08 March 2016

What is the Real Sign Jesus Does?

[[Now there was a royal official whose son was ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, who was near death. Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” The royal official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “You may go; your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus said to him and left. While the man was on his way back, his slaves met him and told him that his boy would live. He asked them when he began to recover. They told him, “The fever left him yesterday, about one in the afternoon.” The father realized that just at that time Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live,” and he and his whole household came to believe. Now this was the second sign Jesus did when he came to Galilee from Judea.]]

There is a serious challenge present in today's (Monday's) gospel reading. It is rooted in what seems to be a sincere desire on Jesus' part that people believe him and the word of promise he embodies and speaks and that they do so without prior "signs and wonders". In Mark's Gospel Jesus is the one who speaks with a unique authority and it is the challenge to hear that and embrace it that stands at the heart of every Christian vocation. More, it is a share in this same authority we are each called to embody in our own lives --- something we tend to do without miraculous signs and wonders. That is the very nature of an obedient faith, that we hear and trust Jesus, that in response to the authoritative Word he is and speaks we entrust our lives to him and to the promise he represents and that we do so without first demanding "signs and wonders." But John's reference to the miracle at Cana along with his statement, [[Now this was the second sign Jesus did when he came to Galilee from Judea,]] seems to shift our entire attention to Jesus as a wonder worker and to the signs and wonders he did.

 Critical as it is to understand the theological perspective of the gospel writer, sometimes an author's helpful introduction as well as their interpretive summary, their theologoumenon (θεολογούμενον), can actually prevent us from grappling with and hearing the text. In this case it can cause us to assume that the point of the whole reading is that Jesus does miracles despite some initial reluctance on his part. But we must not allow it to do that. Instead it must drive us back to the text, to the task of reading it carefully. Only then might we see that John's focus on wonder working, especially in light of Jesus' objection that people will not believe unless they see signs and wonders, is more ambiguous than we might have assumed, and that his understanding of Jesus and the miracles that stem from our encounters with him are more complex than we might have suspected.

This morning when I read the text I focused only on the critical section (pericope) from [[Jesus said to him]] to [[he and his whole household came to believe.]] I was looking at the dynamics of the exchange between Jesus and the royal official who had clearly traveled some distance seeking Jesus out. I was not reading the story in light of either John's reference to the miracle at Cana or the final interpretive statement which establishes Jesus as a wonder worker. Apart from these statements the passage reads very differently; the focus is drawn away from Jesus having healed the son and instead placed on the official's act of "believing into" Jesus' authority, his word of promise, and what may be the fruits of that "faithing" --- despite being rather unfairly and offensively rebuffed by Jesus for "needing to see miracles to believe" and well before any healing takes place: [[Jesus said, "You may go. Your Son will live." The man believed what Jesus said to him and left.]]

Only the next day does the official discover the fever has left his son and he is recovering. He realizes the fever left his son about the same time he was asking Jesus to intervene. His "believing into" this man Jesus and the Word of Promise he is and speaks is a growing, maturing reality. The son's recovery confirms the truth Jesus spoke and as a result his faith in Jesus grew and in fact, his entire household also came to faith. Jesus' initial rebuff, [[Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe]] challenges the Herodian official to a more authentic faith and he meets the challenge. This entire story is sandwiched between the reference to the conversion of water to wine in Cana, Jesus 1st great "sign", and John's interpretive reminder that this was Jesus' 2nd sign. We assume that when John refers to the second sign it is the act of healing. That may be true but the statement seems ambiguous to me. It follows not only the account of the healing, but more immediately, the fact that the official comes to greater faith and his household also comes to participate in what John describes as "believing into" Jesus and the revelation of God he is.

The question John's summary does not clarify and in fact sharpens, is "What is the real "sign" Jesus did?" Was it a healing of the child or speaking the Word in a way which leads first a Herodian (and thus possibly a Gentile) official and then an entire household to belief? Or was it both together?

I believe we are supposed to see these two things as inextricably wed. Both lead us to see Jesus as the authoritative and authoring Word of God; both lead us to understand faith in Jesus as the most fundamental challenge of our lives. Jesus is both Word and Sign. When he speaks reality is changed and God is made real in an exhaustive way in human history. In Cana Mary believed and instructed others to do whatever Jesus told them. The conversion of water into wine followed this. In today's gospel lection the official may well have known something of Jesus' miracle at Cana but it is the fact that he trusts everything, especially what is most dear to him, to Jesus and what he promises that is the center of today's Lenten Gospel.

It is also, therefore, the center of the call God speaks to us. Jesus' great signs are always linked to people entrusting themselves to the Word of challenge and promise he incarnates; genuine faith involves exactly this kind of trust. Those who root their faith in extraordinary events and manifestations have missed the point. Faith for John is often spoken of as something we mature in. It can begin with an approach to the One who intrigues us and promises miracles as it does for the official. But it grows only as we learn to hear and entrust ourselves to him and his Word. Signs may accompany such faith and validate our trust in the power of the One we are learning more and more to believe in. But the critical act of faith must be a foundational trust in the word that comes to us even without "signs and wonders." In some ways this 'bringing to faith' is always the greatest wonder Jesus empowers.