To Love as Christ Loves

“Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to ‘prove’ His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: ‘He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…’ (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: ‘…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe’ (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do‘ (Lk 23:34).

Once again, the Gospels and genuine Christian faith do not view miracles as proofs to force belief, since this would deprive man of what Christianity regards as most precious, his freedom. Christ wants people to believe in Him willingly without the coercion of a miracle. ‘If you love me,‘ Christ says, ‘you will keep my commandments‘ (Jn 14:15). And we love Christ–sadly, all too little–not because of His love, His humility and because, as those who heard Him said, ‘No man ever spoke like this Man!’ (Jn 7:46).

(Alexander Schmemmann, The Virgin Mary, p. 17-18)

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Miracles, Signs and Magic

The relationship of Christianity to miracles has been ambivalent from the time of Jesus.  Though Jesus did miracles, they often did not have the intended effects on the population.  For example in John 6, as a result of Christ’s miracles, He perceives they want to want to make him their king, so he escapes both their misunderstanding of His miraculous signs and also their ill-conceived intent to declare Him king.  Later Jesus upbraids them:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  (John 6:26-27)

John in His Gospel is very clear that miracles were done only as signs to the people to lead them to seek the Kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, the people were often more interested in the power of magic than in signs of the Kingdom.   They wanted comfort on earth not a path to life in the world to come.

Some of the early church fathers also feared that people were far more interested in the miracles than in God, the source and giver of miracles.  They expressed a thought from time to time that miracles can actually distract us from God.  In Acts 8, Simon is so desirous of having the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on others that he offers the apostles money to give him that same power.  He is severely rebuked by St. Peter for this.  Simon did not understand the nature of miraculous power in Christianity.  He saw it as power in this world, not as a sign of the Kingdom beyond this world.

In Acts 14:7-18, we encounter another story where performing a miracle creates a misunderstanding with seriously wrong consequences.  St. Paul was traveling with St. Barnabas preaching the Gospel in various cities.  In one city as they are preaching, Paul sees a crippled man who has deep faith and Paul works a miracle with this man, healing him.

Now at Lystra there was a man sitting, who could not use his feet; he was a cripple from birth, who had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking; and Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and walked.

In the midst of Paul’s preaching, this great miracle occurs.  Had the people been listening to Paul’s message they might have connected the miracle to Christ.  Instead, the people ignore Paul’s teaching and see only a great act of magic.

And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the people.

The  people were far more interested in the magic/miracle than in whom St. Paul was claiming responsible for  the miracle/sign.  Baranabas and Paul are taken by complete surprise at the crowd’s reaction and interpretation of events.

Triumph of Dionysius

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude, crying, “Men, why are you doing this? We also are men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” With these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.

The miracle does not work to convert the crowd to Christianity and nearly results in proving to the people the power of pagan gods.  Barely are Paul and Barnabas able to stave the misunderstanding.  The text does not say whether even one person converted from paganism to Christianity despite the great miracle Paul performed.

Miracles in and of themselves don’t necessarily lead to faith or a knowledge of God.  They have to be interpreted or contextualized by those who experience them.  It is possible to miss the sign from God and to instead seek only power or magic in this world which can actually lead people away from the Kingdom.

Something for us to think about today.  Whenever serious illness occurs, many people run off looking for miracles from whatever power source can be found.  Wonder-working places or relics are sought.  But if they are not seen as signs of the Kingdom, they actually can draw us away from life in the world to come.  They can even become ways to seek life in this world because we don’t really believe in or care about life in the world to come.  Seeking God’s will is a more certain way to seek for God’s Kingdom.  If it is God’s will that a miracle or healing takes place, we are blessed.  If we are seeking God’s will, we are blessed whether the Lord gives or takes away (Job 1:21).    Miracles as signs of the Kingdom are most helpful when we are seeking to do God’s will rather than seeking to  have God do our will.

“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”  (Matthew 16:26)

Miracles: A Sign of the Lack of Faith

The miracle stories of Jesus Christ have been very popular with Christians throughout history.  One need only note the frequency of their occurrence in the Orthodox Church Sunday lectionary – there is a preponderance of miracle Gospel lessons over the teachings of Christ.   In the twelve Gospel lessons from the Matthew cycle of Sunday readings in 2014 only one lesson is from the Sermon on the Mount while eight of the lessons are miracles of one sort or another.  And this repeats year after year, so those who attend church only or mostly on Sundays hear just a tiny portion of the Gospel proclaimed in community and what they hear is mostly miracle stories.    Sometimes when a miracle story is reported with slight differences between the four Gospel writers, two versions of the same miracle end up being read  on Sundays during the course of the year (the Gaderene swine for example is read in both the Matthew and Luke cycle).  Some people are attracted to the miracles of Christ more than to His ethical teachings especially since they may not have an interest in submitting their lives to His Lordship but want the power of miracles anyway.  Some seek miracles (magic?) in their own daily lives through Christ, the Holy Spirit, the saints, miracle workers, relics or whatever can bring such mystical power into their lives..   For these folk miracles are the most important aspect of faith, but it has been pointed out that the focus on miracles in one’s daily life may be a sign of spiritual immaturity or even a lack of real faith in God.  In recent times, Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos comments:

“It is noteworthy, however, that in Samaria, where his preaching was fully successful Jesus did not perform any miracles, perhaps suggesting that true faith does not need miracles. More or less the same idea is expressed by Jesus’ second miracle in Galilee, the healing of the official’s son. ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no mean believe.’ ”   (Sacred Text and Interpretation, p 119)

Christ proclaims the Kingdom of God in Samaria and people respond to the Gospel in faith even though He performs no miracles.  In Galilee Christ warns that the seeking of miracles may in fact prevent people from truly believing.    Faith is a relationship with God.  Are we seeking only the gifts or do we seek the Giver?   The pursuit of miracles may be because we don’t really want a relationship with God who may then put demands on us and on our lives  Christos Yannaras says that true faith is a relationship of trust and in that sense “a miracle nullifies faith” because then we no longer have to trust for we have received the proof and then surrender our will to the power (AGAINST RELIGION, p 15).  St. John Chrysostom points out that though St. Paul  had the power to perform miracles, he rarely used that gift and prefered to convince people about the truth of Jesus Christ by arguments from scripture.  Thus for St. Paul, people coming to believe in Christ without experiencing any miracles was preferred evangelism rather than impressing people with miracles.

Chrysostom fears that if people turned to the gospel out of awe at seeing thaumaturgic acts, then faith would be rendered inconsequential.   …The apostle always could perform miracles, but only chose to do so in cases of serious need.  This Paul is the ultimate ascetic who includes in his renunciatory portfolio his miraculous abilities, which he forgoes for the sake of the greater good, the salvation of the whole world.  And the achievement he gains from this strategic choice – convincing people to believe in the gospel from arguments rather than signs – is, paradoxically, the greatest sign of all.   

       ‘You see how again (Acts 28:23) he close their mouths, not with signs, but with appeals to the Law and Prophets, and everywhere he does this—although he could have done signs, as well, but finally it would not be a matter of faith.  For this is the great sign: to persuade people from the Law and the Prophets.’ ”    (Margaret Mitchell, THE HEAVENLY TRUMPET: JOHN CHRYSOSTOM AND THE ART OF PAULINE INTERPRETATION, p 293-294)

St. John Chrysostom writes that for Christians acts of charity are superior to miracles for Christ commanded us love others but didn’t order us to do miracles:

St. John Chrysostom

“If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing.  Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servants of God, by it we recognize his apostles.  Christ said:  ‘This is how all will know you for my disciples.’  By what?  Tell me.  Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons?  No.  Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said:  ‘This is how all will know you for my disciples:  your love for one another.’  This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal.  Christ said, that His disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love.”  (St John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church:  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pgs 52-53)

So the issue may be exactly what people are seeking in their lives:  to become disciples of Christ (which is what Christ wanted and what the apostles worked for) or to experience miracles (which is often what people prefer: contact with ‘magic powers’).   While some seek miracles in their lives, what the New Testament authors thought was more important is that we witness to our faith in Christ by our behavior so that others recognize us as disciples of Christ by the way we love one another.  People will know we are Christ’s disciples not by our performing miracles but by the way we love one another.  But even beyond that, Christ warned that being able to perform miracles is in fact no sign that you are a disciple of His.

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'”   (Matthew 7:21-23)

So you can even do miracles and Christ can declare you to be not His disciple but rather an evildoer!   That is something for miracle lovers to think about.  Miracles may not even be a sign of the kingdom.  Christ says more important is that we love one another as he taught us so that others can see we are disciples of His.  Being His disciple, loving as He taught us to love, is more important than performing miracles or having miracles in our lives.   Being around others who have miracles in their lives may not be putting ourselves in relationship to Christ and his disciples.  This will seem counterintuitive to some, but it is a clear teaching of the New Testament and of Christianity.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann offers us insight into how to understand these truths, and to seek Christ instead of just seeking miracles from Him or His saints.

“Indeed, something strange happens here with religion: instead of help, we are given the cross, instead of promises of comfort and well-being, we hear the certainty: ‘They persecuted me, they will persecute you.’  And when we hear the Gospel about the Pharisees who derided the crucified Christ – ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him’ (Mt 27:42) – are we not immediately reminded of the derision and accusations that are heard today: ‘So, wasn’t your God able to help you?’    And indeed, as long as we expect from God only this type of help, only miracles that would eliminate the sufferings from our life, then these accusations will continue.  And they will continue because any cheap pill is certainly better able to relieve a headache than prayer and religion.  And we will never understand the mystery of the Cross as long as we expect this type of pill from religion–  be it for something trivial or important.  As long as this is the case, regardless of all the gold or silver with which it is covered, the Cross remains what the Apostle Paul said at the dawn of Christianity: ‘a scandal for the Jews, and folly for the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:23).  In our given situation the ‘Jews’ represent those who seek only help from religion, while the ‘Gentiles’ are those who seek clever and easy explanations.  And in this case the Cross is truly a scandal and folly.”  (Alexander Schmemann, O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING? , pp 49-50)

See also my blogs:  Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic, What is a Miracle?, and  Charity is Greater than Miracles

The Widow of Nain (2011)

Sermon notes from 9 October 20011 for  Luke 7:11-16

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked  favorably on his people!”

1)      While miracles are ever popular and people want miracles in their lives, the real purpose of the miracles in the Gospels are revealed in the last sentence:  the revelation of who Jesus is, and an encounter with the presence of God.  A miracle is not nearly important as is God’s presence.  God’s presence may also be found in His promises which may not find fulfillment in the now.  The world wants miracles now, but biblical miracles actually point to the reality of that not-yet Kingdom which is to come.

2)     We can lament and say those miracles happened 2000 years ago, we don’t have the chance to have such an encounter with Christ.

But we do – the Divine Liturgy.

3)     The Liturgy is supposed to be the very place where we dwell in the presence of God. It is the place where we have opportunity to encounter God and receive the life of God into our selves.  In the Liturgy we hear the voice of Christ in the Gospel, and we can invoke Christ’s Name, and we both touch Christ and are touched by Him in the holy Eucharist.

4)     Here we come to be healed of our sins, to be raised from lives of spiritual death, to be confronted in our faults so that we will repent and turn to God.  Here we also are challenged to let go of our passions – lust, anger, greed, hatred, jealousy, gluttony, pride, judgmentalism, selfishness, self centeredness, lest we go away from the Liturgy unhealed of the sins that destructively burn in our hearts.  The fact is the very reason we come to the Liturgy is to have Christ drive out of our lives and hearts and minds those evil thoughts we prevent us from being disciples of Christ.

5)     In the Gospel Lesson, Christ walked up to the funeral procession and touches the open coffin carrying the dead man.  And the bearers of the coffin stand still.  Here in the Liturgy, we too who are dead in sin have opportunity for Christ to touch us and stop us in our tracks.  Christ will then call us out of our sin, out of our passions, out of those things which are burning our hearts and destroying our love for one another.  And he calls us then to rise to life.   So do not leave the Liturgy unhealed, do no remain dead in your sins and passions, but let Christ heal you, let him take away that heavy burden of sin and passion which is killing you and destroying your heart.    Let Christ confront you in the way you normally think and act and bring you to repentance so like the young man in the Gospel lesson, you can arise to the new life in Christ, one which is empowered by God’s love.

Christian Love: More Essential than Miracles

1 Corinthians 13:1-7
St. Paul

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

St. John Chrysostom wrote:

St. John Chrysostom

If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing.  Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servents of God, by it we recognize his apostles.  Christ said:  “This is how all will know you for my disciples.”  By what?  Tell me.  Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons?  No.  Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said:  “This is how all will know you for my disciples:  your love for one another.”  This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal.  Christ said, that His disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love.   (St John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church:  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pgs 52-53)

Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (2)

This is the concluding blog somewhat in response to Steve Hayes blog question What is a Miracle?

In the first blog, Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (1), I mentioned a few other blogs I’ve written on the topic as well as a couple of comments from biblical scholars and some thoughts of St. John Chrysostom on miracles.  Here are a few more quotes from contemporary Orthodox writers:

You can read Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s response to the question at my blog What is a Miracle?  

“Were men to be in the purity and sinlessness of Paradise, they would not wait for God to raise the dead, multiply bread or fill a net with fish, and then say: ‘Look at the miracle!’, but would say this about every one of God’s creatures and every moment and breath of their own life.  But, as sin has become a habit among men, every one of God’s innumerable miracles in the world, has, through this, become for men an ordinary, habitual matter.  That these habits in men should not become completely blunted, apathetic and brutalized, God, in His mercy towards sick humanity, gives the further miracle of His innumerable miracles, in order to arouse men and to sober them from the gloomy, soul-destroying habit of seeing nothing miraculous in miracles.”  (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, HOMILIES  Vol 2, pp 181-182)

“The Messiah, wrote Paul Ramsey, did not ‘bear epilepsy or psychosomatic disorders to gain victory over them in the flesh before the interventions of psychoneurosurgery.  Rather is he said to have been born mortal flesh to gain for us a foretaste of victory over sin and death where those twin enemies had taken up apparently secure citadel.’  The healing miracles performed by Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, are not merely metaphors or arbitrary signs for salvation.  They are sacramental acts that bind together heaven and earth.  All of Jesus miraculous healing, and especially the raising of Lazarus, are signs and foreshadowings of his own victory over death on the cross.”  (Vigen Guroian, LIFE’S LIVING TOWARD DYING, p 65)

“Indeed, something strange happens here with religion: instead of help, we are given the cross, instead of promises of comfort and well-being, we hear the certainty: ‘They persecuted me, they will persecute you.’  And when we hear the Gospel about the Pharisees who derided the crucified Christ – ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him’ (Mt 27:42) – are we not immediately reminded of the derision and accusations that are heard today: ‘So, wasn’t your God able to help you?’    And indeed, as long as we expect from God only this type of help, only miracles that would eliminate the sufferings from our life, then these accusations will continue.  And they will continue because any cheap pill is certainly better able to relieve a headache than prayer and religion.  And we will never understand the mystery of the Cross as long as we expect this type of pill from religion–  be it for something trivial or important.  As long as this is the case, regardless of all the gold or silver with which it is covered, the Cross remains what the Apostle Paul said at the dawn of Christianity: ‘a scandal for the Jews, and folly for the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:23).  In our given situation the ‘Jews’ represent those who seek only help from religion, while the ‘Gentiles’ are those who seek clever and easy explanations.  And in this case the Cross is truly a scandal and folly.”  (Alexander Schmemann, O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING? , pp 49-50)

 “A miracle is not magic but the result of synergy, of cooperation, of human actions placed within the divine.”  (Paul Evdokimov, IN THE WORLD, OF THE CHURCH, p 135)

Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (1)

Christ creating Adam & Eve

Dn. Steve Hayes asked in his blog What is a Miracle?   He wondered if  any theologians of the pre-Scholastic period who said anything about miracles (or signs, or wonders).  That prompted me to look up several quotes I had noted over time about miracles.  

I did write a blog back in July, 2009 with the same title as his, What is a Miracle?   My blog answering the question was simply a quote from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom on miracles written in 1986.   The only quotes I had about miracles  from the pre-Scholastic period come from St. John Chrysostom who was concerned that Christians were interested in miracles because they represented getting something in this lifetime which he felt would detract from what is really important – life in the world to come.   Chrysostom like many fathers did keep to the biblical idea that miracles are signs and portents – they point to the reality beyond themselves of the Kingdom of God.  The trouble as Chrysostom noted is that for many miracles cause them to want more out of this life rather than to seek the Kingdom of God to which the miracles/signs point.  (See my blog: Miracles: Signs of the Kingdom in which I did offer a few thoughts on miracles and natural law, and also my blog The Parish: Understanding the Lessons of Christ in which I write about miracles as a lesson to be learned rather than something to be sought in and of itself). 

Now to Chrysostom:

“Chrysostom fears that if people turned to the gospel out of awe at seeing thaumaturgic acts, then faith would be rendered inconsequential.   … The apostle always could perform miracles, but only chose to do so in cases of serious need.  This Paul is the ultimate ascetic who includes in his renunciatory portfolio his miraculous abilities, which he forgoes for the sake of the greater good, the salvation of the whole world.  And the achievement he gains from this strategic chioice – convincing people to believe in the gospel from arguments rather than signs – is, paradoxically, the greatest sign of all.    ‘You see how again (Acts 28:23) he close their mouths, not with signs, but with appeals to the Law and Prophets, and everywhere he does this—although he could have done signs, as well, but finally it would not be a matter of faith.  For this is the great sign: to persuade people from the Law and the Prophets.’”  (Margaret Mitchell, THE HEAVENLY TRUMPET: JOHN CHRYSOSTOM AND THE ART OF PAULINE INTERPRETATION, p 293-294)

St. John Chrysostom castigates those always seeking miracles in this world and for this life because Jesus said, “Seek the spiritual… and I shall furnish all the material things in abundance (Matt 6:32-33,8).  … we have the promise of spiritual things but we gape after those which the eye can see.” (BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS,  p 128)

A couple of comments on miracles based upon reading the New Testament:

“Jesus saw his exorcisms as a demonstration that the end of the age was already present, that the final reign of God was already in operation.  He is recalled, indeed, as making precisely that claim: that his exorcisms were evidence that the kingly rule which God would exercise in the new age was already in effective operation (Matt 12:28/Luke 11:20).”  (James Dunn, THE PARTING OF THE WAYS: BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND AND JUDAISM, p 236)

 “It is necessary to read the miracle accounts of the Gospels and the Acts in the context of the understandings of miracle and natural law in late antiquity and at the same time to recognize their special function in the New Testament narratives.  Nearly contemporary sources such as the LIFE OF APOLLONIUS OF TYANA show that these miracle accounts in the Gospels and the book of Acts were by no means unique and that there was a widespread belief in the power of the divine—and of those human beings with special powers conferred by the divine—to break out of the confines not only of time and space, but of ordinary and natural causality.     The primary interest here in Acts, nevertheless, was not in these ‘extraordinary miracles’ (dunameis…tekousas) (19:11) as spectacles, but in the sovereignty of God the Creator over his creation… and over its laws, not only at the beginning of time but throughout and the very end…”  (Jaroslav, Pelikan, ACTS in the BRAZOS THEOLOGICAL COMMENTARY ON THE BIBLE, p 96)

In the next blog, Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic (2), I will quote a few contemporary Orthodox writers on miracles.

What is a miracle?

Theotokos7c

Time and again we read of miracles in the Gospel and in the Old Testament and indeed, we observe them in the life of the Church through the centuries; miracles of healing, miracles of the renewal of a human life by the power of God. And at times people ask – we all ask ourselves – What is a miracle?

Is it a moment when God overpowers His own creation, breaks its own laws, destroys something which He has willed Himself? That would be an act of magic, an act of overpowering whatever is unwilling to obey, of overpowering what is weak in comparison to Him Who is strong.

A miracle is something completely different, a miracle is a moment when harmony destroyed by human sin is restored. It may be a moment, it may be the beginning of a whole life: a harmony between God MetAnthonyand man, a harmony between the created world and its Creator. It is a restoration of what should always be; not a miracle in the sense of something unheard of, unnatural, perhaps contrary to the nature of things, but rather a moment when God enters into His creation and is received. And because He is received, He can act freely.

(Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh: On Miracles,  17 August 1986)

Miracles: Signs of the Kingdom

Sermon for May 22, 1994          Sunday of the Paralytic                             Acts 9:32-42, John 5:1-15

Do you believe in miracles?

ParalyticIn today’s scripture lessons we heard of three miracles, only one done by Jesus and 2 accomplished by his disciple Peter. Since we commonly associate miracles with Jesus and the bible, it is worth taking a minute to look at the notion of miracle and what it means for us today.

Our understanding of a “miracle” is based upon our modern understanding of “nature”. We believe nature to show a fair degree of constancy & predictability. A “miracle” is thus that which defies the laws of nature. We believe nature can be understood in a rationalistic sense, that it is fairly constant, can be observed and explained.

Ancient Israel had no word for miracle or for nature. They did not share our understanding of nature & natural laws of constancy. For the people throughout biblical history, natural phenomena are a result of the will of God or even of local deities. Humans effect natural events to the extent that natural phenomena are God’s response to human sin or prayer. Of most importance to us is that the ancients saw nature as merely revealing God or God’s will, and since they saw all true knowledge as coming from God and not from human effort (science), they would expect natural phenomena to tell them something about God, not about what we call nature.

The words in the Old Testament which are sometimes translated to mean miracle are Hebrew words which really mean “sign” an event which points to some future meaning, or an event that draws attention to something else, usually to God.

In New Testament times, the people expected that God would authenticate any disclosure of his intention with supernatural occurrences. In other words, people expected miracles to occur and those miracles would prove God is somehow involved in this event. Thus the Messiah would appear with signs and wonders to confirm that He indeed was sent by God. The main point, the critical understanding of any miraculous event is not, “does it defy nature?”, but is God to be found in the event? Does God control the event? Is God revealed through the event.

The Lord Jesus also reveals another very biblical view. For humans to demand a sign from God is certainly indicative of a lack of faith. Jesus refuses to give a sign when the demand for one comes from the people’s lack of faith. Jesus seemed to know that unless a person already had firm faith in God and was looking for God’s revelation, signs would be worthless and would never lead to conviction.

In other words, a sign is not an event which is so convincing that it makes faith unnecessary. That is unfortunately what many of us modern people are looking for in miracles – an event so convincing that we can know God and do not have to have faith or trust in him.

In John’s Gospel when Jesus feeds the 5000, Jesus seems discouraged by the people’s inability to understand the sign, and he chastises them for wanting nothing more from him then more bread to eat.

And when they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, “Rabbi, when did You come here?”  Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.  “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”  Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”  Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”  Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do?  “Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ”  Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  Then they said to Him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”  And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.   (John 6:25-35)

Probably one question people in the 1990’s want to know is why we don’t see more miracles like the ones recorded in the bible? I know from reading through history that this same question has been asked in almost every generation since the age of the desert fathers. Usually the answer given is that there is now a lack of faith on the part of those who claim themselves to be disciples of Jesus. At the same time at which people are asking why miracles don’t happen any more, in every generation there are also the reports of miracles that did occur – healings, revelations, conversions, God’s answering a prayer, God intervening in history. What is probably true through history is also what was true in the time of Jesus, God gave miracles in response to faith, not in response to the lack of faith.

What is also true is that miracles are the exception not the rule in the bible. The word “miracle” occurs only about 35 times in the bible, and the bible covers some 2000 years of history. Perhaps it is then true that miracles happen to people at moments of absolute faith in God, and we see how rarely those moments occur in the life of God’s people.

Today, I can testify to you only that the I believe the miracles recorded in the New Testament to be true, events that really occurred. I also know these miracles were given as signs so all people might come to believe that Jesus truly is Lord, Messiah, Savior, King.   The miracles were not the main event nor the main purpose of God’s actions.  They are rather signs along the road to help keep us journeying toward the Kingdom of God.   The signs exist to keep us on the right track by reminding us of God’s Kingdom and to keep us alert and watchful for what direction we are to take.

In the feeding of the 5000, the people asked Jesus, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the Parables of Jesus.

When reading the Parables which Jesus tells throughout his earthly ministry, it is important to have some sense what a parable is and how we should try to understand it.  A parable and a miracle story are different from the point of view that the miracle is based in an historical event, while the parable is a story with a message.  A parable can use a historical event as part of the story, but the parable is not dependent on the story being historical fact.   A miracle on the other hand is truly special because it is an unusual and perhaps unique historical event – something unexpected that goes against what we would consider to be the normal order of events.  In the Gospels, both parables and miracles serve a purpose of being signs of the Kingdom of God; in other words, their significance lies not in the miracle or parable itself, but in pointing out to us something beyond our historical frame of reference.  A miracle and a parable are efforts to reveal to us the Kingdom of God.  If we seek Jesus out only for a miracle or to hear His wisdom, we in fact are limiting His power and mission, and failing to see what He was trying to point out to us or to point us toward.  A miracle and a parable both can somehow help us have a better life in this world, but their purpose is to point out life in the world to come.

A Parable and an allegory are not exactly the same thing, though in history the two have been intertwined and sometimes the words have been used interchangeably.  In an allegory proper, each name or noun stands for something else (King = God, seed = the word of God), and we read the allegory to help us understand some other reality (so we hear a story about a farmer but realize it is telling us something about  a prophet).  On the other hand, in a parable, one has to read the entire parable and look for meaning in the entire story not just in each separate word.  In a parable, a seed = a seed, a king = a king.  The meaning in a parable is found not in replacing each word with another word (like solving a code), but the meaning is revealed in the “big picture” of the entirety of the story.  

A parable invites interpretation.  For though the parable can stand alone as a story and be sensible, its purpose is to get the hearers of the parable to discern what the purpose, meaning or moral of the story is.   So the parable always points to some reality and meaning beyond its details.  In Jesus’ teachings, parables like miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God – they point to the reality, and help reveal it to us.  In Luke 19:11, we are told the parables were told precisely to refute the idea that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately, the parables are the signs that point to a future reality, which was just beginning to appear.  The parables point to the coming Kingdom because the Kingdom has not yet arrived – they point to the Kingdom already given yet which is to come.  A parable helps point beyond a purely literal reading of the text.   The significance of a parable, as versus an allegorical parable, lies not in decoding what each noun stands for, but in sitting back and contemplating the entire story and trying to see what is the story revealing.

Though the Gospels have Jesus telling parables, Jesus sometimes interprets the parable allegorically (as he does, for example with the sower and the seed in Mark 4).  And since Jesus Himself did it, so too did many early Christian preachers apply allegory to most of the parables of Jesus.  And while this is a possible way to understand the story, we need also return to the fact that the Gospel says these are parables not allegories and so we should also consider the stories as such.

In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus invites his hearers to contemplate what they had heard:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   And even this statement is a parable – for all those who came to listen to Jesus had ears, but Jesus is saying hearing isn’t enough, one has to interpret and understand and comprehend the meaning of the parable.

Sadly, it is possible to understand to whom a parable is directed, and even to understand the purpose of the parable without understanding its meaning and power.  ” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them”  (Matthew 21:45).   They could understand that the parable was directed to them and even against them and yet could not hear what the parable was really saying and so be moved toward God.  They did not bother to try to comprehend the parable’s meaning because they had already rejected the parable teller and parables as a means for conveying God’s truth.  The opponents of Jesus were firmly embracing the Law and a very literal interpretation of the Torah, and so their hearts were not opened to revelations of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a warning for us post-Enlightenment Christians and are penchant for reading the Bible only literally, always seeking sound bites, and trying to proof text everything.   When our approach to Scripture is limited in this way, we limit the power, beauty and creativity of God, and we miss the signs of the kingdom which are evident in the big picture of the parables, longer biblical passages and entire books of the Bible.

Next:  Part 2   The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)