You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. (Jn 6:26)
I am preparing to leave, in several days, for a long walk along the Way of Saint James in northern Spain. If all goes according to plan, I will walk 400 miles over the four weeks I am away, from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela. Many of you have heard me speak of this journey before, or, to be more precise, a similar one I made seven years ago when I walked a different route from the Pyrenees to Santiago, the traditional burial place of the remains of Saint James the Apostle.
Among the many questions that spring to mind when contemplating such a journey is how you know where you are going. I am not bringing maps or even a guide, though I have collected a few notes from pilgrims who have walked the way before and posted tips on the Internet. I am counting on following signs, though I know from what I have read that they will not be as plentiful as they were along the more heavily traveled route I took seven years ago. There, other pilgrims have painted yellow arrows along the way: on roads and tree trunks and the sides of buildings or on rocks along a path. Most times that I was uncertain or confused about how to proceed, I had only to look around and see that a yellow arrow had been painted to show me the way, and I was just fine.
So I am counting on following the signs again. This is an important and obvious metaphor for life. How do we know which way to go in life? We can charge right through it and blaze our own trail and simply make the most out wherever the path we blaze should lead us. Or we can try to look for signs that lead us in a right way, along a path and to a place that God has already imagined for us.
The first way – blazing our own path – is popular in our society, which, like an adolescent, resents the idea of being told where to go.
The second – looking for signs – is rooted to the idea that God calls us all to follow a way that we might not likely choose for ourselves, but promises blessings as we go.
The Christian life presumes that God is calling us to lead lives following a path of his choosing, not our own, but it is up to us to watch for the signs as we go. This practice of looking for signs has gotten difficult because we are confronted with so many actual signs encouraging us to blaze our own path. Most of these signs would lead us to buy something: a car, a house, a cell phone. And since we are a consumer nation this suits us very well. We feel that we are doing what we should be doing when we buy something. And we even tell ourselves that we are blazing our own path, being our own person, when we buy something that a corporation has spent millions of dollars encouraging us to buy. But as long as we get what we want, what difference does it make?
The crowd of 5,000 or so who followed Jesus after he fed them with five loaves and two fish realized that Jesus had given them what they wanted, for free. They knew a good thing when they saw one, and so they went looking for him again. They don’t come right out and ask Jesus to do it again – to feed them for free – but he knows what they are up to.
“You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” he says. In other words, you got what you want, and you have come looking for more. You are consumers, not pilgrims, and I see right through you.
In the church these days we clergy often assume that you people in the pews (and more pointedly, those who are not in the pews) are also consumers, not pilgrims, and that it is in our best interests to give you what you want (even though we don’t really have the foggiest idea what that might be). And I suppose that some of this is natural enough. But it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. Nothing ever changes. Life is not transformed if all we ever do is get what we set out looking for. And no one learns very much; no one grows.
It is remarkable to note the fickleness of the crowd that follows Jesus. Just yesterday they were witnesses and beneficiaries of the miracle of the bread and fish. They ate all they wanted and left enough crumbs to fill twelve baskets, although they must have known that it all came from only five loaves and two fish. And today, here they are asking Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so we may see it and believe you?” But Jesus will not play this game with them. He will not just give them what they want. He tries to teach them how to see the signs.
It is a matter of spiritual maturity to grow beyond the childish desire simply to be given what we already know we want and to learn to look for the signs of God’s calling in our lives. I sometimes refer to this as the shift from asking what I want to asking what God might want of me. And it is not an easy shift to make, since most of the time I am very in touch with what I want, and very interested in getting it.
And because I am quite stubborn, I am also quite blessed that God has given me the time and inclination to go practice looking for signs, along 400 miles or so of walk in northern Spain. But this is not practical for most people and certainly not a realistic starting point. So Jesus helps us to see a sign right in our midst: “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” he says. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
It is also a matter of some spiritual maturity to see, in the weekly or daily act of prayer with a disk of bread and a cup of wine, the sign that Jesus is pointing to. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is holding up a sign that says, “Follow me.” But it remains to be seen, in that moment, where exactly he is leading each one of us. Because this sign of bread and wine is a beginning that prompts us to make the shift from asking what I want to asking what God wants of me. This tiny nourishment strengthens us for an inner journey that we can make no matter where we are, or how ambulatory we might be.
Saint Paul, who was a great pilgrim, knew what it felt like to shift from asking what he wanted to asking what God wanted of him. He also knew that it was a difficult shift to make. But he saw that when we make that shift we grow up, discovering gifts we never knew we had, being strengthened for work we never knew we could accomplish, finding love that we never knew could be so strong. He called growing up this way (in a slightly older translation of his words) growing into the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” which is a beautiful phrase, if you ask me.
To grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ is to become more ad more adept at seeing and following the signs that Jesus plants for us.
To my eyes our work at Saint James the Less is a sign, as is our feeding of the hungry every Saturday. Our worship together – so often joyful, so often connecting us to one another, so often leading us to transcendent moments – is a sign of what God intends for us, where he is calling us. And always, here, day in and day out, the little round signs of God’s love that Christ shares with us as his gives us his Body, the Bread of life, and his Blood of salvation.
And the more we grow up the more we see something like little yellow arrows on those wafers or in the reflection at the bottom of the chalice, as Jesus feeds us, and helps point the way, so that we truly can grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 August 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia