World without end

I used to live down the street from Chicago’s Art Institute, and I’d pop in all the time.  My favourite piece in the museum is a huge set of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. The sun filters through them and turns the whole room a sublime blue. I’d sit on a bench in the gorgeous light and think, or pray, or write — and I also loved to watch other people come into the gallery and be silenced by the sight. Because of the beauty of the room, beautiful things happen there: people draw and make poetry, have conversations about things deeper than the weather. I once saw a woman propose to her boyfriend there: how could you not say yes in the midst of that glory?

When you think about the Bible, the first thing that comes to mind might be a list of commandments, or an ethics lecture, or an extended philosophical discourse. And sure, that’s all in there. But the Gospel of Jesus, particularly John’s account, think of it less as a manifesto and more as an art gallery. It’s a series of scenes, beautiful things, works of art that happen because of Jesus. John doesn’t actually call them “works of art”; he calls them “signs”. That’s the English translation of the Greek word “semeion” that John uses to point to what Jesus is doing.

The pages of the Gospel are like a gallery map of these signs:

1. Jesus turns water into wine – John 2

2. Jesus heals an official’s kid – John 4

3. Jesus heals at the Bethesda community swimming pool – John 5

4. Jesus makes bread for 5,000 – John 6

5. Jesus walks on water – John 6

6. Jesus heals a blind man – John 9

7. Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead – John 11

As you spend time in the gallery, you begin to see that these “semeions” are less didactic lessons about the Gospel and more pictures of the Gospel itself – what it looks like, what it feels like, what it creates. These signs are demonstrations of divine beauty and performances of divine power that at the same time point beyond themselves to reveal something on the horizon more significant than we initially thought. 

Sometimes when the Church organizes for climate action, we speak mainly from the frame of ethics: what we should and should not do. And that is crucial — we absolutely need clear, concrete programmes of action and resistance. But for the Church, there is a much bigger, living picture, because this world is not just ordinary terrain: it is the place of God’s ongoing action trending somewhere glorious. And our salvation is caught up in that movement.

Scholars and preachers over the centuries have noticed that the seven signs in the first part of John’s Gospel connect to the seven days of Creation in the first part of Genesis. (For an interesting Bible study, compare the lists and be curious about the connections). And then at the end, John adds an eighth work of art to the gallery: the Resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate demonstration of divine power and beauty. In that light, we see that the Gospel is not merely a list of important rules for how to love boldly and live justly and not merely the story of a great ethical leader. Something more expansive is on the horizon. The world that God created is also the place of God’s New Creation, inaugurated in Jesus. We are now living in the Eighth Day, the continued dawning of the New Creation in this world — and, to my mind, that metaphysical truth charges our call to climate action with an energy that is beyond utility. In the light of God’s transcendent beauty, we are literally fuelled and freed for saving action. This power, this action, is not one we create by ourselves, but one that we join in with God who has been about this work from the very beginning and will be forever, world without end. Amen.

Reflect today…
Jesus’ miracles are the in-breaking of the new creation – what does this look like today? What does that mean for us as we are called to be Jesus’ hands and feet?

Today’s reflection is written by Trey Hall. Trey is the Director of Evangelism and Growth for the Methodist Church.