This is the last week of Epiphany: next week is Transfiguration Sunday, and then we are into Lent.
Despite the darkening content of the gospel as we go forward, I would say that the whole of John’s gospel belongs to Epiphany, to the ways in which God becomes visible in earthly life, because we are continually encountering ‘signs’. If Jesus isn’t performing them, he or others are referring to those we read about only obliquely. The other gospels relate miracles, John does not call them that. In John, performing a miracle isn’t enough. It has to be recognized, interpreted and, through it, people brought to faith in God. That makes it a sign of the reality of God. Belief in Jesus is belief in the One who sent him into the world, not to condemn it, but so that we might have life. And signs are the conduit to faith and thus to life.
A reading from John, chapter 4
From Samaria, Jesus came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. 47When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” 50Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. 51As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. 52So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” 53The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. 54Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
Hymn response #485 I am the bread of life
“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” That sounds like scolding to me. But, we can’t know the tone of voice or emotion Jesus is expressing. It may very well be sadness, futility, “when will they ever learn.” Either way, I’m digging in.
This man, a royal official – quite likely a Gentile since Capernaum was a border town – heard that Jesus was back in Galilee and came running. It’s a sixteen mile trip through the hill country. He came begging for his son to be healed. As usual, Jesus’ words don’t appear to fit the situation. Why would this father come that far, risking that his son will die while he was away on a fool’s errand (instead of being there by his side), if he didn’t actually believe that Jesus can bring the nearly, quite-possibly-already dead child back to life? This father is looking for signs and wonders because he believes Jesus is the only hope he’s got.
Maybe desperate hope is not yet faith. Maybe he would not believe in God’s power if his son had actually died and Jesus had told him his boy will live again in eternity. Maybe we still don’t come to faith based on that hard word. Signs and wonders are still what we hope for, pray for. How much more true would that be had you been there in person, watching or hearing of miracle healings when you have a loved one in need of just that very thing, and Jesus is there in person? Of course he wants a sign and wonder.
I’ll get back to this, but I want to bring in the next episode because, once again, John is comparing and contrasting, so that we ‘see’ what’s going on.
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2Now at the temple by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethsaida, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.10So the Pharisees said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.'” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said this to you?” 13But the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there.
14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’
18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
19Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. 20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.”
According to this gospel, a sign is not a miracle, it may include a miracle, but it is more. The purpose of a sign is that it leads to faith – it moves one to a new reality. The signs point through the miracle to God acting through Jesus. The prologue to this gospel says that no one has seen God, but the Son came to make him known. The Son does this by speaking and acting as the Father does, as we have just heard Jesus say, ‘Truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing;… and he will show greater works than these, so that you will marvel.’
With last week’s story of the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus at the well, and Nicodemus the week before her, we now have four compare and contrast stories in a row. Two of them are about miraculous healings; two of them are about people coming to faith; two of them are included in the traditional listing of seven signs in the gospel. BUT, I think, we are supposed to compare and contrast and read all of them carefully so that we ‘see’ what’s happening.
The last lines of the royal official’s story say: 53The father realized that this (the hour his son’s fever broke) was the time that Jesus had said, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. 54Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.”
We’ve got here a miraculous, long-distance healing, sight unseen on Jesus part, and a household coming to faith who have never even met Jesus. They come to believe based solely on the word of the father connecting what Jesus said with what they observed. “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe.” That is a true sign.
And it says this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee. I think this is an important detail.
The first sign of the gospel was the wedding feast at Cana. From there, Jesus went south to Jerusalem in Judea for Passover where he cleared the Temple marketplace and met with Nicodemus. Then he started back north to Galilee through Samaria where he met with the woman, and continued now back up to Cana bringing us to the royal official and his request. But, it says this is the second sign since he came back from Judea, since he left Jerusalem. Hang on to that for a minute.
Today’s second story is about Jesus back at the Temple in Jerusalem where he finds a paralyzed man lying at the pool of Bethsaida. Although the man is miraculously healed, there is no mention of faith. The man does not seek Jesus out, he responds to Jesus’ question “Do you want to be made well?” with a statement of how impossible it is to be healed in his condition, and then, when it turns out that he is healed, he walks away carrying his mat as instructed. Even when he meets Jesus again afterwards, he doesn’t thank him or follow him. Yet, the tradition lists this as a sign. I think this is incorrect. It is a wonder, a miracle, but it brings no one to faith, and actually becomes the point at which the Pharisees openly reject Jesus and begin to persecute him. That’s the opposite of coming to faith. This shows what a miracle without faith looks like. We’ll see this dynamic again when Jesus complains that the crowds are following him simply because they want free bread. They benefit from the wonder, but don’t see through it to acknowledge God’s power or glory or love. It doesn’t move them to belief. It is just a supernatural occurrence, and they’d like more, please.
The story of the Samaritan woman didn’t have a physical miracle, but it had a conceptual one, a conversational miracle about living water and the presence of God in Jesus that brought her and her villagers to faith in God. That is a sign according to this gospel’s own definition. And it agrees with the count. The royal official’s son “was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee,” making hers the first.
I don’t know why the tradition left it out of the list of seven signs and instead includes a miracle that leads to lack of faith — it makes no sense, except that the interpretive tradition, whenever it started, missed the point and couldn’t see her story, her situation as equal to a physical healing. She is the first person in the gospel to name Jesus as the Messiah – to ‘see’ that, and through her many came to faith, just like the royal official’s household came to faith through his description of what had happened.
It is, possibly, probably, also because she is a woman and because she had an interesting marital history and was now living with someone who was not her husband. Tradition has not dealt fairly with her. It doesn’t surprise me that the patriarchal church couldn’t see hers as the second sign of the gospel. But, we have the freedom to take a more generous view of her life, and to see what Jesus saw in her and what John implied.
So, why does any of this matter?
It matters because in these stories, beginning with Nicodemus, we are presented with options, with different scenarios of engagement with the living word of God. All of these signs and would-be signs are occasioned just by the spoken word. Nicodemus sought out Jesus, struggled to make sense of the conversation, but stayed on the outside, his faith uncertain. The Samaritan woman met Jesus apparently by chance, got wrapped up in the wonder, came to believe and brought in all of her neighbors. The royal official sought Jesus in desperation, left the encounter trusting that Jesus would be true to his word, and along with his whole household truly came to believe. The man whom Jesus approached in the temple pool was healed ‘in person’. No doubt he appreciated the miracle, but he didn’t seem to get what it meant. He didn’t know who it was who had healed him.
We could chart these variables, interactions, and results. They serve as templates, perhaps, for our patterns of belief. There are more to come. The disciples are too close to bring things into focus. Each of them has a rather dense moment in the gospel. They are confused by the details like observing an impressionist painting up too closely where all you see are splotches of color and heavy paint. They see what Jesus does and yet they don’t ‘see’ who Jesus is. They can’t yet see that it is God doing the signs and wonders through him.
I asked last week what creates faith in you, and it is a serious question. You may not choose to tell me, but I hope you will spend time thinking about it. And asking yourself what difference it makes to the way you live.
It also is a good lead-in to our Lent Wednesday theme of Heaven in Ordinary – the sacraments of daily life.
The earliest Jewish Christian community called themselves, “The Way” – probably as in, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The way we live, the way we follow Christ, the way we come to faith and share that faith with others is still part of our identity. Or, possibly, part of our current identity crisis as modern American Christians. Hopefully, we still catch glimpses, get some hints along the way, still see things that look like God’s fingerprints might be on them, and try to find the path. The Way is venturing out as pilgrims by paths that look untrodden through perils unknown, not knowing, but only believing that God’s hand is leading us and that God’s love is supporting us. Faith is not an answer to life’s questions: faith is a way of dealing with the uncertainty.
Healing stories and miracles form an interesting intersection with faith even in this age of reason and very rational medical “miracles.” There are clouds of prayers that rise in the space of illness, in the time after a diagnosis, during treatment. We have great diagnostic tools and medicine, surgery and skills to treat almost everything, but most people – religious or not – add prayer to the therapeutic regime.
Faith, prayer, miracles are still is a bewildering enterprise to me, because, based on John’s gospel, the efficacy of prayer and faith is both dependent on belief and has nothing to do with belief. Jesus seeks out some of these conversation partners, one paralyzed person among the many who lay by the Pool of Bethsaida, and he healed the one who didn’t really respond. Others seek him out – some of them come to faith as a result, some don’t. Large crowds follow Jesus, we are told, because of the signs he worked, but not everyone was healed in Galilee, not everyone who hungered was fed. The oppressed remained oppressed. It’s a bewildering mix. The same is true today. There is not one way, one holy door. It’s not the fault of our prayers. It’s not the capricious nature of God, it’s just… what? Life and bodies and the nature of things? And as the quickly souring relationship with the Jewish authorities reminds us, Jesus’ own prayers and faith won’t save him from the cross. But, ultimately, it is his enemies who cause God’s greatest love to be revealed.
Signs point us to God, to a greater mystery, to love revealed in a broken hallelujah: a crucified Messiah. That was not the sign his disciples were looking for, nor one they could comprehend. It remains an enigmatic sign of the kingdom. It reminds us that God seeks us out in our defeat, comes to us not only in times of achievement, but, more likely, in our regret, in conditions that call out for mercy, trundling down paths as yet untrodden through perils unknown. Like the royal official, we go not knowing, but believing that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love is supporting us. Faith is not an answer to life’s questions. Faith is the way of living into the uncertainties. To misquote Sherlock, the mystery is afoot! Be awake to the signs.