Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 16 May 2010
16 May 2010 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
In this month’s matins addresses I have been looking at the question of what we can realistically believe about Jesus, and it would be impossible to address that question without at some time looking at the miracle stories associated with Jesus in the Gospels. What are we to make of them?
Of course there are some in the church, who find no difficulty in accepting them at face value, and I certainly do not want to undermine those who have such a faith. But there are at least three difficulties with that. The first is that the Gospels were written some time after the events they describe. Most biblical scholars now agree that St Mark was probably the first gospel to be written, maybe around the year 70, nearly 40 or so years after Jesus’ death, and it is impossible to know how the stories about Jesus were developed over that period when they were simply passed on by oral tradition, just think how you would judge a story first told in 1970 but only passed on from one person to another by word of mouth and never actually written down until today. Matthew and Luke were generally considered to have been written about ten years or more after Mark, while on the dating of St John’s Gospel there is considerable debate, some putting it even as late as the early second century, but others saying that it contains authentic material from a much earlier period; the jury is out on that, although looking at some of the most recent commentaries it seems that the majority favour a late first century date rather than an earlier or much later one. So the gap between the events themselves and their being written down is the first problem, but that is made more acute by the second, the recognition that the Gospels were written to encourage faith. They were not like the factual reports that would be produced now by a good twenty first century newspaper reporter concerned above all with historical accuracy, and how far that purpose affected the telling of the stories is very difficult to judge.
But while those are two issues, the third is the difference between the world in which those stories were told and our own. In 1975 the Roman Catholic author, H J Richards, wrote a short and very accessible book entitled ‘The Miracles of Jesus: What really happened?’ Richards makes no claim to original scholarship, he was a lecturer in a University School of Education preparing teachers for their career, but he was in touch with the best in scholarship, both Roman Catholic and otherwise, and he was, in my view, extremely effective in popularising scholarship for a non technical audience.
He wrote at one point:
‘In a pre-scientific age it was easy to speak of what could be explained as ‘natural’, and to attribute what could not be explained to the ‘supernatural’ , whether this was thought in terms of gods or demons, angels or fairies. But a scientific world can no longer function in that way. Not only has science inexorably narrowed the gaps in our knowledge, and therefore the scope of any possible ‘supernatural’ influence; it is confidently presumed that the remaining gaps will also fall within the sphere of scientific explanation, and will eventually be filled as our knowledge of the world we live in progresses….Whether we like it or not, we are constitutionally unable to return to the mentality which saw lightning as a shaft of punishment expertly directed by God against the ungodly, and which spoke of the first lightening rods, apparently deflecting the wrath of the heavens upon the earth, as ‘heretic rods’.’
That was Richard’s comment on how our perception of the world has changed since New Testament times, but he also notes a significant element in the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God that relates to this. Some in Jesus’ time saw the Kingdom of God as some sort of divine interruption in the affairs of human beings, and often that was pushed into some future period when God’s intervention would be unambiguously evident. But Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God was far more practical and down-to-earth than that, for Jesus the Kingdom of God was to be found in the ordinary everyday things of life, expressed in Jesus’ words ‘The Kingdom of God is here in your midst.’ And that did not just point to the obviously miraculous, it pointed to very ordinary things, a lord inviting people to a banquet and hoping they will be prepared, absent rulers hoping their subjects will be obedient. Indeed according to the gospels Jesus himself seemed to be rather reluctant to have his miraculous acts used as any sort of proof of his person. When in Matthew’s Gospel the Pharisees and Sadducees asked him to produce a sign from heaven to authenticate his preaching, he declined, and called them an evil and faithless generation for making such a demand.
But having said that, nonetheless we must recognise that there are miracle stories associated with Jesus in the gospel, either of his healing powers or of apparent power over the forces of nature. The first of those, faith healing, would have been a common practice in the search for health in his times, especially as most would have believed that illness either was sent by God as a punishment for some sin or came via demons of some form. Medicine was certainly not at the time an advanced science, it might have involved the use of herbal cures, but there would have been many who sought to bring healing by some invocation of God. Jesus clearly stood in that tradition. As many competent doctors today will tell you a human being is a psychosomatic unity, with the interplay between mind and body a complex one. A ‘faith healer’ who has the ability to influence peoples’ minds to believe they can be cured may well achieve much. If you want a very good example of that in contemporary life I would commend to you the film ‘Lourdes’, about the Catholic healing centre in southern France, a film which was on general release in London very recently. It is a very good film, because it shows an example of healing, yet it also shows the ambiguity of such an event.
Of course in the case of Jesus what actually happened to cause the Gospel writers to write as they did when they did is very difficult to know for certain. It is clear that Jesus practiced faith healing; but then so did many others in his time.
But I suspect for most of us reading the gospels today it is the nature miracles that cause more scepticism. Is it really possible to walk on water, or turn water into wine, or miraculously expand bread and fish, or still storms by a word of command? In his book Richards examines some of those miracle stories, particularly those from the Gospel of John, and what he illustrates very clearly is that the main purpose of the author in telling those stories was a theological one rather than an historical one. Take as an example Jesus turning water into wine, a story which the writer describes as the first of the ‘signs’ that Jesus did. For an early Christian reader knowing about Judaism the story was full of profound symbolism. Seven was the number of completeness, so six water pots, as in the story, implied incompleteness. And what did they contain? The water of purification, an important part of Jewish ritual. And what was the significance of wine to the earliest Christians? Well it was the wine of the Eucharist. The author’s point is that Jesus took the incomplete symbols of the Judaism of his time and turned them into the wine of the Christian Eucharist. That was the real meaning of the sign for the author of the Fourth Gospel; it was not about some wonder working nature miracle, it was about a far more profound change, the transformation of the Jewish way of ritual purification into the life giving wine of Christian life. That is what I mean by saying the purpose of the story is theological rather than historical. What actually happened is at this distance I think impossible to know, but that is not the point. And that sort of transformational understanding is present in each of the seven signs that Jesus is presented as doing in the Fourth Gospel, and the fact that seven was the sign of completeness, was probably no accident either. The Author was always far more concerned with theological truth than with historical facts.
And I believe that is the way for us to read the miracle stories in all the Gospels. What actually happened at the time? Well, who knows and how can anyone know at this distance? But what did the stories point to? The transforming power of Jesus to bring good out of ill, to transform daily life into something life-giving and healing, to enable men and women to see their lives in a wholly new light and find God not as some supernatural intervener into what happens, but there in the daily things of life,. That, I believe, is the real meaning of all the miracle stories. But next week I want to think about the most remarkable one of them all, the Resurrection. What can we really believe about that?