OR will we grumble and complain that such a person is not worthy to receive it. Truth be told, NONE of us is worthy to receive grace upon grace, but Jesus offers it to us in overflowing abundance. That’s why it’s so “amazing.”
My prayer for all of us this morning is that we will allow ourselves to be the recipients of the compassionate care of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. May his grace-filled presence in our lives minister to us in times and tragedy and heartache and draw us ever closer to him. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck.