Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spiritual Giants

I had a professor during my M. Div. work that I would consider a spiritual giant.  He was kind, gentle, compassionate, insightful, an elder at his church, and understandably, taught Spiritual Formation.  Many people who were raised in church can look back to their formative years and think of one or two people who seemed head and shoulders above the rest as far as spiritual maturity goes.  It is natural at the time to idolize those people, as we tend to do with our role models, but in doing so I wonder if we belittle the wholeness of the person's journey.

Take John chapter nine, for example.  John chapter nine tells the story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind.  What interests me about this story is the formation and transformation that takes place after the man receives his sight.  Chapter nine is a fairly large chapter, but out of the forty-one verses that compose the chapter, only the first seven have to actually do with Jesus healing the man.  The rest of the chapter deals with the nuclear fallout.

The first thing goes wrong when the Pharisees learn that the man was given his sight on the Sabbath.  Jesus had already had numerous run-ins with the Pharisees over this matter, but rather than going after Jesus, this time the Pharisees go after the healed man.  "How did he heal you, and did you know he did not observe the Sabbath?  He can't be from God!" they say.  I love the man's reply, "Sinners don't heal blind people."  So they ask him, "Well, since you know so much, who do you think he is?"  Now, notice the man's answer.  It's not very long, "He is a prophet."  There's no shouting from the rooftops that the Son of God has come to earth, simply an acknowledgement that there is something unique about the man that healed him.

What's the Pharisees response?  They accuse him of not being blind to begin with.  They call in the man's parents for confirmation, but the parents are afraid to stand up for their son and simply send the Pharisees back to him.  It might be easy to disapprove of the parents' behavior, but the point of the story is not that parents should support their children.  The point of this part of the story is to show just how much influence the Pharisees had over the common people.  You don't pick a fight with the cops.  If you're a teacher, you don't mouth off to the most influential member of the Parent Teacher Association.  When the Pharisees were involved, and the threat of being banished from the synagogue, one's livelihood was at stake.  So, the Pharisees track down the healed man and grill him a second time.  At the end of a very long dialogue, the man makes another statement about Jesus, "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

We could argue that this is just another way of saying, "He is a prophet," but I would argue that this is at least a little more definitive.  The man has been backed into a corner.  He's being forced to choose sides, and when that happens he no longer makes a committally neutral statement.  He makes it quite clear he stands with Jesus, and he must accept the consequences of that decision.  Unlike his parents, he is run out of the synagogue.

It's at this point that Jesus reenters the story, actively searching for and finding the man he had healed.  Jesus asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, a reference to the Messianic vision in Daniel chapter seven where one "like a Son of Man" is brought before God and given dominion over all things for all time.  The man's response is to ask where the Son of Man is so that he can believe in him.  Jesus reveals that he is that man, and this time the healed man's response is striking.  He worships him, crying, "Lord, I believe!"

When all is said and done, the man who even Jesus's disciples reviled has become the spiritual giant of everyone involved in the story.  He understands what even Jesus's disciples do not, but this story makes me think that spiritual giants are formed not born.  They are made in a crucible of challenge and tribulation.  They don't spring forth fully grown like Athena from the head of Zeus.  But to me, that makes them all the more impressive.  When we see people who strike us as spiritual giants, we don't know what they have gone through or where they have come from, but the reality is they are who they are precisely because of the adversity they have faced.

I guess the point I'm getting at is that when we idolize people we make their achievements unattainable, or to put it another way, we assume that what God has done for them and in them he cannot do, or will not do, for and in us.  That is simply not the case.  Life as a Christian is all about transformation and formation.  It is about the development of strength and virtue, or more precisely, to be made into the image of Christs and to become little Christs ourselves.  That is something God is working to do for all the followers of his son.

There is one other thing I can't help but think about when I read this story.  The religious establishment couldn't afford to allow the healed man to stay.  He challenged to many expectations and assumptions.  His very presence brought the status quo into question, and so he had to be rejected.  He was rejected by the very people who should have celebrated what had been done for him and in him.  He was rejected by the very people who needed to learn what he could teach, and how often is that sadly the case?  How often do our churches become lifeless, homogenous blobs precisely because we've run out the people God sent to help us grow?  "They were going to change things!" we cry.  What did we expect?  By definition, maturing means change.  No one is pleased when they met forty year olds who still act like they are in high school.  We can all be spiritual giants, little Christs, as individuals and churches, if we will allow God to grow us, but if that's going to happen, we have to put our childish ways behind us and learn how God wants us to look as adults.  If we would be giants, we must leave our little sacred cows behind.

Stopping point: John 10

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