It is well documented that John uses the miracles of Jesus, or as he calls them “signs” to point to his audience to who Jesus is. They aren’t miracles for miracles sake, and they aren’t just to be taken at face value, but rather they serve as sign posts on the way to fully understanding the Kingdom that Jesus, the Divine Word, inaugurates.
I find this understanding of signs to be helpful these days. As modernity has ripped mystery away from humankind, both the very liberal and the very conservative sides of Christianity have sought to rationalize Jesus’ miracles. Liberals say, “Well these just didn’t happen, but they are good stories,” while conservatives say, “Of course these happened, and here is scientific evidence of how it happened.” Both ways take the mystery out of the miraculous and both lose sight of the fact that the miracles of Jesus weren’t just magic tricks to entertain the crowds, they were teaching moments of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.
This morning on Facebook, I ran across an NPR article that my friend, The Rev. Matthew Bradley, had shared. It was from Monday’s Morning Edition and it is part of an ongoing series called “Losing Our Religion,” an in depth study of the rise of the “nones,” that 20% (and growing) of the US population that claims no religious affiliation. While I normally stay away form NPR, unless I’m looking to take a nap, I was intrigued enough by Matt’s comment on the piece to want to know more. He writes:
[I] Saw this article yesterday and heard the interviews this morning. I don’t particularly want to post this, but I feel like I need to. To my friends who want to believe, who want to be a part of a religious community, but don’t think that anyone will understand or respect your questions or concerns: Let’s talk. Seriously. Inbox me or give me a call. I’m not talking to my atheist friends. I get what you’re about and I’m not trying to convert you or anything. I’m talking to the folks who have received unsatisfying, pat answers to difficult, heart-wrenching questions. Do I have the answers? No. Will I actually listen? Yes. Are there probably folks where you live that could give you an even better listening ear? Probably. I might even know someone to whom I could introduce you. Bottom line: If you have a legal problem, you might call a friend who is a lawyer. If you have a computer problem, you call your nerd friend. Don’t forget that you have a priest friend who would love to talk if you find yourself in a crisis of faith. No judgement. No pat answers. Promise.
As I listened to these six men and women, all of whom are roughly my age, I realized that I was getting frustrated. My initial reaction was to be frustrated with them – they expected too much out of life, religion, church – but the more I listened, the more I realized that religion had let them down. It had, as Matt said, given them unsatisfying and pat answers, or worse yet, it had failed to acknowledge their question at all. Too often, like… oh… say, for almost three generations now, religious leaders have failed their membership by offering either a crappy answer to tough questions or no response at all.
We have ignored the signposts of Christ, in Scripture and in life, to the detriment of the people who are honestly struggling to find God and the role He plays in their lives. We should be ashamed that a guy whose mom died of cancer, couldn’t find someone to sit and listen to his frustration and heartbreak.
John knew what his audience needed to see and know about Jesus to make a decision to follow him. He used Jesus’ miracles as signs, pointing toward the long awaited Messiah. The 21st century Church ought to be doing the same thing – pointing people to Jesus by being like Him.
Read this article. Listen to these interviews. Take seriously the challenge that hard questions bring. And, as Matt says, if you are struggling, call me, email me, Facebook me, whatever; I’d be glad to listen.