Beyond Miracles

August 6, 2017

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Acts 13.1-13 at Mattins on Sunday 6th August 2017, the 8th Sunday after Trinity.

There are many Christians, doubtless some here today, who do not believe in ‘miracles’.

And there’re various things I could say in their defence, the most important being that the Church doesn’t require them to think in these terms.

When we use the creeds, the core belief statements of the Church, we affirm our faith in God the Creator, in Jesus Christ our Lord and in the Holy Spirit – one God in three Persons, who is the trustworthy foundation on which all our worship and work rests. And we can trust this God because of another truth woven into the creeds: that this God acts for us and for our salvation in history.

So, in the creeds, we say that God is not only the eternal Father of Jesus Christ, but he is also the maker of heaven and earth – without God, no world, no history. And God breaks into our history in the birth of Jesus – He’s born of a virgin, outside the ordinary cycle of begetting. He makes an almighty impact on death, as Christ is raised bodily from the dead. Finally God the Holy Spirit creates a worldwide Church in which new life and hope for the future can be found.

So while some don’t believe in ‘miracles’, we are equally encouraged to believe in God’s impact in history, without which we might find trusting in God difficult. There’s a circle to square here – not believing in ‘miracles’, but believing that God can act, and so this sermon is about putting on our thinking caps.

Our notion of what a miracle is goes back only a few hundred years – when it came to be supposed that miracles, if they happened at all, could only happen by God setting aside or suspending natural law, to do people a special favour, such as healing or guiding them. His laws were there to make the universe work in reliable and predictable ways. Things don’t fall up, and as far as we know they never will, unless you are on a spaceship orbiting the earth, when different conditions and forces apply, which can also be explained and predicted.

But this is old science and our new quantum theories have had to embrace chance as well as necessity in order to account for more of reality at the subatomic and cosmological levels. If natural laws are universal, then they are becoming less and less like the motion of the clacking balls of a Newton’s Cradle – if you remember those executive toys of the 1970s  – and we have abandoned the idea of a universe of predictability for one of probability. There is even room for the difference that an observer makes to what is being observed and we have come to understand that we live in a universe made not only of matter but of antimatter. As a scientist once said, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

So where does this leave us with God? Well, it leaves us with the idea that the universe he has made is an expression of his mystery and majesty as well as his faithfulness. There are great and hidden depths to the way that the universe is.

And this throws open the question of how God can and must interact with the world. There is no reason to suppose, given what we now know, that every time God wants to act he has to intervene clumsily in the workings of his world. Maybe we could think more in terms of Strictly Come Dancing, that between the Creator and the creation there is a shared dance, and a strict discipline to the dance, but in which there is room for creativity and self-expression.

And Christian faith is quite sure that the Creator is leading the dance. He is the God of the fresh initiative, as we heard today in our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles. The book could equally well have been called the Acts of Holy Spirit. It tells the remarkable story of the spread of the gospel message from Jerusalem to Rome through many obstacles and calamities. It’s not a scientific account but focuses on people and how they interact with God and each other. We heard about the teachers and prophets in the church in Antioch. While worshipping and fasting they hear the Holy Spirit speaking. The Spirit tells them to set Barnabas and Saul apart and they are sent out by the Spirit.

This small incident is enough to show God on the front foot in this dance with creation, so that God achieves what he wants to achieve at that moment. What is worth noticing, though, is how much God relies on people to do this. Being made in the image of God, we are made to answer God’s call and co-operate with him; and the way for us to keep in step is through worship, prayer and a disciplined life, represented in our story by fasting.

We don’t know all the channels through which God can act in creation, but we do believe that God acts through prayer. Last week we heard how Peter was released from prison while the community were praying for him and this week we hear of Paul, who had himself been blinded on the road to Damascus while an enemy of the Church, causing someone else a fit of blindness. Paul acts as a channel of God’s judgement on a magician who stood in the way of the gospel message.

It’s possible that these stories grew in the telling in order to encourage other disciples to stand up to false prophets. It is possible but not necessary to believe that the ‘miraculous’ was accentuated, to show the triumph of the gospel. However, it is impossible to be faithful to the whole sweep of the Bible or the richness of the Christian tradition and deny that God can act radically. Why believe in such an impotent god, anyway?

And if God can act in this dance with all that he has made, then there is room for both the ordinary and for the unexpected to happen. The unexpected happens unexpectedly and maybe rarely or irregularly; it’s not for us to master the whens, whys and wherefores of whatever he chooses to do.

The Church has always faced hard questions about why certain things have been allowed to happen – why was Jesus allowed to die a criminal’s death, why did most of God’s people reject their own Messiah, why was the return of Jesus delayed? But inevitably it has fallen back on the answer that this was all part of God’s bigger plan, which is not only bigger than we imagine, but bigger than we can imagine.

And being able to admit that we don’t know enables us to focus on what we do know: that prayer brings about the unexpected; that God can use us to further his purposes; that God stands against evil and for good; and that we can trust in Him because of what he has revealed to us of Himself.

It would be a sad little church that used what is reasonable as a bar by which to judge what were possible. The Bible and the Church don’t offer us what is easy to swallow, but what can only be grasped by faith, in hope, through love. As St Paul said as he contemplated all that we are yet to discover of God’s ways: ‘Now we see in a mirror dimly, then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’

If there is a ‘miracle’ to acknowledge here, it’s that we know enough, even now, to join the dance.