To Be A Gospel Sign (John 6:30)
In John’s gospel, the crowd in Capernaum asks Jesus, “What sign can you do for us?” To catch the full meaning here, it’s important to know John’s special use of the word ‘sign.’ He doesn’t mean it in the ordinary sense of one thing that stands in for something else that isn’t there, as for instance the exit arrow pointing to an outside corridor; the sign is not the corridor but rather stands for it. The evangelist expands sign to mean symbol in which one particular thing doesn’t point to an absent something else but rather renders that something present. And so the wedding ring which doesn’t just tell the husband he’s married to someone who’s not there at the time, but in a real way brings the presence of that woman right to him. The band does more than stand in for his wife; if the man is disposed, it brings her personally close to him. To say it another way, it “re-presents” her.
A symbol has a depth; it is what it is on the surface, but if perceived straightforwardly it draws the perceiver into the deeper riches that symbol contains. A symbol is personal; it communicates not just information but the inner life of another. And a symbol is transformational; appreciating its meaning changes the appreciator.
So sign in John’s symbolic sense stands not so much for something as it stands in that something. And it does this through a deepening relationship between persons which in turn changes the one who reads the sign rightly.
A good instance of this is seen in the difference between the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus and the one with the Samaritan woman.
When The Lord mentions “born again,” Nicodemus takes it literally. “Surely I cannot reenter my mother’s womb and be born again.” Because he hears this on a surface level only (as a biological anomaly), he can’t sense the personal invitation that Jesus is really offering.
To the woman at the well, Jesus holds out thirst-quenching water. But because of her willingness to open her person to him, she’s able to move from water regarded as H2O to that underlying spiritual reality that will quench her thirst forever — and in addition recognize who it really is who is doing the offering. This water for her is now transparent to its true depths. It becomes a medium of entry into God’s glory appearing right there before her. It isn’t just “standing in” for God who is someplace else, but rather then and there carries to her the soul-quenching presence of Jesus’ Father.
And so back to the Capernaum conversation.
- “What sign can you do, Jesus? Can you give us some of that manna that fed our ancestors and fill our bellies with it now?”
- “You’re missing what else was in that bread, better Who else was in it my Father the giver of the gift. It’s a making present (a symbol) of the life giving nourishment He would bestow on the world.”
- “Well, we get that. Give us some of that kind of bread.”
- “Once again, you’re missing it. The fullest, most abundant life giving bread is standing right in front of you — I am the bread of life.”
Often in John, this further step toward recognition is one many can’t make. For different reasons people are closed to the invitation or beckoning this “sign” is giving. These signs give off a call to move into the personal space of Jesus, and in fact all of his “works” (another Johannine symbol-word) are invitations to the transformation he offers. He himself is The great sign – God present and calling us in the midst of life.
Not just an interesting linguistic device, John’s sign carries over into the meaning of discipleship and the task it entails. Following Jesus involves more than standing in for him as would a surrogate for some absent client. It asks us to become one of his signs, to become in our own persons the bearers of his very presence, not just a substitute representative of the Lord but a personal medium through whom He again walks the earth. To be this for us is to be a sacrament (literally, a making-present of the sacred), or as one writer so deftly put it, to be a sacrament of the encounter with God.
Granted that none of us brings God onto the scene as does Jesus, discipleship nonetheless has as its aim to see how he sees, do the kinds of things he does and, to the extent we can, be who he is. In other words, become that communicating sign of God’s love in the world.
The different spiritual families in the Church refract the countless lights inside this sign who is Jesus, Vincent de Paul being a shining instance. In his person and works, he made Jesus present to his time, particularly as missionary of the Father to the poor of this world. He “presenced” Jesus’ saving love to the downtrodden men and women of his day, not only by responding to the Father living in them but also seeking in so many ways to bring them the Father’s loving compassion. John would have recognized Vincent as one of those “signs,” a conveyer of who Jesus is and what he’s about.
As disciples of this disciple ourselves, the charge is clear. How do we in our actions, manner, concerns, priorities, and whole way of being in the world continue this particular way of communicating the person of God? Our call is not so much to be “stand-in’s” for Vincent, just as he was not a detached substitute for the Lord. Rather we are to be Vincent-signs, to be Vincent alive again, carrying his ever-attractive gospel vision to where it’s most needed.
“What signs can you, Lord, and you the Lord’s disciples, give us?” We in the Vincentian Family strive to be just these “signs of Jesus” as through us he keeps on coming to bring good news to the poor.