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Proper 9C, Tr 2, (Trinity 5), 8.7.07
Isa 66.10-14: Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her.
Ps 66.1-8: rejoice in the Lord; see his works: not allow our feet to slip.
Gal 6.(1-6), 7-16: (bear one another’s burdens) work for good of all, new creation is what matters
Luke 10.1-11, 16-20: sending out 70; return: even the demons submit to us. (1472)
Almighty God, send down upon your Church the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in all who minister the gospel your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Would you consider it to be a believable miracle if next Sunday morning there were people occupying every seat here at St Mark’s? Keep that in mind.
What started me off on this sermon some weeks ago is the mention of demons, snakes and scorpions at the end of our reading from Luke.
This is like a similar passage that was tacked onto the ending of Mark’s gospel in the 2nd century. That speaks of the risen Jesus as saying that believers will be able to cast out devils, handle serpents and drink poisonous things without harm.
So let me ask you. What kind of miracles do you believe in? As present-day disciples of Jesus, do you expect demons to be subject to you and do you expect to trample snakes and scorpions under your feet with impunity?
Probably all of you have heard about the high-tech theme park in Kentucky that has been opened at a cost of about 26 million dollars that tries to show that the creation account in the book of Genesis is literally true, the earth is only about 5,000 years old, and humans and dinosaurs lived together in a completely vegetarian world until Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden. In terms of the miraculous, I am sure that this is a step too far for us with today’s knowledge.
But things may have been somewhat different in the past.
Our four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were all written before the end of the first century AD. These are our witnesses to what Jesus said and did, and what it all meant. They are what we might call the memories of the members of four different Christian communities filtered through the insights and understandings of four different individuals, that is, the four evangelists. But both the communities and the gospel writers, were influenced by the social and cultural settings in which they found themselves.
Other attempts were made to write gospels of one sort or another, none of which became sufficiently widespread in use to be considered for adding to our four. Some of these were so-called ‘infancy gospels’ supposedly telling of Jesus’ childhood. In one of these little Jesus forms pigeons out of clay and then makes then fly away. Is this a kind of miracle that we would believe in? In another infancy gospel one of Jesus’ playmates gives him a hard time, so Jesus makes him drop dead. Do we want to believe this kind of miracle? I think not.
But in Jesus’ day, that is, the 1st century AD, miracles were a dime-a-dozen, so to speak. So much so that the Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, writing toward the end of the 2nd century, says, in effect, ‘I will not prove the gospel by claims of miracles, because anyone can claim miracles, so they prove nothing. Instead it is by the witness of the scriptures to Jesus that I will show you the truth of the gospel, and you can’t do that about anyone else.’
In the same way, in Jewish rabbinic tradition two rabbis argued over an interpretation of the Law. One said, ‘If I am right, then this wall will lean over at 45 degrees and then go back to upright.’ The wall did so, but the other rabbi said, ‘That is interesting, but it doesn’t prove a thing.’
Now, how would you tell a miracle story, or even more especially, a story of a healing? When Matthew tells such stories it always involves a direct, trusting relationship with Jesus. This is not the case with Luke, as we shall see.
Luk0e is most likely a Hellenistic Jewish Christian, writing in the Roman Empire, possibly in Alexandria, but well away from Judaism’s Palestinian roots. He is still firmly rooted in the 0scriptures, but he writes in quite a Hellenistic fashion in some ways. And one of the Hellenistic customs that he uses is how he tells the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles. Typically Hellenistic stories emphasized three things. The first is how desperate and often how long-lasting the person’s condition has been; the second is the suddenness of the cure. And the third is the attesting to the cure by the onlookers. Luke is especially strong on point two: the cure’s suddenness, for which he uses 15 times in the Gospel and Acts a very strong adverb, παραχρημα. He also stresses the third point, that is, he tells of the awestruck wonder or fear of the onlookers who often offer praise to God.
But it is especially in the Book of Acts that we find accounts of0 miracles that certainly stretch my credulity to beyond the limit of what I believe a Christian miracle should be. In Acts we have stories of people trying to get hold of Paul’s old aprons and handkerchiefs for healing purposes and of the sick being laid in the road in hope that Peter’s shadow will fall on them. We also have something else peculiar to Luke’s writing in Acts, and that is punishing miracles, for example the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who drop down dead when confronted about deceitfully withholding part of their money from the common fund of the Jerusalem community, and there is the girl with the spirit of divination at Philippi who says that Paul speaks of the way of salvation of the most high God, but Paul is so bothered by her that he calls the spirit out of her, but with no indication that he has any intention of helping her as such.
These are some of the examples of what I mean when I say that I think Luke over-cooks his miracle stories so that they g0o beyond the proper concerns of the gospel.
000Does a miracle have to be sudden? How extraordinary does it have to be to elicit our wonder? Does it have to be extraordinary in terms of size or numbers?
Luke specifies that thousands flocked to Jesus, and in Acts he says that 4,000 priests turned to Christ, a very rosy, optimistic picture in contrast, for example to Matthew, where Jesus’ commands are almost always addressed to the individual in terms of personal discipleship, not vast numbers.
I don’t think that in our day and place we ought to expect that we will be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Instead we are called to committed patience and the long-haul, moving forward little by little rather than by leaps and bounds.
When the Church of England began to produce new liturgies for worship there were those who thought we had failed when it didn’t produce lots more people sitting on pews. But I never saw that as the central purpose of this liturgical renewal. Rather than seeing it as intended to put seats on pews I saw it as rather intended to get seats off pews and out into God’s world. Our worship is now much better at stressing the witness of the New Testament that we are to go out and serve. We are to serve, but in a strength not our own, rather than rest assured that we are saved. And so we have had Series 1, 2 and 3, then the Alternative Service Book, and now Common Worship, with a much clearer vision of being called to serve the whole of God’s creation.
And now the Episcopal Church in the US has made the Millennium Development Goals a major concern, and again, there are those who think that the Church should not make this a major objective, as opposed to saving souls. I strongly believe th0at they are wrong. I believe we miss the boat if we think that our primary job as the Church is to call people to join us. You and I have been called into Christ, made members of his body in baptism and strengthened in Holy Communion not so that we may save souls by our words but rather that, in Paul’s words from Galatians, we may ‘work for the good of all’. We echo the words of Christian Aid as we affirm that ‘we believe in life before death’. I am convinced that it is by the quality of our living for others in service to all that we may attract others to Christ, those who long to have what we have found: namely, the freedom to live for others by a strength not our own.
Thus, for our part here at St Mark’s, our parish project is not something tacked on but it is rather an integral expression of our living out the good news of Jesus Christ. This we shall continue to do with patience, trusting God for the increase in God’s own good time. Which may still be a miracle, although neither sudden nor momentous.