Holding out for hope in the midst of turmoil (John 11)

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). That’s the question posed by people who had gathered to mourn with Martha and Mary, in the days after their brother had died.

It’s a question that, with some slight rephrasing, may well be posed in the days ahead of us, as we begin to experience the savage impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement, imposition of social isolation, spreading unemployment, rising numbers of infections being reported, and the early stages of what threatens to be a huge death rate, all from this powerful, invasive, invisible virus.

Frustration, anxiety, fear, and anger are within us, suppressed; and around us, beginning to be expressed. These times will be turbulent, confronting, disturbing. We draw deep into our emotional reserves in anticipation of what lies ahead.

I A message from Bethany

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus was dead, lying in the tomb (and had been there for four days, 11:17), so the reality of his death had surely been registered. But why did this have to be so? The level of grief being felt by his sisters, their household, and their friends from the village, was obviously intense.

Jesus had been reticent to travel from Galilee, back into Judea, where opposition to him had been steadily increasing (6:41; 7:1; 10:39). He initially paused, wanting not to go back to the place where, twice, threatening stones had been raised against him (8:59 and 10:31).

Jesus had been to Judea a number of times previously; in the book of signs, he is found there at 2:13, 5:1, 7:10, and 10:22—unlike the Synoptics, where his only visit as an adult is at the end of his earthly life (Mark 11:11). Jesus was reluctant to return there yet again. It was dangerous territory. He was in touch with his own deep emotions, as he considered his next move. Jesus demonstrates basic, raw humanity.

II Debating with the disciples

So Jesus delayed his travel for two days (11:6). Was he procrastinating? weighing up his options? looking to hide? making a strategic plan? The Greek word used here (meno) refers to staying still with purpose, resting, abiding. It is the word that appears quite a number of times in the “farewell discourse” as Jesus spends time with his disciples, before his arrest in Jerusalem (John 13-16).

This word occurs ten times in twelve verses in John 15, where Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, and exhorts his followers to “remain” or “abide” (meno) in him, as he “remains” or “abides” in them. This is a deliberate, carefully thought out, plan, to hold back from travelling too quickly. Jesus had a plan in mind (as he indicates, first at 11:4, again at 11:15).

Then, when Jesus finally committed to a plan of action—“Let us go to Judea again”—we are told that Thomas the Twin expressed the great fear of his fellow disciples by saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Down south (in Judea) was dangerous territory for the radical prophet from the north (in Galilee), fuelled both by the traditional antagonism between the regions, and by the plotting against Jesus that was underway amongst the leadership in Judea (5:18; 9:16: 10:39).

I tend to think that, had I been there alongside Thomas and Jesus and the rest, my words would have been more like, “What? Are you crazy? Go back to Jerusalem? And risk being stoned to death? No way. Just no way at all!!” But I wasn’t there. And this, according to the story told in the book of signs, is how Thomas responded: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Wow!

III Meeting Martha by the tomb

Then, when Jesus arrived, he was met immediately with a very strong kickback from Martha, who went out to meet the group beside the tomb, before they arrived in the house. Martha was clear and direct; she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:22).

I would think that she was angry. We can assume that she would have known the reputation of Jesus, she would have known he was able to perform miracles (signs, as they are regularly described in the book of signs). With this knowledge, Martha would have despaired that Jesus chose not to come and perform such a sign in her village, for her family. She lashed out at Jesus. Understandably. Perhaps with good reason.

Being forced into an uncomfortable place, being railroaded into disturbing emotions and unsettling experiences, means that any human being is likely, at some point, to kick back, lash out, with unrestrained raw emotion. We need to take care of ourselves lest we offend or damage people of property in such a state.

IV Mary and others join

As the story continues, Jesus begins to mollify Martha, and then invites her sister, Mary to join with her (11:28). Jesus and his group have still not arrived at the village; they are still where Lazarus lies in the tomb. Mary brings with her a group of friends and family (11:31). As the group of mourners arrive, the tension in the air would have been palpable.

When Mary came to the tomb, where Jesus was, and saw him, she knelt at his feet. She appears to be expressing due respect and reverence, perhaps. “Lord, I am so glad you are here”, we might expect her to have said.

But no—the first words out of her mouth are the same as what her sister had said, a little earlier: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). She, too, was angry. Human emotions easily dominate. How clearly these sisters reflect the way we human beings operate!

V Jesus responds with raw human emotion

Hearing these words for a second time—“look what has happened, you could have stopped this from happening”—penetrates right to the core of Jesus. The author of the books of signs uses a number of colourful words in describing how Jesus responded. My sense is that Jesus had been stirred up, to the very depths of his being. He was profoundly moved—not with compassion, but with anger.

First (according to the NRSV), we learn that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit” (11:33). The word chosen in Greek signifies the uttering of a sound from deep in the belly; a full-blooded reaction, a sound that shocks and shatters the eardrums. The most literal way of translating this would be to say that Jesus “snorted like a horse”—that deep, guttural warning that horses utter when they are distressed, cornered, angry. The basic word used here (as in a couple of other places in stories about Jesus—Mark 1:43 and Matt 9:30; Mark 14:5) signifies deep, burning anger. Jesus was thoroughly angry.

Then, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved” (11:33, NRSV) or “troubled” (NIV). This word comes from the root word which means “to shudder”. Jesus’s reaction was so strong, so extensive, that his whole body shook and shuddered. There was a clear physical manifestation of the inner emotional turmoil raging in Jesus. He was, as we say, shaking with anger. One commentator writes, “the word implies deep disturbance”; another, that it means “an expression of rage; to become indignant, be furious”; yet another simply says, that “Jesus is angry”.

After this, as he presumably draws closer to the tomb and sees where Lazarus has been laid, we are told, “Jesus began to weep” (11:35). The Greek word used here is significant. The weeping of Mary and her companions, described just a moment earlier (11:33), is weeping that a band of mourners would do. It was the weeping and wailing, the anguished crying of those deep in grief, which was the socially-expected, customary grieving form of weeping. An expression of deep human emotions, to be sure; but channelled in the appropriate and customary manner by this group of grieving family and friends.

The weeping of Jesus is described with a different word—a word that is used only once, at this exact place, in the whole of the New Testament. The word (dakruo) has its primary reference point in the tears shed by Jesus. As we read this passage in English, where the same word is used, it looks like Mary and Jesus are both weeping in the mourning customs of the day. In Greek, where completely different words are used, the weeping is different. Mary and her friends are grieving the loss of Lazarus. Jesus is thoroughly rattled, completely shattered, by what he has experienced. And he is angry. Utterly angry. Jesus weeps tears of anger.

There have been various explorations as to why Jesus was feeling such anger. Was he angry at the lack of faith he had encountered in Mary and Martha? I think that seems reasonable, given some other comments he makes in this narrative.

Other suggestions have been made. Was he angry because he was under pressure to perform yet another miracle? (a miracle far greater than any others he had performed thus far). Was he angry that sin held such a hold on his friends? Was he angry because he was realising that his own time on earth was soon to come to an end, that he would soon be grappling with the devil in the final battle? (The latter exotic suggestion was made by John Chrysostom in the fourth century.)

I am not so much interested in WHY Jesus was angry. I am more taken by the fact THAT Jesus was angry. He was human. Fully human. He had had enough. He was at breaking point. He had a plan, a carefully thought-out intention, and he was determined to carry it through. The emotional turmoil surrounding him was distracting, getting in the way. Jesus held to his purpose with a steely resolution.

I can identify with the grieving sisters, with the crowd that met Jesus. They had been thrown into confusion. Grief does that to you. A global pandemic will do that to you, too. There are restrictions that now limit how we live our lives, our news becomes more alarming, we are becoming hard pressed. Emotions surge within us. We are at risk of lashing out. We might want to play the blame game. We are losing any sense of hope.

It is exactly at this point, according to the narrative we have in the book of signs, that some of those around Jesus respond to his intense, visceral expressions of anger, with their own angry, accusing words: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Tit for tat. Accusation and counter-accusation. Throwing it back, with interest. The scene has become ugly.

The story continues, fraught with emotion. Jesus is still “greatly disturbed” (11:38)—that is to say, still uttering that deep-seated, raw emotional outburst of anger, “snorting like a horse”. Yet, in the midst of this emotional upheaval, Jesus is able to act calmly, and speak with purpose and clarity.

VI Removing the stone, unbinding the dead man

“Take away the stone”, he commands (11:39). “Did I not tell you …”, he says to the crowd (11:40), offering a clear explanation of his intent. “Father, I thank you …”, he prays (11:41), withdrawing, gathering himself together, drawing on his inner resources. Clear, measured, purposeful.

Then, he shouts, “Lazarus, come out”, crying in a loud voice (11:43)—the verb used here has a sense of a raucous outburst. Jesus becomes, once more, highly emotional at this critical point. Yet this is a more positive emotion. A sense that things are now being set right. This is what he came to Bethany, to do. There is a purpose, amidst all the upheaval and turmoil.

And, finally, the clear instruction, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). The deed is done, the man emerges from the tomb, walking, no longer lying dead. There are signs of hope, right at this point: Lazarus is alive, a new reality is in place, the freedom of life restored is evident. Jesus has achieved what he had intended from the start. “This illness … is for Hod’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).

VII In a global pandemic

Where do you find yourself in this story? We might really want to be at that moment at the end, where hope bursts forth. But we are not there. Not now. Not for a while. Not, most likely, for a long time. So where do you see yourself in this story?

With Thomas, fearful of what the future will bring, and yet resolute about stepping forth with confidence? With Martha, pushing back, crying out in despair at the situation we are in? With Mary, piling on with more angst, fuelled by uncertainty, angry at what has happened?

With the grieving crowd, rushing from one thing to the next, gripped by a host of competing emotions? With the astonished crowd, watching the miracle of a man once dead, now alive?

Or with Jesus, determined to hold a steady course through the upheavals he experiences? He was clear about what he intends to achieve, steadfast in working his way through the obstacles, to the place of fruition. (If we want to emulate him, we need to be careful that we do not say “God is working through the pandemic”, or “God sent this pandemic to us for a purpose”.) Holding to a steadfast goal in the current context is a daunting challenge.

This story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, invites us to consider who we are, as human beings; how we respond, when under pressure; what it is, that we hope for, in challenging times; how our faith guides us, in the midst of fear, anxiety, and despair.

*****

I have been greatly assisted in writing this blog by the research of my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, who has a great eye for detail when it comes to matters of translation. I have also drawn on published work by Gail R O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary vol. IX p. 690; and the wonderful commentary by Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. I pp. 425-426.

See also my other blogs on the Book of Signs:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

Yes, Lord, I believe—even in the midst of all of this! (John 11)

In the midst of a time of fear and anxiety, generated by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, holding to our faith and being nourished by that faith is important.

The story set for this coming Sunday is pertinent to this situation. How do we confess our faith in the midst of the rapid spread of the virus and news of the dramatic escalation of infections and deaths around the world?

In the midst of this story of death and grief, of life being thrown out of joint by an unexpected happening, the author of the book of signs (identified in the tradition as the apostle John), we have a story of faith. In this story, Martha expresses her trust in Jesus—even as what is happen around her fuels her unsettled state, as she grieves the death of her brother.

The book of signs has seven clearly narrated signs, or miracles, performed by Jesus. Each of them is inserted in the midst of an evolving narrative, in which followers of Jesus grow in their understanding of who he is, whilst at the same time a movement of those opposed to Jesus gains strength.

The author of this Gospel makes it clear that there were more signs performed by Jesus than what is narrated (20:30), and that the signs actually narrated are told in order to strengthen the faith of those hearing or reading them (20:31).

The first and second signs take place in Galilee (2:1-11, 4:46-54). Subsequent signs are located in Jerusalem (5:2-9), the Sea of Galilee (6:1-14), on the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum (6:16-21), back in Jerusalem (9:1-7) and then, for the seventh, and final, sign of those narrated, in Bethany, where Lazarus had recently died (11:17-44).

This final sign provides a clear climax to this collection of seven signs. This is the miracle supreme—raising a dead person back to life takes some beating! It is told at some length, with many details, leading to the climactic moment of the appearance of the once-dead man, now alive. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11:44).

In the literary framework of the whole Gospel, however, this building to a climax through the seven signs is paralleled by a growing tension, as leaders in the Jewish community marshal forces in plotting against Jesus. Initially, there were positive responses to Jesus (2:23, 4:42, 4:45). Then, an engagement in debate and controversy with “the Jews” (5:13) quickly escalated into persecution (5:16) and indeed an attempt to kill Jesus (5:18).

This double attitude towards Jesus continues unchecked throughout the narrative. Whilst Jesus remained popular in Galilee (6:14, 34) and amongst some in Jerusalem (7:31, 40-41a, 46: 8:30; 9:17, 38; 10:21, 41) and Bethany (11:27, 45), hostility towards Jesus continued, being expressed both in verbal aggression (6:41, 52; 7:15, 20; 8:48; 9:18-19; 10:20), threats of his arrest (7:32, 44; 11:57), direct physical threats (stoning at 8:49, expulsion from the synagogue at 9:22, and stoning once more at 10:31) and threats against his life (7:1, 25, 32).

Then, at the climactic moment, after Lazarus appears, the Jewish leadership plans a strategy to put Jesus to death (11:45-53). The plot is hatched, the fate of Jesus is sealed. That section of the narrative also includes the famous, yet ironic, comment by Caiaphas: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so the inevitable process begins, moving towards the death of Jesus (11:53, 57).

In the midst of this story, about the death and burial of Lazarus—before Jesus acts in any way to bring Lazarus back from death—Martha, the brother of Lazarus, makes a striking confession of faith in Jesus.

First, however, as Jesus arrived in Bethany, Martha had initially berated him with an outpouring from the depths of her grief—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21).

One element of that confession, that Jesus is the Son of God, was articulated very early in the narrative of the Gospel, by one of the lesser-known disciples, Nathaniel (1:49). Another element, that Jesus is Messiah, had been spoken by another less prominent disciple, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter (1:41).

In my reading, this confession of faith stands at the same place, structurally, as the confession that Simon Peter made in Caesarea Philippi, as recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels: “you are the Messiah” (8:27, and parallels in Matt 16:16 and Luke 9:20). This comes at the high point in the public ministry of Jesus: just before he is transfigured, and then makes his fateful decision to turn towards Jerusalem, in the Synoptics.

In like manner, the confession by Martha comes in the midst of the climactic miracle that he performs, raising Jesus from the dead, in the book of signs.

The declaration of Jesus as Messiah, as the christological high point of the three Synoptic Gospels, is uttered by the unchallenged leader of the apostles in those accounts, Simon Peter. The equivalent christological high point in the narrative of John’s Gospel is here, in Bethany, on the lips, not of one of the favoured male leaders (Peter, or the beloved disciple, or even, in other books, James the brother of Jesus). This high claim is made by a woman, not a man.

And how significant it is, that this high point of confession is made in the midst of grief and turmoil. Similar confessions, also by women, have occurred in the book of signs, also in difficult contexts.

At the end of the Gospel, there is an important confession of faith that is made as a result of the encounter that Mary Magdalene had with Jesus, in the garden, after his resurrection.

Mary was deep in grief as she went to the garden. Her grief initially stopped her from recognising Jesus. By the end of her conversation with the person she assumed was the gardener, she realised that he was actually Jesus. She returned to the disciples and declared to them that she has seen the risen Lord (20:18). She becomes known, in later tradition, as “the apostle to the apostles”. Her confession of faith comes to fruition in the midst of her grief.

Earlier, of course, there was the woman of Samaria, back in chapter 4, who encountered Jesus, thirsting, in the heat of the day, who enables many people in her city to come to faith in Jesus.

So, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, the story of Jesus—recognised as prophet, Messiah, Son of God, Saviour of the world, the risen Lord—is entrusted to women. Not to the familiar male leaders. But to women. Thanks be to God!

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

In the most unlikely way … touching the untouchable (John 9)

“Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. (John 9:38)

So said the man born blind, whom Jesus encountered, and healed, in Jerusalem (John 9:1-41).

What causes this man to make his bold public confession of faith in Jesus? The book of signs recounts the way that his turnaround took place, when he encountered Jesus. The disciples of Jesus want to quibble about the cause of his blindness: was he a sinner? was he being punished for the sin of his parents? (9:2).

Jesus, however, is not diverted by this theological consideration; he moves quickly and directly to heal the man (9:3-7). It is this healing which leads him to confess faith in Jesus.

In so doing, he stands in the most unlikely company, amongst other unlikely characters who confess faith in Jesus. For my reflections on the significance of this man’s confession of faith in the context of the book of signs as a whole, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/17/in-the-most-unlikely-company-confessing-faith-in-jesus-john-9/

Further than this, the man is healed in a most unlikely way. Other healings performed by Jesus and reported already in this Gospel have taken place simply by his word of command (4:47-52; 5:6-9).

This one is different; it involves two distinctive features, both of which push against the boundaries of expected behaviour within the ancient Jewish context. Jesus uses spittle mixed with dirt to make mud, and then he physically touches the blind man as he applies that mud to his eyes (9:6).

Were these actions of Jesus seen as breaching ancient Jewish protocols relating to holiness? The man was blind; traditionally, that made him unclean under the prescriptions of the Law. Blind people were amongst the groups identified as prohibited as acting as priests in the Jerusalem Temple (Lev 21:17-21). Likewise, no blind animals could be presented as offerings for sacrifice in the temple (Lev 22:22; Deut 15:21). Blindness signalled incompleteness. Conversely, one of the promises involved in the vision of eschatological hope, at the end of time, is the removal of blindness (Isa 29:18; 35:5; 42:7).

When Jesus touches this blind man, we may consider that he is identifying himself with the man in his state of incompleteness. If that is so, Jesus appears to be deliberate in breaching that boundary by directly touching the eyes of the blind man. At the very least, he is enacting, in the present time, the eschatological hope, that the blind will see (compare Matt 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23).

There are twelve times across the four Gospels when Jesus touched a person that he healed (and four times when people reached out to touch Jesus as they sought his healing powers). This occasion, in John 9, is the one and only time in this Gospel that Jesus touched a person when he healed them. In this regard, it is a distinctive story.

What is even more distinctive in this incident is the use of spittle: it appears only here in this Gospel—although Jesus is also reporting as having used it in healings on two occasions in Mark (Mark 7:33 and 8:23).

It is noteworthy that Luke omits any reference to either incident, whilst Matthew omits the second and reduces the first to a brief summary statement in passing (Matt 15:30-31), with no reference at all to the manner by which Jesus heals in this case. This suggests quite strongly that these two evangelists saw the use of spittle by Jesus as a problematic aspect in these stories. Better to say nothing at all about them!

(Thanks to Elizabeth Raine for these insights from her research into the ways that Matthew redacted Mark’s Gospel, and also for her research in the next matter canvases, the Greek magical papyri.)

Spittle was a substance regarded, much later in Jewish tradition (in a couple of place in the Talmudic writings of the 6th century) as having healing properties in some circumstances—however, we have no evidence from Jewish sources of the time of Jesus, or before him, as to whether that view was current during the first century. It would seem not.

We do know that, in the first century, magicians and healers in the ancient hellenistic world utilised touch as one of the techniques in their repertoire. We know this from many Greek papyri which attest to the techniques of magicians and healers (the so-called Greek magical papyri). Touch was often employed by such people, along with the utterance strange words from foreign languages, or indeed simply gibberish words, and ecstatic states, as the means of effecting healings in others.

(You can read some examples at https://hermetic.com/pgm/index and explore a technical academic analysis of these papyri at https://archive.org/details/TheGreekMagicalPapyriInTranslation/page/n9/mode/2up)

So this element of the story is not strikingly unusual in the larger context of the society of that time. Wandering healers were common in the world of the day, and there are a number of records of their using spittle in their healings. Pliny recommended it for use in treating epileptics (Nat. Hist. 28.7). Two Roman historians reported that Vespasian used spittle to heal blindness (Tacitus, Hist. 4.81; Suetonius, Life of Caesar 8.7.2-3).

Because of this, some rabbis from a later time period, such as the famous Akiba (who was born two decades after the death of Jesus), were not favourably disposed at all towards spittle. Akiba is cited in a tractate of the third century work, the Mishah (Sanhedrin 10:1), as prohibiting its use because of its popular connection with the practices of pagan magicians.

Could it be argued that the reason that spittle was viewed negatively by Jewish teachers of the Law was because it was a substance which rendered someone unclean? The Law was given, in traditional Jewish understanding, to instruct as to what is holy, and what is unholy or unclean. To be rendered unclean meant to be placed outside the holy realm which is where God intends the people of Israel, the holy nation, would be. God’s desire was for Israel to be a holy nation, just as God is a holy God (Exod 19:6; Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 22:31-33).

In the midst of detailed instructions as to how to maintain this holy state, Lev 15 deals with the ways to manage bodily charges which make a person unclean (semen from a male, menstrual blood from a female). Spittle, however, is not specifically identified here; so this is an hypothesis which relies on an argument by analogy. Could it gain some support from the observation that animals with discharges are grouped with blind, maimed, or skin-diseased animals as being unfit for offering as sacrifices (Lev 22:22)? The argument cannot be sustained with any strength.

There is other evidence that relates to spittle in daily life in the ancient Jewish world, however, which shows that spitting was linked with shaming. Spitting at somebody was regarded as an offensive act, a public shaming of the person spat at. If a man did not marry his dead brother’s childless widow, in accordance with the Law, she was to remove his sandal and spit in his face (Deut 25:9). Spitting in somebody’s face was considered a great disgrace (Num 12:14; Job 17:6; 30:10; Isa 50:6).

At Qumran, there was a prescription in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 7.13) that a thirty-day punishment was given if somebody in the assembly spit in the presence of others. The same prohibition is reported by Josephus (Jewish War 2.147).

However, what is noteworthy in the story recounted in the book of signs, is that there is no indication in any way that Jesus was shaming to man. On the contrary, the author of this book takes a known symbol of shame, and turns it into a symbol of hope. Jesus spits—but does not shame. He spits, makes mud, and rubs the blind eyes—and gives hope and new life to the man. John turns this symbol upside down.

Jesus uses spittle, mixed with dirt, to create mud as a healing substance. It seems a strange, almost objectionable, action for him to undertake. And yet, through this challenging process, Hope is born, the gift of sight is given—and faith in Jesus is affirmed.

Later patristic interpretation relates this action in John 9 to the action of the divine, in Genesis 2:7, of creating the human being out of the dust of the earth. I don’t want to head in that direction, as I can’t see any clear signal in the text that invites us to consider this pathway.

And I know also that this focus on physical touching and, worse, the use of a bodily discharge, spittle, in the process of healing, sits quite at odds with the immediate contemporary context. The world is wracked by stories of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, as the pandemic streaks across the globe and permeates every corner of every country.

Looking for the healing of illness in the midst of a viral pandemic is a vain hope. People are dying, and more people will, sadly, die, in this pandemic. Prayers for healing will not turn back the tide of infection and reduce the rate of illness and death that has been unleashed by this potent virus. Perish the thought that we might even think that we could emulate Jesus, and go around spitting on sick peoples, touching them in order to heal them. Let’s not be that literalist—please!!

In our current context, we are being urged not to make physical contact with people (no handshakes, no hugging, etc), to maintain a clear physical distance between ourselves and other people, and even, now, to adopt a regime of self-isolation, not attending any group activities, until the pandemic has significantly subsided.

So this story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, needs to be understood and applied with great care.

What is clear, however, is that there was a striking and unusual element in the story—for us, and even for people of the ancient world. Jesus heals this man in a most unlikely way. That leads him to be able to see the world, for the first time, through his own eyes; and to see Jesus in a new way, in the light of this new vision.

Perhaps it calls us to be open to unlikely engagements with people (albeit in a socially-distant nature) in different ways, in the rapidly changing context that we find ourselves in today.

*******

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/17/in-the-most-unlikely-company-confessing-faith-in-jesus-john-9/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery on COVID-19 pandemic

This morning a pastoral letter was sent to all people within the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, as follows:

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

On Wednesday morning the leadership of the Synod of NSW and the ACT and all the Presbyteries in this Synod met to make plans for our future as the Uniting Church, in the current context of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday evening the Moderator and General Secretary issued a statement which strongly urged all Church Councils to immediately suspend worship services and any other group meetings on Uniting Church property.

See https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/covid-19-update-for-presbyteries-and-congregations/

We are in complete agreement with this guidance. We recognise that this is a difficult decision. This situation will remain in force for some time, over some months, until we are advised that it is again safe to hold gatherings of people.

This is essentially a pastoral decision for the well-being of people in our congregations and faith communities, and in the wider communities where we live. It is an expression of love and care for our neighbours and community, as together we try to slow the spread of infection so that our health system is able to cope.

By making this decision before our community feels the full impact of this health crisis, it is our hope that we can establish and learn new, creative, alternative ways to worship and sustain community connection from home and online.

To support us during this difficult time, Synod and Presbytery leadership is working to provide worship resources via various means including: e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a Synod-hosted website, so that we can continue to pray, sing and reflect together. Adrian Drayton, of Synod Communications, and Matt Pulford, of Assembly Communications, are working to provide access to multiple resources.

Saltbush is offering a regular weekly “9am Sunday church with Saltbush” that will be a viable option. Project Reconnect provides weekly DVD resources, on a subscription basis. Some tech-savvy colleagues will provide online resources such as sermons and prayers, as well as reflections and devotions, for all to use.

We will send emails in the days ahead that will link you in to these resources. You do not have to do all of this by yourself.

As leaders within our local communities of faith, the highest priority we can have is to ensure that we provide meaningful pastoral care for one another during this time of physical separation. There are big challenges in this. We need, firstly, to be sure to support and encourage each other in our leadership roles.

Presbytery leadership will be looking to put in place opportunities for regular, online “check-in” opportunities for pastors, ministers, and lay leaders in each of the communities of faith across our Presbytery.

We are one body in Christ, even when that body is not together in the flesh. There are many ways to stay connected in spirit, and care for each others’ spiritual and practical needs. We trust that the people of our congregations and faith communities will reach out with hearts, words and practical compassion. We are capable, resilient people. The current situation invites us to explore new ways of connecting, supporting, and caring.

As we walk this wilderness journey, there will be real grief and loss in letting go of the things that usually bring us together. There will be real fear and anxiety that comes with physical distancing. This may take on added dimensions for people who already live with anxiety. We know that we are walking into difficult times. We know, also, the promise of God’s presence in the midst of this.

As you receive this news, and communicate it to others, we expect that you will encounter a range of responses: some may feel disappointed or frustrated by a perceived over-reaction, others may feel relief and cared for. We pray that all will know themselves to be held in love and prayer.

We want to be sure that Presbytery supports and equips you as you work with people in your community of faith to meet the challenges ahead.

Please do not hesitate to contact either of your Presbytery Ministers if you wish to discuss any pastoral matters relating to this situation (John on 0408 024 642, Andrew on 0437 011 338).

Canberra Region Presbytery Leadership Team;
John Williams and Judy McKinlay
(Co-chairpersons)
John Squires and Andrew Smith (Presbytery Ministers)
Elizabeth Raine (PRC Chairperson)
John Sutton (Presbytery Treasurer)
Janise Wood (Operations Manager)

The Moderator of the NSW.ACT Synod has written this pastoral letter https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/a-pastoral-message-from-the-moderator-about-covid-19/

The President of the National Assembly has written this pastoral message https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3144-a-pastoral-response-to-the-pandemic

I have blogged on the importance o placing care for one another as a higher priority than gathering for worship, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/