The sea was luminous in specks and in the wake of the vessel, of a uniform slightly milky colour. When the water was put into a bottle, it gave out sparks…
Such was the sea as Charles Darwin described it in his notes while aboard the Beagle, just off the Canary Islands, on January 6, 1832. Darwin was intrigued by the glow of the water and rightly so. Bioluminescence is the light produced within a living being through biochemical reactions; it has evolved independently in living organisms more than forty times. Evidently, in special way, light promotes life in these creatures.
In the deep sea, where no light from the surface penetrates, more than seventy-five percent of creatures make their own light. That makes perfect sense. But some creatures near the surface of the sea do as well. The nocturnal Hawaiian bobtail squid lives in shallow waters. It has a symbiotic relationship with a specific bacterium that glows at night. When these bacteria glow within the squid, they form the perfect camouflage for the squid against the nighttime sky. Light equals life.
Long before Charles Darwin did his work, the evangelist John knew about the correlation between light and life. He writes in the opening chapter of his gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:1-5 (NRSV)
John carries this theme of light and life throughout his gospel. Darkness and light are, for John, synonyms for ignorance and knowledge, sin and righteousness, blindness and sight. We see it in today’s gospel reading.
Jesus heals a man who was born blind, and Jesus does it on the Sabbath. When the former beggar tells the people he was healed by “the man Jesus,” they drag him to the Pharisees – the synagogue authorities – where the man who was healed tells his story once again, this time calling Jesus a prophet. The Pharisees now have a dilemma: Jesus violated the letter of the law regarding Sabbath, and so he is a sinner BUT how could a sinner perform such a work as healing a man born blind? First they try to prove that the man wasn’t truly blind since birth, so they call his parents to testify. When the parents back up the man’s account of being blind since birth, the Pharisees claim a better academic pedigree than Jesus: their teaching comes from Moses, but who knows where Jesus’ authority comes from? Finally, they drive the man out of the synagogue.
It’s crucial in understanding this story to look at the context in which the gospel of John was written. During the early life of the church, Christian Jews worshipped within synagogues. They believed that Jesus was the revelation of God, but they saw this belief as being in continuity with the faith of Israel. Towards the end of the first century, though, Christians began to be excluded from synagogues. The evangelist John was most likely writing to a Jewish Christian community undergoing a painful separation from Jewish religious life, a community that would see in the healed man’s exclusion from the synagogue something of their own story. When we recognize this background against which John was writing, we understand that John’s problem is not with the Jewish people as a whole, but with the leaders of the synagogue.
Another characteristic of John’s gospel is that sin here is not about the moral nature of one’s actions; instead, sin is about how we respond to the revelation of God in Jesus. That’s why Jesus inevitably causes division in the gospel of John – there are those who believe Jesus to be the light of the world, and those who do not. The question that runs throughout the gospel of John is this: Do you recognize this light that has come into the world? Do you have eyes to see it? The Pharisees do not, and so Jesus tells them that their sin remains.
In John’s gospel sin may be about one’s response to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that actions aren’t important. After all, if we walk toward the light, if we walk toward Jesus, our faces will reflect light. If we turn away from the light, if we turn away from Jesus, our faces are in the shadows, in the dark. Paul speaks of this in our lesson from Ephesians, saying that if Christ’s light shines on us, then we are children of light. And that light shines through us in works that are good and right and true. I believe the evangelist John would agree with Paul here.
So what does it look like to walk as children of light in the gospel of John, to reflect the light of Christ? Well, for John the Baptist, it looks like pointing away from himself and to Jesus. For the first disciples, it looks like dropping everything to accept Jesus’ invitation to come and see. With the Samaritan woman at the well, it looks like conversation across social and religious divides. When Jesus feeds five thousand people on the mountain, it looks like absolute abundance. When Jesus meets the woman caught in adultery, it looks like mercy. When Mary pours expensive ointment on Jesus, it looks like extravagant love. On the night before Jesus dies, it looks like tucking a towel around the waist of your garments and washing the feet of others. When Jesus gives his mother Mary and his disciple John to one another from the cross, it looks like caring for one another in deep fellowship. When the risen Lord appears to the disciples, it looks like bringing peace to a band of scared followers.
And what does it look like to reflect the light of Christ in today’s gospel reading? Jesus shows us that it looks like paying attention to those around us, reaching out to heal before being asked, and going to those who have been cast out and giving them a place where they belong.
Feeling like we belong to one another is easier sometimes than others. As I watch the numbers climb in the coronavirus statistics, I am acutely aware that each number is a person just like me – with a family and a history and dreams. Recently I was invited to a Facebook group in which people offer help to others affected by the coronavirus, and to another Facebook group in which people are trading ideas for how to sew face masks for healthcare workers. Paying attention to the people around us, reaching out to help, and seeing us all connected in one great community seems to be easy when we face a common adversary. But will these feelings of oneness remain when our life returns to normal or when we reach election season in November? Will we continue to walk in the light of Christ then?
Believe it or not, human beings emit our own light; we are luminescent. But the light we emit is a thousand times weaker that what the human eye can detect. Left in our own light, we would be blind. But, luckily, we are not left to our own light. One chapter before today’s reading, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Some of us have more time at home these days, and it’s a good chance to do our Lenten work of self-reflection. So in the coming week, I invite us to spend some time reflecting on these questions: Where are the places in our life that lie in shadows, that need the light of Christ? What would it look like to turn more completely toward Christ so that his light illumines our path? And how might we learn to recognize the light of Christ in the lives of others, even those in whom we fail to see the light at first glance? The answers are a matter of life – full, abundant, eternal life.
 Catrin F. Williams, “What is bioluminescence and how is it used in nature and by humans?”. Phys.org, July 27, 2018, https://phys.org/news/2018-07-bioluminescence-humans-nature.html.
 Gail R. O’Day, “Commentary on John 9:1-41,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 554-566.