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Propers for the 19th Sunday after Trinity Ephesians iv. 17| St Matthew ix. 1

Here it is again. Yet another miracle of Jesus, another sick man healed. There is little left to surprise us because we have watched this scene play out before. The Gospels are riddled with the miracles of Jesus. And each time we hear one we find ourselves asking: “Is it true?” or “Did that really happen?”

Casblanca, a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943. Casablanca’s endurance as a movie for the generations might lead us to believe that it was the only great movie made that year. But another movie in 1943 was nominated for no less than 12 Academy Awards. It even won some. Jennifer Jones took the award for leading actress, and Arthur Miller for cinematography among many others. These great lauds were given for a movie called The Song of Bernadette, based on the novel of the same name by Franz Werfel. The movie tells the story of the very difficult life ofBernadette Soubirous,the sickly peasant girl who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France.

There’s one line in this movie that strikes me now – and it’s a famous one too. The line is beautiful and stark, written on the title screen “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, none will suffice.”

For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. It seems faith is really the issue when it comes to miracles.

What is a miracle? We are, after all, modern, educated people here. At a certain point don’t miracles become a little like Santa Claus, an endearing idea which is really only acceptable in a child’s mind? Don’t we really know better than to believe in magic cures and odd visions? Aren’t these the relics of earlier ages? There is a bit in that thinking of whatC.S. Lewisand Owen Barfield called the“snobbery of chronology,” “the notion that intellectually humanity languished for countless centuries in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum.”

( Footnote 1) Simply because we have lived after our ancestors and that because we have physics textbooks and know the difference between bacteria and viruses, we assume that we also know better than they. Well, we certainly have more facts available to us – and available at the click of a mouse. These things I do not doubt, but as to whether we have more wisdom – or display more common humanity – I am very skeptical.

So what is a miracle? Webster’s: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs. Well now we’re getting somewhere. A paralyzed man getting up and walking – extraordinary, yes. But stem cells we are told can really do some miraculous things. This man’s cure might not be due to divine intervention.

Let me tell another story:

In Ontario on November 14, 1891 a child was born; he was raised in a fine home. He went to the University of Toronto to study Divinity, but he chose later to study medicine instead. After serving as a highly decorated medical officer in the First World War, he begins a medical practice, which wasn’t very successful, and so took a position in the department of physiology at the University of Western Ontario. At 2 in the morning on October 31, 1920 “Frederick Banting was suddenly inspired with the idea that would lead to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, a knighthood in 1934, and the survival of millions of men, women, and children who otherwise might have died tragic deaths from the disease known as diabetes.”(Footnote 2) Yes in a flash of inspiration, insulin was conceived from such an unlikely source.

The practice of medicine is very much a product of the rapid increase in human knowledge over the past 200 years. In a certain light it seems logical, even natural, that we would move from the discovery of microbes to antibiotics, from scalpels to lasers, from x-rays to MRIs and all the other medical wonders we have today. In another light it is nothing short of miraculous that in such a short span of time we have nearly doubled the average life-span, improved the quality of life for countless disabled and chronically ill people, and eased many of the risks associated with child birth, among other achievements.

Take a moment sometime to consider these advances. With the materialism which characterizes our age how frequently do we take credit for these ideas? Is it possible, for those so inclined, to see the work of God’s Providence, His mercy, and His compassion?

When faced with a miracle, it is natural for us to ask: “Is it true,” as we noted earlier. This is natural, but it is very much the wrong question. “For miracles are not arguments or propositions to which there are yes or no answers.”(Footnote 3) Miracles defy explanations because they are not objects of study but words of communication.(Footnote 4) Peter Gomes, the admired Methodist preacher, describes a miracle as “an extraordinary message in the midst of the ordinary.”(Footnote 5) This I think captures it quite well. It encompasses the grand miracles such as the healing power Jesus exhibits in today’s Gospel, those quiet miracles leading to some discovery, and those everyday miracles like a family reconciliation.

The healing we read about today is meant to communicate something to us. For as St. John says “these things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name.”(Footnote 6) Those primitives who witnessed the man sick of the palsy walk that day might not have had a very intellectual understanding of a miracle. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to talk about stem cells, placebo effects, or brain plasticity. But they knew a miracle when the saw one, as we read: “when the multitudes saw it, they marveled, and glorified God.”(Footnote 7)

And what was communicated to that suffering man that so affected him? “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee.”(Footnote 8) For this Jesus was accused of blasphemy. It is important to note that some Jews of Jesus’ day would have maintained that physical pain and suffering was the result of sin, if not your own sin than that of your father’s. As all sin is against God, it is only God’s right to forgive sin. The accusation of blasphemy should be seen in this light. Jesus responds to the accusations with a very curious question: What is easier to say? To forgive sins or tell a paralyzed man to get up and walk? Well neither, really – certainly both can be said, but whether they happen, that’s very different. Both the forgiveness of sins and the healing of a paralytic are outside of the natural power of man. Why is it necessary that the man’s outward condition be changed? Jesus is showing that he has the power to forgive sins and he communicates this in a way that the people will understand.

There is a counter tendency to over spiritualize a miracle. I don’t want to minimize miracles, as to make them so prevalent that we fail to see the truly extraordinary. After all we will generally limit the miraculous to those events when we can see God acting outside of nature. But by the same token we ought not to overestimate the reach of nature either. With that caution in mind here is a passage from a renowned psychiatrist discussing a patient he was interviewing: “I had a hard time getting the usual medical history from the extremely tense young man who sat across from me, his eyes downcast, avoiding mine, his face without emotion, his body stiff and motionless, hands tightly clenched in his lap. I knew guilt when I saw it, and this was guilt, overwhelming guilt, with all the fear and helplessness that goes with it.”(Footnote 9) While guilt can be good (it tells us when we have done wrong) it can take over us, making us feel unlovable and unloved. Our guilt can paralyze us, setting our eyes downcast, so that we are unable to look to the hills, to the direction of our help.(Footnote 10) Sometimes it is nothing short of miraculous that God breaks through our self-absorption and speaks directly to our suffering soul: “Be of good cheer!”

It is so easy for us to see but not really see. When we read today’s Gospel we think we see the miracle. A man sick of the palsy, arose and walked. That is certainly extraordinary, and I am sure meant quite a lot to that man. But the miracle of the story is that “when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God.” The miracle of the story is that they believed; their eyes were opened to a whole new communication with God – that direct communication with his only begotten Son. The miracle is that the glory and majesty of the Creator reaches out to man.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking; we beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us, for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

1. Owen Barfield, History in English Words, (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2002), 164.

2. Frederick Flach, M.D., Faith, Healing & Miracles, ( New York: Hatherleigh Press, 2000), 123.

3. Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, (New York: Avon Books, 1998), 139.

4. C.S. Lewis calls them letters. “I contend that all these miracles alike the incarnate God does suddenly and locally something that God has done or will do in general. Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of Nature.” C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1947), 177.

5. Gomes, 140.

6. Jn 20:31

7. Mt 9:8

8. Mt 9:2

9. Flach, 78.

10. Ps 121:1

Stephen Rugg
Oct. 10,2010

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