How do we respond to the miracle accounts that we find in the Gospels? What do they mean for us today? These are critically important questions for us who gather together around the stories of Jesus across the Diocese week by week.
How do we respond to the miracle stories, like the one which we heard a few moments ago; and how do we relate those stories to our lives? I think that there are probably two dominant responses to the miracles of Jesus as we read about them in our modern world.
One response is to say that we must take miracles at their face value. In other words, as we read the Bible together it is important for us to believe that through the plain words of scripture we know literally what happened as people encountered Jesus. To be clear, that kind of interpretation says that there is little that we need to add to the Bible stories to understand them better, instead our priority is to read them with faith, and even though they don’t seem to correlate with all of our own experiences of life in Christ, we must nevertheless accept them literally as they are described. They might seem strange and other-worldly, but because they are in the Bible we must accept them simply as true accounts of what took place. My sense is that that would be the view of many of us, and that would be the approach that we take to reading scripture more generally.
Another response would be to say that as modern people, living in a very different world to the world which Jesus inhabited two thousand years ago, we owe it to ourselves to interrogate these stories with all that we know from modern science and from our own experience of life. Sociologists would call that kind of an approach a hermeneutic of suspicion. We approach the miracle stories, with suspicion because it is difficult for us to make sense of people rising from the dead, and food being multiplied. We need to ask questions about these stories because we do not see these events happening on a regular basis in our own lives.
Those who take that kind of view would want to suggest that when Jesus fed the multitude from just a few loaves and fishes, the reality behind the story is that those who were sitting around Jesus shared their food with each, and so everyone else did the same and there was enough to go around. A miracle of generosity perhaps, but not a literal miracle of multiplication. Or to take another example, one of the assertions which has been made about Jesus walking on the water, was that he in fact was walking on a sand bank which he knew about, and which made him appear to be doing something miraculous. For some of us that may seem a strange approach to take to the stories in the Bible, but equally the problem for those of us who take the miracles as literal events, is that these stories do not often seem to correlate with what we see around us today. We might see people get better through prolonged medical treatment and prayer, which we would want to say was the work of God, but we are not accustomed to seeing instantaneous miraculous events happening before our eyes. But at the same time, the problem for those of us who want to de-mythologise, or seek to explain in rational terms the miracles through natural occurrences is that we are in danger of making Jesus appear like some kind of trickster: someone who through slight of hand is able to convince people that he has miraculous powers, when in reality he is just like a good magician fooling people through his clever and well practised tricks.
I want to suggest to us this morning, that both of these possible methods of interpreting the miracle stories come from a conviction of faith. It is not that one approach believes the life of Jesus to be true, and the other doesn’t, on the contrary both of these world views continue to see the biblical story, and Jesus within it, as central to the transformation of our lives and our communities.
The understanding of scripture which says that these things happened literally as they are recorded for us in the Gospels values the miracles that surrounded the life of Jesus as signs of his divinity, as signs that through him God was able to achieve things which were beyond the laws of science and nature. The understanding of scripture which says that we need to reduce these events to things which we can understand for ourselves, in our modern world, values a God who can be known in Jesus without us leaving our brains and critical faculties at home before we come to church on Sunday evening.
I want to suggest to us today that both of these approaches – not one, but both, have serious deficiencies, because the problem with both of these approaches is that they essentially treat the Gospel stories as history. Whether as a literalist who says this event happened exactly as the Gospel writers say that it happened, or as a reductionist who says this story happened, and I want to explore further how it really happened – both worldviews, both approaches to the Gospels begin from the proposition that the Gospel writers were first and foremost historians, trying to record what they perceived to be happening around them.
Well, I want to encourage us to consider a third way. Not beginning with the question of history, but rather beginning with the question of meaning, or if we want to use a more technical term, “theology.” Knowing (as we do) that the Gospels do not contain all of the events of the life of Jesus – we might consider the assertion that the Gospels are not trying to write history for us, (they are not trying to give a full account of everything in the life of Jesus) – but rather, they present to us those stories which had the greatest sense of meeting to the early Christian communities. Or, in other words, the stories which we find in the Bible are not there primarily because of a concern about history; they are (rather) there because these were the stories which contained in the most powerful way the truth for the first followers of Christ, about who Jesus was, what he had come to do, and how all of that related to them, and indeed us as member of his body, the Church. So, unlike those two approaches which I have described, our approach to the Gospels needs to begin from the starting point of theology and not from history; seeking to focus our attention beyond the events which we read in our Gospels, to the meaning of those events instead.
St Augustine, one of the great Christian thinkers of the fourth century wrote: “Let us ask the miracles themselves what they tell us about Christ, for they have a tongue of their own, if it can only be understood. Because Christ is the Word of God, all the acts of the Word become words to us… a miracle is not like a picture, something merely to look at and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand.” How might we approach the Gospels with the question of meaning, rather than the question of history?
We heard a miracle story from the Gospel of Luke a few minutes ago. It was the story of a group of men who had leprosy, who encountered Jesus as he travelled. When we hear the word leprosy being used in the Bible it does not necessarily mean what we know it to mean today – leprosy was a word which covered all kinds of conditions, and illnesses and afflictions. Even more important than the physical and biological conditions which it encompassed, those who were lepers in the time of Jesus were ritually unclean, religiously unclean, which meant that lepers were excluded both from corporate worship and all community social interaction. Lepers lived with each other, but apart from the rest of society, they were required by the religious law to ring bells, and to warn people not to come near to them. Those who did come into contact with lepers, if they touched them, became ritually unclean themselves. Money and power always creates special cases of course.
In the Old Testament reading, Naaman, a commander in the army, is in just that situation. He suffers from leprosy but he is given special treatment, because of his position within the army; which makes me wonder how lepers in the time of Jesus must have felt as they heard the story of Naaman, but were cut off from the religious communities of their day. That story would have given them great hope that God could heal them, and yet the reality of their lives was that they were not healed, and they were not even cared for by the religious communities of their day, because they did not enjoy the same connections to people of power as Naaman had done; which alerts us to the fact that we must always be critically reflecting on our own relationship with those who are in power and authority, in contrast to those who are powerless and voiceless in our society.
But back to the Gospel story, a group of lepers break the religious laws which are designed to keep them apart from everyone else, and call out to Jesus for him to have mercy on them. In response to their cry for help, Jesus tells them to go and visit the priest, the only one who can declare them to be clean. And as they go on their way, they are healed. And one returns to thank Jesus. Walter Wink reflects on this miraculous encounter in these words: “in contrast to the traditional view that uncleanness was contagious, Jesus regarded wholeness as contagious. God’s holiness,” he says, “cannot be soiled; rather, it is a cleansing and healing agent. It does not need to be shut up and quarantined in the temple; it is now, through Jesus’ healings and fellowship with the despised and rejected, breaking out into the world to transform it.”
Through this encounter the love and presence of God becomes truly and radically present to this poor leper. But Jesus is making an important statement to all those Jews who know the story of Naaman. Through this miracle he not only confirms that the love of God is greater than the strength of those who seek to marginalise people in society, he shows that God’s healing power is not just restricted to the great and the good, it is for all people regardless of their worthiness or their status.
Which is good news for each of us as well who have received the love of God in our own lives; but it is a challenge for us too, because we are bearers of that love for others. Through his radical presence of coming close to, and giving value to a group of people who everyone considered to be unclean, Jesus not only brings wholeness to the lepers, but he gives us a sense of the meaning of his ministry; because for Jesus no one will be untouchable, no one will be out of bounds, and no one will be beyond the transforming love of God.
If we consider this story to be just about Jesus and his healing encounter with a group of lepers two thousand years ago, we miss what the story has to say to us and to our lives. The point of this story is not just the historical event, it is the meaning which is behind the event. There are plenty of people today, in our society who are treated as lepers. There may even be groups of people which the church continues to treat as lepers. We may ourselves have had experiences both of being excluded, but also of excluding others. The miracle stories of Jesus remind us that above everything else we can live with hope. But we not only live with hope for ourselves, we are called to live lives which reach out in hope for others. Whilst this does not mean that the issues of our lives will be instantly resolved, we are called, in the pattern of Jesus, to reach out in love and support to one another. So allow this miracle to speak to you, deep in your being this morning – not as history, but as meaning; because at the heart of this story of hope we hear the exciting news that wholeness, (holiness), is contagious, and in Jesus (and therefore also in us who are his body) that wholeness is breaking out around us.