How do you respond to that beautiful miracle story that we have just heard from Gospel of Luke? What do you do with these stories as we hear them Sunday by Sunday, and how do you relate them to your life where such miracles don’t normally happen on a regular basis?
I think that there are probably two dominant ways in which Anglicans here at St Peter’s respond to these stories, and I wonder which one (if either of them) most accurately describes what you do with them.
One response is to say that we must take miracles at their face value. In other words, as we read the Bible together it is important for us to believe that through the plain words of scripture we know literally what happened as people encountered Jesus. That kind of a way of interpreting says that there is little that we need to add to the Bible stories to understand them better. Instead our priority is to read them with faith, and even though they don’t seem to correlate with all of our own experiences of life in Christ, we must nevertheless accept them literally as they are described. They might seem strange and other-worldly, but because they are in the Bible we accept them simply as true accounts of what took place. My sense is that that would be the view of many of us, and that would be the approach that we take to reading scripture more generally.
The other response would be to say that as modern people, living in a very different world to the world which Jesus inhabited two thousand years ago, we owe it to ourselves to interrogate these stories with all that we know from modern science and from our own experience of life. Sociologists would call that kind of an approach a hermeneutic of suspicion. We approach the miracle stories, with friendly suspicion because it is difficult for us to make sense of people rising from the dead, and food being multiplied, and people being instantaneously healed, as those men were in the Gospel that we heard this morning, rather than going through a long journey of recuperation and recovery. We need to ask questions about these miracle stories because we do not see these events happening on a regular basis in our own lives. I am not accustomed to people being suddenly healed as I walk past their bedsides in Maitland Hospital, but then of course I am not claiming to be Jesus, only his representative.
Those who take this kind of view would want to suggest that when Jesus fed the multitude from just a few loaves and fishes, the reality behind the story is that those who were sitting around Jesus shared their food with each, and so everyone else did the same and there was enough to go around. A miracle of generosity perhaps, but not a literal miracle of multiplication.
For some of us that may seem a strange approach to take to the stories in the Bible, but equally the problem for those of us who take the miracle accounts as literal historical events, is that these stories do not often seem to correlate with what we see around us today. We might see people get better through prolonged medical treatment and prayer, which we would want to say was the work of God, but we are not accustomed to seeing miraculous events happening before our eyes, like the one that was depicted in this morning’s Gospel story.
We need to remember that human nature suggests to us that the view that we have in our own minds is the only possible view that people of faith can have. How do you feel when you consider those alternative ways of interpreting the miracle stories, like the story that we heard a few moments ago from the Gospel of Luke? Is one of those ways obvious to you, and does the other sound ridiculous? Is one of those ways self-evidently the truth, and the other heretical?
Whichever of those approaches is closer to your way of dealing with the Gospels, I want to suggest to us today that both of these possible methods of interpreting the miracle stories come from a conviction of faith. It is not that one approach believes the life of Jesus to be true, and the other doesn’t, on the contrary both of these world views continue to see the biblical story, and Jesus within it, as central to the transformation of our lives and our communities.
The understanding of scripture that says that these things happened literally as they are recorded for us in the Gospels values the miracles that surrounded the life of Jesus as signs of his divinity, as signs that through him God was able to achieve things which were beyond the laws of science and nature. The understanding of scripture which says that we need to think more deeply about these stories so that we can understand them for ourselves, in our modern world, values a God who can be known in Jesus without us leaving our brains and critical faculties at home before we come to church.
But perhaps both of these approaches – not one, but both, have serious deficiencies, because the problem with both of these approaches is that they essentially treat the Gospel stories as if they were written as history. Whether as someone who says this event happened exactly as the Gospel writers say that it happened, or as someone who says this story happened, and I want to explore further how it really happened – both of these world views, both approaches to the Gospels begin from the proposition that the Gospel writers were first and foremost historians, trying to record what they perceived to be happening around them.
Now for me, whilst those historical questions are both important and interesting, that is the wrong starting point, so I want to encourage us to consider, as we hear these miracle stories throughout the Christian year, beginning from a different place. Not beginning with the question of history, but rather beginning with the question of meaning, or if we want to use a more technical term, “theology.” Because, knowing as we do that the Gospels do not contain all of the events of the life of Jesus, we might consider the assertion that the Gospels are not trying to write history for us, (they are not trying to give a full account of everything in the life of Jesus) but rather, they present to us those stories which had the greatest sense of meaning to the early Christian communities.
Or, in other words, the stories which we find in the Bible are not there primarily because of a concern about history; they are there because these were the stories which contained in the most powerful way the truth for the first followers of Christ, about who Jesus was, what he had come to do, and how all of that related to them, and indeed to us as member of his body, the Church.
Unlike those two approaches which I have described, I want to suggest to us that our approach to the Gospels needs to begin from the starting point of theology and not from history; seeking to focus our attention beyond the events which we read in our Gospels, to the meaning of those events instead. St Augustine, one of the great Christian thinkers of the fourth century wrote:
“Let us ask the miracles themselves what they tell us about Christ, for they have a tongue of their own, if it can only be understood. Because Christ is the Word of God, all the acts of the Word become words to us… a miracle is not like a picture, something merely to look at and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand.”
How might we approach the Gospels with the question of meaning, rather than the question of history? We heard a miracle story from the Gospel of Luke a few minutes ago. It was the story of a group of men who had leprosy, who encountered Jesus as he travelled. When we hear the word leprosy being used in the Bible it does not necessarily mean what we know it to mean today – leprosy was a word which covered all kinds of conditions, and illnesses and afflictions. Even more important than the physical and biological conditions which it encompassed, those who were lepers in the time of Jesus were ritually unclean, religiously unclean, which meant that lepers were excluded both from corporate worship and all community social interaction.
Lepers lived with each other, but apart from the rest of society, they were required by the religious law to ring bells, and to warn people not to come near to them. Those who did come into contact with lepers, if they touched them, became ritually unclean themselves. In this Gospel encounter a group of lepers break the religious laws that are designed to keep them apart from everyone else, and call out to Jesus for him to have mercy on them. In response to their cry for help, Jesus tells them to go and visit the priest, the only one who can declare them to be clean. As they go on their way, they are healed. And one returns to thank Jesus.
Walter Wink reflects on this miraculous encounter in these words:
“in contrast to the traditional view that uncleanness was contagious, Jesus regarded wholeness as contagious. God’s holiness,” he says, “cannot be soiled; rather, it is a cleansing and healing agent. It does not need to be shut up and quarantined in the temple; it is now, through Jesus’ healings and fellowship with the despised and rejected, breaking out into the world to transform it.”
Through this encounter the love and presence of God becomes truly and radically present to this poor leper. Through his radical presence of coming close to, and giving value to a group of people who everyone considered to be unclean, Jesus not only brings wholeness to the lepers, but he gives us a sense of the meaning of his ministry; because for Jesus no one will be untouchable, no one will be out of bounds, and no one will be beyond the transforming love of God. It isn’t being marginalised that is contagious, it is holiness that can rub off and lead to the transformation of those around us.
If we consider this story to be just about Jesus and his healing encounter with a group of lepers two thousand years ago, we could have an interesting conversation about whether it is historically accurate or some form of truth-filled metaphor, but we would miss what the story has to say to us and to our lives. The point of this story is not just the historical event, it is the meaning which is behind the event.
There are plenty of people today, in our society who are treated as lepers. There may even be groups of people that the church continues to treat as lepers. We may ourselves have had experiences both of being excluded, and more likely of excluding others. The miracle stories of Jesus remind us that above everything else we are called to live with hope. But we not only live with hope for ourselves, we are called to live lives that reach out in hope for others. Let me remind you of those words of St Augustine:
“a miracle is not like a picture, something merely to look at and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand.”
So allow this miracle to speak to you, deep in your being at this Eucharist, not as history, but as meaning; because at the heart of this story of hope we hear the exciting news that wholeness, (holiness), is contagious, and in Jesus (and therefore also in us who are his body) that wholeness is breaking out around us.