And what about miracles?

February 24, 2019

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Preached by Canon Dr Brian Rees, using Rev. 4; Luke 8: 22-25 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 24th February 2019, the Second Sunday before Lent.

The story of ‘the calming of the storm’ has to be one of the shortest Gospel readings in the Church Year, and yet it does rather ‘pack a punch’. Since it is from the Gospel according to Luke, the patron saint of artists, you would expect it to be more ‘artistic’ in style, and with significantly more elaboration, as with the story of the Nativity, but not a bit of it. It is more like an old ‘Batman’ episode with a ‘Bam, biff, boff!’

Climb into the boat.

Cast off toward the other side of the lake.

Fall asleep.

A violent storm.

Be rudely awoken by others on the boat.

Rebuke the storm.

Rebuke the terrified, confused disciples for their ‘’lack of faith’.

Epilogue: Disciples’ mutterings in the background.

Certainly, the four verses are unusual in their brevity and their directness, and this for one of the key Gospel miracles! You probably know the story by heart, and yet, I want you to think again, and reflect on it anew over the coming days this week.

But first. A fast refresher. Class 101, on ‘Miracles and Signs’.

You know already that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), are often based on a rewriting and elaboration of Mark’s shorter, original account. There are variations and elaborations in Matthew and Luke, yes, but they routinely align with Mark.

Interestingly, the Synoptic Gospels are marked by a repeated reluctance on Jesus’ part to give any signs or miracles to prove his divine authority…. The largest group of miracles are physical cures, and here we often have spit and mud used…. And Jesus says repeatedly to those made better that ‘your faith has healed you’. There are also exorcisms, and resurrections. And here too is often repeated, ‘do not tell anyone!’ It is as though Jesus does not want to be known for his miracles, as proof of his divinity, but rather for his teaching and life-style.

The control over nature is a separate category of miracle. Water into wine, a huge catch of fish, the feeding of the multitudes, walking on water, a coin in a fish’s mouth, the cursing of a fig tree, and ‘the calming of the storm’, our Gospel today,. The Resurrection would also be part of this category, and The Transfiguration, although these are related to Jesus personally.

If we consider the fourth gospel, that of John, well, it is often a variant, and has a pronounced theological bias. John often uses the same story as the Synoptic writers but in a profoundly different way, looking at the event from a different vantage point and through a different ‘telephoto lens’. When we look at the miracles, which John calls ‘signs’, this is most acute. He has seven, to represent the days of creation, and the eighth, the Resurrection of Jesus, reflects John’s idea of a new creation…..the 7 days of the Genesis Creation, plus… ‘on the first day of the new week’; 8 becomes the new Christian number of re-creation and salvation, hence octagons routinely feature in our church buildings, pulpits and baptismal fonts. For John, the miracles of Jesus are important and dramatic supernatural deeds: in them ‘The Word’ reveals himself to the world, and to his own. John 3:16 summarises this: ‘For God so loved the world, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.’

The ‘signs’ in John point us to God’s Christ – the Word of God and the power of God. They are the manifestation of God’s glory in the person of Jesus.

Over the 2000 years of the Christian era, and more so in the last 150 years, people have often struggled to understand the miracles and their meaning. In Jesus’ own time miracles were widely believed in and accepted: they were part of the then culture – Greek, Roman, and Jewish. In the early years of Christianity, the miracles were an added vehicle for confirming Jesus’ words and message, and early Christians expected themselves to be able to do miracles also: consider Peter, for example. But in more recent centuries, as science, reason and scepticism have widely advanced, the miracles – especially the nature miracles – have become almost an embarrassment to the Faithful, and a point of ridicule for enlightened and informed outsiders. The miracles have often been seen as superstitious and therefore to be downplayed. Some (mostly conservative) Christians, feeling this problem, have tried to account for miracles through rational and scientific explanations, such as the healings as being primarily of ‘psychosomatic disorders’, and the nature miracles not to be seen as historical events, but as ‘theological awareness’. Some have seen all miracles as metaphor…. I would suggest that none of these attempts at rationalisation have been particularly satisfactory or helpful.

For me, I read the miracles as part of the story of Jesus. In the Gospel accounts I routinely see God at work in Jesus, and at work in ways I do not necessarily understand or comprehend, nor do I try to explain them. And this is not a cop-out, I hope, as I still wrestle with the text often. What I would say is there are many things in human and physical nature that I have experienced that I do not understand, that I cannot adequately explain. And yet I live and move and hope, and I have been compelled at times to see God at work in my life, and in the lives of others I value. I accept that others may see the same events as happenstance or simply random. And that is the nature of faith, but it is not blind faith…. It is a faith founded on an assurance, on experience, on an awareness, and yes, a hope. I cannot prove it; I cannot explain it. But it is a reality to me. So, I routinely pray for people, and anoint people with oil for healing, and lay hands on them in a sacramental act, and sometimes what I would call a ‘miracle’ happens.

A story.

As a young Curate in central Montreal I had a telephone call one day from a parishioner saying that he wanted me to anoint a friend of his for healing. I tried to find excuses, such as I had never done it before and did not know how, and I was not sure of doing such things in any event, and would he not rather wait for the Vicar to return from his short holiday. ‘No’ was the direct answer: ‘there is no time’. And he added, ‘I will tell you how to do it. You, go to the Cathedral and get oil for anointing the sick! I will pick you up on Friday at 11 o’clock. Wear a cassock and bring a purple stole and bring a prayer-book.’ And the line went dead. On Friday he duly arrived in a taxi, and through a miserable February snow-storm and blizzard we made our way some 25 miles to the west-end of Montreal, and a small bungalow, where a deathly looking young man was in bed with various tubes attached and a nurse attending . The doctors had withdrawn treatment and pronounced him terminal with days only to live. But Chick Harris, our parishoner, was undeterred. And so, for the next half hour, he took me through the rite, and I duly gave the sick man Holy Communion, and anointed him – head, chest, hands, feet. Chick and I then returned in the taxi to downtown where he dropped me off. And that was it. Never heard another word.

Fast forward six years. By now I lived in England and was Chaplain of Bedford School and a boarding housemaster for 50 senior boys. A parcel arrived, wrapped, with Canadian postage. Opening it, it was a book of photographs and recollections of historic Nova Scotia, by Chick Harris and Harry Bruce. Opening the cover there was an inscription. Unfortunately, I cannot find the book to quote verbatim, but in effect it said to Dr Rees with thanks to you and to God. My friend for whom you prayed and whom you anointed in early 1981 fully recovered. He has since married and has a child. He shared the writing of this book. Continue to be faithful to your calling.

Countless such stories and testimonies exist, and not just from priests. You may have some in your own experience, or have heard them from those you know and trust. In my own life, there have been times when I have been called ‘to walk on faith’, and it quickly became obvious that God’s providence was clearly at work.

I suspect the response to miracles in the Gospels were similar for the early believers: the miracles for the faithful confirmed their faith, their understanding of God’s work in Christ, and through him in their own lives. It gave them hope to live the Gospel. But for others, they rejected the signs, and asked Jesus to depart from their region and town.

I know that the story of ‘the calming of the storm’, regardless of the physical question, has been important to Christians throughout the ages, as they have encountered storms in their own lives that threatened to drown them. At such times they have called upon Jesus to save them, and give them calm seas, and he has not failed them.

Think about it. Maybe look again at the Gospel accounts of signs and miracles. And may God bless us all with a new awareness of Christ at work in the world and in our lives, in the Church and in the Sacraments, and give us a new hope in the possibilities of believing.