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Reading the Signs
Fr Mark Waters, July 29th, 2012 

A large crowd kept following him, because they were impressed by the signs that he gave by curing the sick
. (John 6. 1-21)

We live in a society full of signs.

Just think of the opening Olympic ceremony on Friday night, which I guess most of us watched on TV. Almost an overdose of signs! Think of the internet, with its texts, tweets, and facebook messages. So many signs.  And advertising hoardings absolutely everywhere; logos on everything – especially the clothes and shoes many younger people wear.But our problem is that, just like the people in Jesus’s time – we are always in danger of misinterpreting the signs.

A large crowd kept following him, because they were impressed by the signs that he gave by curing the sick.

I wonder what sort of people they were that followed him? And what they were hoping for? People with infections of all sorts; those with disturbing mental illnesses; children who weren’t thriving, possibly with rickets and polio. We get a clue from the gospels about some of the health issues  – people who were ‘possessed’ – maybe suffering from epilepsy, or schizophrenia; people with skin diseases;  all sorts. But clearly desperate people.

Like us, but with much more reason, the people of Jesus’s time were pretty obsessed with cures for illness. It must have been a much bigger concern for many, especially the poor. Their health service was limited. The mortality rate was probably pretty high. Illnesses and diseases which can be routinely cured today, were fatal then. So they had every reason to follow someone who seemed to be able to effect instant cures.

We have no such excuse, but we have some strange obsessions about our health. As a society, we jump at quack remedies. We misinterpret the signs. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, we still believe that vitamin pills, and all sorts of other pills and potions, and copper bracelets, and colonic irrigation, and reflexology, will make or keep us well. We flock to buy the books outlining the latest diet fad, particularly if it comes endorsed by someone slightly famous. We swoon over popular self-help gurus who promise us stress free lives, endless intellectual potential, successful businesses, or whatever other lie they’re peddling today. We misinterpret the signs.

What sort of crowd would be following Jesus today because they’d seen the signs?: cancer sufferers – lots of them I guess; those with incurable, uncommon, fatal illnesses; those with neurological diseases: people with real medical issues.

But others too: people wanting a gastric band to stop them eating; people addicted to different substances; those wanting a bit of botox, or a ‘nip and tuck’; young girls with anorexia; lots of emotional and psychiatric problems. A different range of issues for a different society.

A large crowd kept following him, because they were impressed by the signs that he gave by curing the sick.

Let’s shift to the second story in this morning’s gospel for a moment. The disciples are rowing across the lake, trying to get to Capernaum. A storm sets in, with a strong wind. They have been rowing for three or four miles and apparently getting nowhere. They are terrified. Then they see Jesus. They want him to calm the storm and save them. Jesus simply says to them, ‘it’s me, don’t be afraid’. And then the story ends with these words – ‘immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going’.

What is really interesting about both stories in the gospel this morning, both the feeding story, and the story of the storm on the lake, is that in neither of them does Jesus give the people what they want or are hoping for. In the first story people are wanting healing, instead Jesus gives them a meal. In the second story, the disciples are wanting the storm to be stilled, but Jesus doesn’t do this. What is going on?

In order to interpret the signs we need to pay some close attention to some of the smaller details in the story. So, for example, in the feeding story we are told, ‘now the Passover was near’. Passover was the annual feast which commemorated the Exodus, the liberation story of the Jews. Freed from slavery they searched in the wilderness, and were given manna – bread – in the wilderness. So the writer of John is asking us to somehow connect this story to that more ancient story of liberation.

Secondly, we hear that Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. Remind you of anything? It’s a reference to the eucharist – take, bless, break and share!

And then In the story of the storm on the lake, we are told at the end ‘immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going’.  A group of people making a dangerous journey through water to get to reach safety. Remind you of anything? It’s a reference to the escape from slavery, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on their way from slavery to freedom.

These stories point backwards to the founding, liberation stories of God’s people – manna in the desert and salvation from the sea. And then they point forward to the new exodus, the new liberation which will come about through the cross, and which we commemorate in the eucharist.

The gospel writer is asking us to look for a deeper significance in the signs. To go deeper than our concern with our own individual pre-occupations, our preoccupation with own personal difficulties, and to catch the vision of the salvation which God has in mind for the whole world, the whole creation. More than that, he invites us to join with him in that process, that journey of liberation, and to be partners in the struggle. To stop being victims in our lives, and to be co-creators of a new reality.

Do you remember the words of the old hymn – ‘Jesus calls us o’er the tumult, of our life’s wild, restless sea’. He calls us beyond our own self-concern.

Like the crowds in this story, we have been fed with God’s grace, fed with God’s mercy and care and steadfast love; but like them we often fail to see what God is doing among us. We look for the wrong kind of Jesus, one who will simply serve our own narrow interests and desires.

And like the disciples in trouble in the boat on the lake in the storm Jesus comes to us across the lonely, empty, threatening times and places and says ‘I am!’. The great ‘I am’ has come to be with us and bring us the goal God has intended. But the storm is not stilled. Instead, the glory of God is revealed in Jesus through the storm, just as that glory will be revealed through the cross. And in fact the storm is never stilled. We live in a world which is in the process of being redeemed, but is never fully redeemed.

We are invited to participate in Jesus’s passion for a different kind of world. But we are told, on this journey with Jesus, the cross cannot be avoided. If we want to be fed with the living bread which comes down from heaven, the food which really satisfies, to live lives that are really fulfilling and meaningful, then we too must make that journey to Jerusalem. We must eat the right food for the journey too – in himself Jesus satisfies our hunger and quenches our thirst. He prepares us for a new exodus, a new liberation. And the meal of the eucharist which we will shortly share, is a foretaste of that kingdom, when we will eat and drink of love in the promised land.

So these two, connected, stories from John this morning remind us that God is up to something far greater than we usually imagine. Jesus comes to us as God in the flesh, the one who reveals to us the Father and draws us into the Father's love. Jesus comes across the fearful, lonely, empty, threatening times and places, and says "I am." The "I am" has come to be with us and bring us to the goal God has intended. Jesus is food and drink for our souls. He satisfies our deepest hunger and quenches our driest thirst. As manna in the wilderness he is food for the journey.  We are to eat lest the journey be too great for us. 

But most of all these stories invite us to participate in Jesus’ passion for a different kind of world. They present us with a challenge – do we spend our lives as a member of the crowd, following whatever fashions and trends our society sets for us. Or, instead, do we allow ourselves to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture, in which we are leaders, not followers, co-creators, not victims, joined with God in the task of building new heavens and a new earth.


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