Exiting a commercial airliner upon arrival at an unfamiliar airport, what does one look for? The vast majority will look for a sign reading Arrivals, Baggage Claim, Customs or Transfers; we look for something that will direct us to the next necessary step in our journey.
Whoever it was that wrote the Gospel of John shared an equal concern for the spiritual travellers of the first century, those who were trying to come to grips with the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, put to death some six decades before. The first half of the Gospel consists primarily of the telling of seven stories that are identified as “signs” of who Jesus is. And near its end the Gospel concludes that “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20.30,31).
However, understanding signs is not as simple or straightforward as we might think.
Some years back I sat through a presentation from the small team responsible for the signage at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, an airport which has won multiple international awards for its ease of use and excellent signage. I was interested to hear that, no matter how good, how many or well-placed the signs in the airport, the team’s research showed that there is a significant percentage of the population who simply cannot or will not understand. A few may be illiterate and not accustomed to making sense of any written code, but there are many more who simply don’t have the capacity to interpret what a sign means and take the appropriate action. And so it is always necessary to have an Information Desk or personnel located at strategic points throughout the airport to assist those who are lost, confused or doubting.
Sometimes a sign is misinterpreted. The chapel at Schiphol Airport is called the “Meditation Centre”; people regularly show up there who are in need of medication.
And I remember helping one woman at a gate who believed she was about to board an airplane to Oslo in Norway when actually it was heading to Norwich in the UK. Reading to the end of the word is important.
But it is this that intrigues me today: on occasion one finds those who have convinced themselves that the sign is actually the thing itself. Those who try in vain to open the locked broom closet that just happens to be under the sign pointing to the bathrooms further along the corridor. And should you visit Los Angeles, organized tours to the Hollywood Sign are indeed on offer, but you should be aware that the sign itself is not actually located in Hollywood.
This is the predicament of the crowd following Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter six. They’ve mistaken the sign for the thing itself. The sign that has been given them is the miraculous feeding of 5000 people from a boy’s lunch of a few loaves and fishes. The point of this sign was that it said something about Jesus and the divine. Instead, they are stuck on the sign itself, the distribution of the food: they want to know if Jesus will repeat the miracle; if not, is it replicable by any one of them; and, perhaps, is Jesus willing to reach for daily provision, the bar set by Moses?
We snigger at their myopia, but really, given even the slightest chance of having a free meal prepared for us every day would we not also explore the possibilities? If you don’t believe the poor are still today in need of a free meal, I urge you to make an open-minded visit to a local food bank or rescue mission.
I wonder what signs of God’s grace we get stuck on ourselves? What things are given us on our spiritual pilgrimage which were intended to encourage us and point us further along the journey but, instead, we have stopped to build a shrine, so to speak? Like the people with their bread and fish meal, we hesitate to move on because the sign itself was so comforting, bringing us a lucid experience of God’s care for us.
I think we all know people (and if we are honest, we know ourselves to be those people) who, as U2 sings, “got stuck in a moment”. A spiritual awakening happened twenty years ago when God answered an earnest prayer, for instance, and we hold fast to that moment as the pinnacle of our spiritual pilgrimage. The question is: without diminishing the significance of that God-given grace, have we moved any further along the path since then? Are we stuck in a moment, clutching a sign?
Perhaps it is a particular kind of liturgy or church service, or a denominational affiliation, or a set of hymns or choruses, maybe a type of retreat or conference. It could even be a person, an author or spiritual guide. All of these are good things. However, all of them were given us, not so that we would huddle under them as if we had reached our destination, but as encouragements and helps as we continue along our way. We must not let the sign replace the thing to which it points.
So in the end we see again that we are not that different from the people we read about in the Gospels. The scriptures are a mirror which, when we hold them up, reflect our own lives.
Gentle reader, loosen your grasp. Let go that thing that has you living in a particular moment or era of the past. It is time to move on, to explore the greater riches of God’s grace yet to be uncovered in your life.