Are You Woke?

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Ephesians 5:8–14
John 9:1–41

Are you woke?

If you are not familiar with the term, to be woke means to have become conscious of the myriad ways the domination system conspires to keep us docile and malleable. To be woke means to refuse to submit to those practices that keep people down, to refuse to accept the categories that divide people into separate but unequal castes. To be woke means to have become aware that one is living within the Matrix, and to make the deliberate choice to unplug from the grid. It is to have one’s eyes opened, and to resolve never to return to blindness.

I feel a little self-conscious even using this language, because the terminology of “wokeness” arose within the African American resistance community—especially the Black Lives Matter movement—and for a forty-something-year-old white guy like me to say it may come across as disingenuous. After all, my face resembles the face of the Man, and there is a long history in this country of white people appropriating the culture, language patterns, and art forms of black people for their own purposes or gain. From minstrel shows to Amos ’n’ Andy to Vanilla Ice, we have been co-opting black culture for years, and I don’t want to be another link in that chain. It gives me pause to wonder what Ta-Nehisi Coates or Jelani Cobb would say about my use of the term.

But I’m going to go ahead with it, because the concept, if not the terminology, has roots that reach far deeper than Black Lives Matter or the race consciousness of Marcus Garvey or W. E. B. Dubois. In fact, we find evidence of persons becoming woke throughout the Bible, including in today’s readings from John and Ephesians.

The epistle to the Ephesians probably originated as a sermon by someone writing in the name of Paul, probably a decade or two after the original Paul’s death. It was distributed as a kind of circular letter among the various churches in Asia Minor (what is now western Turkey), and somewhere along the way it picked up the name of the most prominent city in that part of the world, Ephesus. The letter follows a typical format for Christian sermons in the first century—it presents a balanced rhetorical argument: this is what God has done for you, and this is how you therefore ought to live.

Ephesians follows this pattern to a tee. The first three chapters are all about the readers’ identity, and the last three chapters are the writer’s exhortations to them to live in a particular way in light of that identity. The churches in this part of Asia Minor comprised Jews and Gentiles who had responded to Paul’s message of unity and redemption through Christ, and were now trying to figure out how to live into that reality. The writer of the letter describes them as a new humanity—a combination of Jewish and Greek cultures into an unprecedented synthesis—and he appeals to them to make their behavior match their new identity.

In our passage for today, the writer seems to be addressing the Gentile members in particular. He contrasts their old pagan way of life to what they have become in Christ in terms of light and darkness. He says, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (v. 8). He tells them to seek after what is pleasing to God, saying, “The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (v. 9), and urges them to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (v. 11). His reasoning for this instruction is that “everything exposed by the light becomes visible” (v. 13). He concludes by citing what was probably a familiar poem or hymn of the time: “Sleeper, awake! / Rise from the dead, / and Christ will shine on you” (v. 14).

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Once you were asleep, unaware of all the ways you were victims, beneficiaries, and perpetrators of injustice and oppression, but now you are woke.

Live as children of light. Act as those who are woke.

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. Don’t go back to the easy way, the path of least resistance; don’t let yourself get plugged back into the Matrix. Instead, stay woke, and aid in the waking of others. Act in the manner of Morpheus from the Matrix movies, who invites people to see reality and choose whether to continue living within the machinery of the system or to join the resistance.

Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. Becoming woke is a kind of resurrection: whereas before you were as good as dead, going through the motions, floating with the current, and making no waves, now you are truly alive. You are alive to God’s reality, to truth and grace and hope, to the world-transforming possibilities of living in the reign of God. You see with new eyes, and you cannot go back to your time of blindness.

Speaking of seeing with new eyes, that almost literally happens to the man Jesus encounters in chapter 9 of John’s gospel. John describes the method Jesus uses to give sight to the man born blind: “He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes” (v. 6). John wants us to remember the creation story in Genesis 2, in which God makes the first human out of the dust of the ground. Jesus is not just performing a healing here; he is engaging in an act of creation.

This is significant because this is not just a blind man; someone who has lost his sight somewhere along the way through accident or illness. This man was born blind. He has never seen before. His entire life he has walked in darkness. To give him sight—to bring light to his perpetual darkness—Jesus must create something entirely new.

First, however, he has to weather his disciples’ theological boneheadedness. In a sense, he has to give them sight as well. The only thing they can see when they first encounter the blind man is a theological conundrum. “Rabbi,” they say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). In their worldview, illness or disability is a punishment for sin; their only question is whose sin is responsible? Does God really visit the sins of the parents on their children, or is each person culpable for his or her own punishment? The disciples are ready to debate the philosophical niceties of this question, with one group blaming the parents, and the other holding forth for individual responsibility. What they are not prepared to do, it seems, is help the man in any way or even to treat him as a person due their respect and compassion. For them he has become a cipher, a pawn in their esoteric argument.

Jesus nips the debate in the bud. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (v. 3a); and then he says something that the NRSV mistranslates. They supply a missing clause to have Jesus say, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v. 3b). But “he was born blind” does not appear in the original Greek text. Professor Osvaldo Vena suggests that a change in the way the sentence is punctuated yields a better result: “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…” (Vena, “Commentary,” n.p.). Leaving it the way the NRSV translates it could lead one to the conclusion that God deliberately blinded the man before birth so that years later Jesus could come along and glorify God by healing him. Jesus does not countenance this interpretation at all. He merely says, “Here is an opportunity to do the work God has called us to do, so let’s do it.” End of debate.

In the full quotation Jesus says it is necessary for us to “work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (vv. 4–5). Jesus is the original Morpheus, enlightening those who walk in darkness, calling them out of the sleep of complacency into the light of goodness, truth, righteousness, and justice. He is liberating us from our victimization by and complicity with the domination system and bringing us into the freedom of the reign of God. He is unplugging us from the Matrix so that we can live in the Real World. He is taking the sleepers and making them woke.

Jesus packs his mud poultice on the blind man’s eyes, sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and then disappears from the story for the next twenty-seven verses. The man dutifully goes to the pool, washes, and returns, able to see for the first time in his life. His neighbors can’t believe it’s really him, but he assures them it is, and tells them it was “the man called Jesus” who effected this remarkable cure.

At this point the Pharisees get involved, and it’s no coincidence that here John drops in a small detail: oh, by the way, it’s the sabbath day. For Jesus to have made mud would have constituted work in the Pharisees’ meticulous system, and they already have a number of bones to pick with Jesus, so they interrogate the man at some length.

What follows is a rather amusing scene in which the Pharisees argue with the formerly blind man, question his parents, and fight amongst themselves. We won’t go through the whole episode again; I just want to make a couple of observations.

First, the man demonstrates a growing understanding of the identity of Jesus. At first, all he knows is that “a man called Jesus” smeared mud on his eyes and told him to wash. In verse 17, in answer to a question from the Pharisees, he says of Jesus, “He is a prophet.” As the interrogation goes on, and the Pharisees become more and more flustered at their inability to cow him into agreeing with their assessment of Jesus as a sinner and sabbath-breaker, the man declares his conviction that Jesus is from God. He tells them, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but [God] does listen to one who worships [God] and obeys [God’s] will. 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” (vv. 31–33). Later, when Jesus comes and finds the man after the Pharisees have driven him out of the synagogue, his confession reaches its climax when he calls Jesus “Lord” and worships him.

The other thing I want to note is that throughout the story the man born blind exhibits the characteristics of a disciple. First, he hears Jesus’s voice and obeys: he goes to the pool of Siloam to wash. Next, he bears witness. He does not present sophisticated christological arguments; he simply tells the story of his experience. At one point in the interrogation, the Pharisees call Jesus a sinner, and the man responds, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind now I see” (v. 25). That line now appears in one of the most famous hymns in the history of the church: “I once was lost but now am found, / was blind but now I see.” He is woke.

Finally, the man demonstrates his readiness to be a disciple by naming Jesus as his Lord and worshiping him. He is one of those that Jesus will describe in the next chapter, which is really a continuation of this episode: he is one of Jesus’s sheep, who hear his voice and follow him. Jesus is both the light of the world and the good shepherd whose sheep know his voice, so it is significant that when the man asks him who the Son of Man is, he says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (v. 37). One can come to faith in Jesus either through seeing or hearing, as he will later point out in the scene with “doubting Thomas.” The man born blind both sees and hears.

The Pharisees, however, do neither. They cannot extricate themselves from the system they have built and that now has them enslaved. Like the disciples at the beginning of the story, they see the formerly blind man only in objective terms, not as a subject in his own right. For them, he is a piece of evidence in their dispute with Jesus. When he proves uncooperative, they call him names and kick him out.

Jesus tries to warn them. He says, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind" (v. 39). The Pharisees scoff at this, saying, “Sure we are not blind, are we?” (v. 40) and Jesus responds, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (v. 41). Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were innocent. Once they broke the skin of that fruit and felt the juice run down their chins, however, their eyes were opened and they experienced shame, fear, and distrust—in other words, sin.

Becoming woke brings with it responsibility. Once your eyes have been opened, you cannot go back to pretending you are blind. You must act. When the Spirit of God enters your life and opens your eyes to the injustice, conflict, violence, greed, and depravity that you had been able conveniently to ignore before, you cannot ignore it any longer. Those of us who read The New Jim Crow cannot go back to pretending the justice system in our country is fair and equitable for all citizens. Those of us who have heard the stories of the marginalized in our community cannot sit silent when a grand jury refuses even to indict the officers who killed Henry Green. Those of us who have tasted the freedom of the reign of God cannot stand idly by as politicians remove protections that outlawed discrimination against transgender persons, and the Supreme Court declines to review the case. Those of us who are woke cannot hit the snooze button and go back to sleep for nine more minutes or nine more weeks or nine more years. We just can’t.

So I ask again—and this question is directed at me as much as you—are you woke?

Vena, Osvaldo. 2017. “Commentary on John 9:1–41.” Working Preacher. Online.

Robert TurnerComment