John’s Story of Bad and Good Theology

Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio
Gospel: John 9:1-41 – March 30, 2014

Recently, I ran across a fun list that carried this intriguing title: Great Truths About Life That Little Children Have Learned. Let me share a few of these “great truths” with you.

“No matter how hard you try you cannot baptize a cat.”

“When your mom is mad at your dad, don’t let her brush your hair.”

“Never ask your 3-year-old brother to hold a tomato… or an egg.”

“You can’t trust dogs to watch your food for you.”

“You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.”

“Never wear polka-dot underwear under white shorts… no matter how cute the underwear is.”

Now, it’s virtually certain that the children learned these “great truths” and came to these bold new insights after some dramatic eye-opening experience in their own personal lives.  Can’t you just see in your mind’s eye, some children trying to baptize a cat and learning full well from that experience that this is just not a good thing to do?

The point is clear. A dramatic, personal, eye-opening experience can give us new insight – new perception – new vision.  I want us to consider, some of the new insights, that this story from the gospel writer John gives us today.  These are new insights to be used for our spiritual reflection and growth.

Let’s begin by talking about theology.  More specifically, bad theology.

Our word Theology come from two Greek words meaning “the study of God.”  If you have a set of talking points as to who God is, and what God wants, and how God works in the world, then you are a theologian.

If you think about God and contemplate God in any way – you are a theologian. So go ahead and put that on your resume.  Good morning fellow theologians!

Now, let it be said, there are formally trained theologians and untrained theologians.  This is not to say that trained theologians are better than untrained theologians.  I have known some wonderful lay theologians and some – what I would consider – terrible trained theologians.

A few of the best theologians I have known have been very simple people that just got God “right” and seemed to have a special insight into God that rang true.  And then there are more formally trained pastors that make my head spin with how bad their theology can be.

Recently Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church died.  He had a very ugly theology.  Right? His theology gave us a picture and image of God where God was Angry, Vengeful, Retributive, and could not wait to punish and smite everyone that went against his Word.

Fred Phelp’s God was an angry God, who would show no mercy for any infraction.  His was a “Turn or Burn” God.  His image of God was that an entire country – the USA in particular – would be punished by soldiers dying in Iraq and floods and hurricanes killing people until this country turned to God, and turned away from our immorality – as he defined immorality.  His God would be willing to indiscriminately kill people to make a larger point.

If that is God, I don’t want to worship that God, or give that God my life’s devotion, or be associated with that God.  On a continuum, this is way over on the really bad theology camp.

But this image of God, is alive and well, in many conservative and Christian Evangelical churches this morning, even in this city.  They may have softened up Fred Phelps to a small degree or do what might look like a theological overhaul, but a God who will actively punish you for your sins is offered as “good theology” every Sunday in Bible studies and pulpits.  This happens in a hard form – like Fred Phelps – or in softer forms.

Think with me about our Lutheran liturgy.  We have a liturgy that reaches back to the middle ages and before.

Why do we have “Lord in Your Mercy” so much in our liturgy?  Are we asking God for mercy not to strike us down or punish us for our missteps?

Remember a few Wednesday evenings ago when we talked about a Heaven and Hell Theology?  A heaven and hell theology is basically a “turn or burn” theology in either harsh forms or softer forms.  We’re saying we deserve to be punished: “Have mercy on us, O God.”  [We will end our midweek Lenten conversations by talking about the theology in our hymns, creeds, confessions  and liturgy.]  As theologians, we have to contemplate if this is our image of God and if we agree or struggle with it.

Many of the Millennials [aged 18-34] have left the organized church.  They have left because of the bad and hurtful theology they have experienced growing up.  Hurtful to their gay and lesbian friends … hurtful to their divorced parents … hurtful to people of other faiths … hurtful in the way Christians so easily judge, condemn and exclude others.  I am proud of them saying NO to some pretty bad theology.

The “nones” have clearly said, “No” to some bad theology.  Some have been hurt so badly – and think that all Christians share this same theology – that they have tossed in the towel.  Some are still seeking and searching for a spiritual home … where there is a different image of God offered and valued.

Could we be that congregation for them?  I believe so!

Now back to our text – I know I digressed.

In our story from John today there is some really bad theology that is related to a really bad image of God.  Did you hear the bad theology in the story?  Luckily, Jesus didn’t offer it.  His disciples did and the religious elite – the trained theologians of the day – did.

This is a deeply symbolic story that I don’t think is about physical healing at all.

So don’t get caught up in what many want this story to be about: a physical healing.  In John’s Gospel, he likes to use the image of being “blind” to describe various types of blindness – being blind to many things.  And “seeing,” not as sight, but insight.  So let’s get to the insight.  And while there are many insights in this story, we will only get to a few.

The first insight is that Jesus uses this blind man on the side of the road to correct some bad theology of the day.  Jesus and his disciples are walking down the road and Jesus notices a man that has been blind from his birth.  Jesus points him out to his disciples and they ask this question.  “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

This is a Fred Phelps’ question.  This man must have done something to deserve this punishment.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ time had the mistaken notion that the persons who were down on their luck were in that fix because they had sinned.  And this was God’s judgment upon them for their wrongdoings.

So these blind people, or lame people, or leprous people, or poor people, were looked down upon by society as sinners, as wicked people, and they were shunned.  I hope you join me is saying, that’s terrible theology!

Young Millennials are saying, “If that’s how God works, I’m out of here.”  And that is the theology of many a church today – like I said: in hard forms or in more subtle forms.

This was the common theology of Jesus’ day and of the religious culture. There was bad theology then, and there are still people offering this same bad theology today.  If we stopped and asked you for examples, I know we would have many.

It’s this same bad theology that lies behind the first thing many of us say when something bad happens to us.  “What did I do deserve this?  Why am I being punished?  Why did God allow this to happen?”

What is Jesus’ response in the story?  What does he say to his disciples and the religious leaders?  Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question.  You’re looking for someone to blame.  There is no such cause and effect here.”

Let me repeat that – “You’re asking the wrong question.  You’re looking for someone to blame.  There is no such cause and effect here.”  This man was not born like this for anything bad that his parents did, or that he would have had to do in the womb.  Jesus is saying, “God doesn’t work this way!”  Period!

God gets blamed for some pretty bad stuff.  At the ELCA national convention in Minneapolis a few years ago – as they were in the midst of talking about the human sexuality statement – there was a tornado that struck nearby.  Those who were against the inclusive human sexuality statement saw this as a sign from God.

That’s bad theology.  Jesus says there is no cause and effect.  Think about it. Do you want to worship a God that works that way?  One, who threatens life and limb and is willing to have people killed to get a point across?

In Luke’s gospel Jesus says, “It rains on both the good and the bad alike” – tragedy happens.  Period.  Don’t blame it on God.

The other insight that I see in these first few lines of our story is that Jesus didn’t see people as sinners and wicked.  He saw them as children of God, as persons of integrity and worth, and member’s of God’s family.  He saw them as his brothers and sisters and he loved them.  He embraced them and enjoyed them,  And while he did that, they found healing; healing that goes deeper than just physical healing.

This story is also helpful to me to remind me that while I think I see God as “God IS,” I am still blind in many ways and need to be healed to see God in new ways.  I can still be blind to God’s ways and need to have my eyes opened to see as God sees.  Until I see as God sees, I will remain somewhat blind.

The good news for us today is that Jesus will, if we allow him, open our eyes to see as God sees.  And as we do, our theology will get better and better.

And one last thing before I close.  In the story, if the disciples had not been stopped by Jesus to see the man, they would have just walked on by a precious child of God in need.

“You’re asking the wrong question.  You’re looking for someone to blame.”

I think the better question to ask would have been: “Jesus, look at this man … how can we help?”  Seeing him as God sees him gives us insight as to how God wants us to treat him.  We treat him with love and compassion.

Let us not be blind to the needs of the world.  But rather have our eyes open, and so, bring healing to the world.

That is a much better theology!