Ordinary Time, Sunday 17. Words of the Word.

“God is in His holy place, God Who unites those who dwell in His house; He Himself gives might and strength to His people. (Psalm 68:6-7)

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs. (Psalm 145:16).

After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee [of Tiberias]. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs (σημεῖα, semeia) he was performing on the sick (John 6:1-2).
When the people saw the sign (σημεῖον, semeion) he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone (John 6:14-15).

What is a sign? In 1971 “Signs,” a popular song by Five Man Electrical Band, sung of the plethora of these visible markers as well as in their estimation, the restrictions ‘signs’ attempted to impose on people and life. As we begin listening to the “Bread of Life” discourse in the Gospel according to Saint John this Sunday, we are immediately hit with the reality of “sign,” a term very important in the Johannine Gospel as well as in Sacramental Theology.

In antiquity, σημεῖον (semeion) meant “to mark,” “to indicate” or “to identify.” These meanings suggest that σημεῖον is a reality that ‘hits the senses.’ While we tend to connect “sign” to a visual experience, in the Greco-Roman world of the first century “sign” could be any reality that stimulated the senses. Biblical scholars note that when used throughout the pages of the New Testament, σημεῖον always involves people who then have a responsibility to act in a particular way because of the “sign.”

The difficulty of “sign” is that it is powerless in-and-of-itself to effect (to cause) what it signifies. For example, many are familiar with that red, octagon “sign” that appears on the corner of many intersections: the ‘Stop Sign.’ Of itself, the ‘stop sign’ does not cause a vehicle to stop. The driver must see the sign and decide to act in a way commensurate with the content or message of the sign. In terms of action, the “sign” expresses what is to be done, but it is up to the recipient to do what the sign communicates.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs key works that are termed “signs.” The Evangelist John does not use the term “miracle,” a word that comes into the theological vocabulary a bit later. For Saint John, Jesus’ “signs” are sensible realities; they impact the senses. People see what Jesus does. People hear was Jesus says. People taste the bread and the fish that are taken, blessed and given. But what do the people do with this particular “sign” or “signs”? The response to that question is the work of the next 4 Sundays as the “Bread of Life” discourse unfolds, ultimately posing a question – not only to the followers of Jesus in the first century but to us of the twenty-first century as well.

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