Part 2: Sign language (John Ch2-12)

My four-year old son is learning to read and write. It's a slow process, as squiggles give way to letters and the signs on the page gradually give up their meaning. Humankind communicates by using signs. But until you learn their language the meaning remains hidden.

The second section of John, from chapters 2 to 12, is defined by its seven 'signs'. Jesus turns water into wine (2:1-11), heals a royal official's son (4:46-54), heals a man by the pool (5:1-15), feeds 5000 people (6:1-15), walks on water (6:16-24), heals a blind man (9:1-41), and raises Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44).

The astute reader might notice that some of these are included in Mark, Matthew and Luke, and some are not. But the story around these miracles turns them into something quite different.

In chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus in the middle of the night and tells him that a person must be 'born again' to enter the kingdom of God. You can understand why Nicodemus thought Jesus was a nutcase. We've got pretty used to the phrase 'born again' as its come to mean a certain form of evangelical conversion experience. But was that what Jesus meant? Could it be something stranger still?

There's a similar moment of madness later in John's account of Jesus in which Jesus claims that 'unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will have no life in you.' (6:53) No wonder many people deserted him at this point in the story (6:60). This isn't just 'hard teaching'; it's disgusting!

John is unique among the gospels for not including the eucharist at the last supper. We'll come to the Upper Room scene next week - a major part of John's narrative - but there the bread and the wine are conspicuously absent. Yet here in chapter 6, after Jesus has fed the 5000 he claims he is, literally, the bread of life.

Was...Jesus...a...closet...cannibal???

It's ok - I'm pretty sure he wasn't! But we shouldn't spiritualise Jesus' sayings just to make them less weird. Born again people who feed on their master's flesh and blood - what is Jesus on about, and how does this help us interpret the Signs?

I think the clue is hidden in the dank, dark interior of chapter 11 - inside Lazarus' tomb.

The resurrection of Lazarus is the final of the seven signs, the climax of this section of John. And it is here that a man is literally born again, emerging blinking into the daylight of new life. It doesn't take a genius to make the connection. The death and resurrection of Jesus, still to come in the storyline, will emphatically stamp these signs on our memory. Resurrection is a new kind of flesh-life. It is not - as the gnostics dreamed - a derobing, a shedding of the flailing, fallen flesh-world. It is a re-enfleshing. An upgraded experience of physical life.

Are you getting the connection...?

With Chapter 1?

Last week I introduced John's outrageous, heretical Jesus: God as a human. Where the creative logos of God does not avoid physical matter like Philo's gnostic deity. But where God is as real and as near and as grounded as a woman or man who could die.

This is the Jesus of John's gospel. And his signs are the signs of a new life, more emphatically physical than the life we usually experience. Better wine! Physical healing! More food! Resurrection! These are the visceral, carnal signs of real life. If you want to be born again you have to consume the physical life of Jesus.

There's no escape hatch to another 'spiritual' dimension. There's only the path of 'full life' (10:10), deeply embedded, rooted life.

And that means that in the face of Rome's brutalising machine, we must embrace death as the path to resurrection.

That's what it means to be born again.

Now that is hard teaching! And a life-giving gospel.