Sermon - Ordinary 10 (Pentecost 3) Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
The Miracle of Wholeness
[Note: this written version of the sermon is intended
for further study and as background to the discussion at another time, it
contains more on miracles in general than will be included in the morning
Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well(1) ." And instantly the woman was made well . -- Matthew 9:22
Did you notice in the hymn Lord your word abiding the simple faith expressed in the second verse:
Who can tell the pleasure,
who recount the treasure,
by your word imparted
to the simple-hearted?
Are you simple-hearted? Do you believe it just because it is in the Bible: "by your word imparted." Simple-hearted is not quite the same thing as simple-minded, though there is something even of that simplicity in the childlike trust that God inspires in those who have faith. There can be little doubt that the faith of the woman we read about in the gospel today was a simple kind of trust:
The old Authorised Version or King James Version translates what Jesus said to her as "your faith has made you whole ". The NIV says "healed" and the NRSV "made well", and that meaning is clear enough in present day English, but "made whole" is better with the emphasis it makes in regard to the work that Jesus was doing. The Greek word can also mean "saved". The basic idea is that of being rescued or preserved from danger. By forming a relationship of trust with Jesus, the meaning of what happened to her was deeper than her physical healing. She was saved. She was restored to fullness of life. She was made whole in body and in spirit. She was restored spiritually: there was a new wholeness in her relationship with God as she was made whole within herself. There is more to learn from this and I will return to it at the end, but I wonder, do you believe it? Are you too far removed from simple-heartedness to believe in miracles? Do you think they are only for the simple minded?
Belief in miracles
Do you believe in miracles? The Bible speaks of signs, wonders, deeds of power or works. Any or all of these might sometimes be called a miracle, depending upon the translation. The basic idea is that something has occurred which stands out as an object of wonder. It is something which attracts attention and causes us to wonder, especially about how it happened and what its meaning might be in the sense of what its happening might imply for us. It might be a sign of something previously unknown, or something secret or hidden, or something that is being revealed. So "signs and wonders" are related to revelation through what are perceived by faith to be deeds of power, works of God, wonders which are signs of God's power and his care in creation, providence and salvation.
For all my belief in the value and importance of modern science I would still want to assert the importance of miracles to the Christian faith. I would go so far as to say that you cannot believe in God in a Biblical sense without believing in miracles, but you do need to understand miracles as objects of wonder also in a Biblical sense. That is a much bigger idea than the simplistic modern notion of a miracle being something contrary to the laws of nature. It is both more simple and more subtle than that.
Attitudes to science
We cannot take much time today to develop our understanding of what a Christian attitude to science in general might be (for which see Creation, faith and science and references in the endnote 2 ), but it is worth making a few basic points before looking at miracles more closely, and at one in particular. It deserves more detailed discussion. Let me simply report now my own experience that in all the years of research and the wide range of people I have known in universities, including some of the world's leading institutions, I have never found any conflict between science and the Christian faith. I was at one time a member of a faculty of science, I once had the title of Senior Research Scientist in a research institute, and later I was professor and head of a research centre with an international reputation for excellence in its field; I used some of the earliest computers as far back as 1959, I was known as a tough minded quantitative researcher in psychology and I applied rigorous methods of research in education; in the university environment generally I spent a great deal of time talking with leading researchers in physics and other sciences and I have read widely in different fields. It has always seemed to me that the marvels of scientific discovery were something to be celebrated as wonders which gave reason to glorify God2. .
Dogmatic and simple minded attitudes to science are often put forward, even in our schools, in ways which suggest that science excludes religion. This is often tied up with ideas of progress, in which science is thought of as modern and religion as behind the times. Unfortunately some believers have tended to reinforce these attitudes by rejecting certain scientific theories and discoveries, and putting up a particular view of the Bible as an alternative. I do not believe there is any necessary conflict. Those who offer their own peculiar interpretations of the Bible as an alternative to the best scientific research are doing great damage to the presentation of the faith today.
The Word of God and the Biblical Witness
It might appear to be contradictory that I want, at the same time, to assert my belief that it is essential for the Christian faith to maintain a commitment to the authority of the Bible. It is necessary to believe that in the scriptures we hear the Word of the God.
The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church declares that
Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. [Para. 4]
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures. [Para.5]
Most importantly, we are not at liberty to accept some parts of the Bible and reject others according to our preference or to our preferred understanding of human knowledge and wisdom at the present time. Over the past hundred years or so the faith has been greatly compromised by well meaning believers trying to make in fit in with modern beliefs, knowledge and attitudes. The critical point is that a dogmatically liberal approach to scripture allows only those interpretations which are compatible with contemporary wisdom . Even when they speak of spiritual guidance, we find that lack of regard for the authority of scripture allows more inspiration to come from "the spirit of the age" than from the Spirit of God. That is the essential character of the modern liberalism which has probably done more damage to the church than the narrow minded literal fundamentalism that is a reaction against it. Too often our people act as if these were the only alternatives. Neither liberalism nor fundamentalism offers any hope of effective Christian witness.
To take the Bible seriously requires us to avoid compromises with present day attitudes and beliefs. To be faithful, you can never use an external criterion, some principal taken from outside the Bible, to decide what you will accept from scripture. Christians cannot limit what we will believe of scripture by choosing to accept only that which fits a modern, or any other particular, view of the world. It is equally important, if we take the Bible seriously to use all our intelligence and the best of scholarship to understand it.
The Basis of Union puts it this way:
The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God's ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. [Para. 11]
It is not something which an uninformed person can do alone as an individual. We need each other; we need the church to help us understand what God is saying to us. One of the great achievements of the Reformation was to put the Bible into the hands of every individual member of the church; but if every member thinks that he or she alone can use the Bible to judge the truth of any teaching or develop their own, that is likely to lead to serious errors. And, I might say, ministers and preachers generally are not immune to such errors. The Bible was formed by and within the life of the church (and the community or Israel that preceded it) and it can only be properly interpreted by using all the resources God has provided within the universal fellowship of believers.
The Bible and the laws of nature
What then do we say of miracles? The signs, wonders, deeds of power and works in the Bible that are commonly called miracles cannot be ignored or explained away. They are part of the record and cannot arbitrarily be set aside just because some of them don't seem to fit a view of the world that is popular in our time. We do however need to understand those things in the ways that they were intended to be understood. They were not addressed to the modern skeptic, and certainly not as contradictions to the laws of nature. Nor were the Biblical writers writing history as we know it. There was not the same sense of scientific or historical objectivity that has been common in our recent past. (People have less confidence in it now, but that is another story.) The authors of the books in the Bible sometimes drew attention to events which were unusual, but there was no conception in those writings of universal laws of nature which meant that the same things always happened in the same way everywhere. That mechanistic model of the world is relatively recent, only two or three hundred years old, and, anyway, it is now out of date.
If you go to Greenwich in England you can see a line marked on the ground in stone. To the east positions on the earth are measured in degrees of longitude east, and to the west in degrees west. You can stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and the other in the west and look along the line towards a position in a building where there was once a telescope from which observations were made of the stars to fix Greenwich Mean Time. If you go into the building you will see besides a number of old telescopes some very impressive old clocks. They are marvelously elaborate constructions in shining brass, steel and glass. It was concern with the accuracy of those clocks as an aid to navigation that brought Captain Cook to this part of the world on a scientific journey in 1770. The discovery of the land where we live was of secondary importance to the accuracy of the those old clocks in the minds of the people who sent him. Clocks were then a dominant influence not only on British commerce and naval power, but on the way people thought about the world. Things have changed now. Since Einstein's relativity and the development of quantum theory, the clock-work model of the universe is not the way physical scientists think any more. It is rather sad that both believers and non-believers sometimes still seem to think that belief in God somehow involves us in finding a place in the clock-work for the finger of God to interfere with the way it normally functions. Miracles in that way of thinking are violations of the natural order of things. That is not necessary in science and it is not a Biblical view.
Two general principles might help. One is that there is cause for wonder in creation as a whole so that we can give glory to God for all that causes us to marvel at his work whether or not it is unusual. The other principle is that strange, unexpected or unusual things which attract our attention are nothing more than that, unusual things that stand out, and they might or might not be explicable now or in the near future. The point about them all, all signs and wonders, is that they direct our thinking to something beyond what we can see at the time. That does not necessarily lead to faith, but for a person of faith it lifts us to another plain of existence in which we are related to God. Wonder leads to worship, just as it also leads to scientific inquiry, with which it is perfectly compatible whenever the primary concern is simply to know the truth.
Miracles in the Bible
Instead of looking for what are labelled as signs, wonders, portents, prodigies or miracles, we should first consider the miraculous quality of existence itself. In the Old Testament the greatest miracle is the creation of the world. The ancient people of God looked out on a world of earth, sky, people and animals with amazement and wonder. There was a sense of the revelation of God the Creator as I was saying last week in the sermon on the Trinity. It is seen in the story of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis and at many other places, especially in the Psalms. For example Psalm 8 that we read last week:
Events in human life like marriage or the birth of a child inspired a similar sense. A person's moral sense, conscience or inner self could also be a source of wonder. Much the same applied to their sense of God at work in history. That was, of course, always, as it was seen with the eyes of faith. There is no way of establishing by historical or scientific research that these things were the work of God, as if what God did, was in some way additional to what would have happened otherwise. Yet to those who are given the gift of faith, it is all inspiration to glorify God, the
Some of the most striking things that Jesus did were signs and wonders of healing. Whatever you make of the different accounts in the gospels, and they do differ even when they appear to be accounts of the same event, it is beyond question that people were amazed at his works. They were cause for wonder. Even though he tried to stop them from telling others the news soon spread that he could heal the sick and they sought him out.
Among those whom made well there were probably some who, we would say today, were suffering from a mental illness and we can make a fair guess at the psychology of their being made well; and other cures could have been psychosomatic as we know that a person's attitude and feelings can have an affect on their physical well-being and their recovery from illness. There are other cases, however, where we cannot now guess at the way they were healed.
Some of the stories could have been told in a dramatically exaggerated way to give more point to the message about Jesus having the power to heal and save. You can see evidence of that in some cases if you compare the different gospel accounts. It was the intention of the gospel writers to inspire faith (eg John 20:30-31), but it would be foolish indeed to say that all those things which we do not understand did not happen. That would be an extraordinary conceit on our part, and no more than an attitude or prejudice intended to remove the cause of wonder and therefore the stimulus to faith. Such an attitude limits both God and humanity. It is more in accord with human experience to assume that there is more to life than we can imagine.
In any case from the viewpoint of one who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, we can say that if Jesus was who we say he was, who the apostles believed him to be, that is if he is God, then none of those things is impossible. To doubt the possibility of his healing miracles whenever we don't understand them, and simply because they do not fit with what we already believe, is a lack of faith. It is another way of saying that you believe that he was no more than a man like us: good, noble and compassionate though he may have been, to the skeptic he was only a man like us. Some deny the miracle precisely because they deny his divinity. However, while in faith we can say such things were not impossible, that does not mean that we have to say they all happened as a matter of historical fact just as they were told. The gospel writers have given us the faith perspective on what the apostles remembered of what happened. That was clearly Matthew's intention when he retold the story of the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak believing that she would be healed.
The gift of wholeness
Let us look more closely at the healing of women who had suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years (in today's lesson, Matthew 9:20-22). Mark tells the story in much more detail (Mark 5:25-34) and it is retold again by Luke (8:43-48). They all say she was "made whole". Luke also tells of another occasion when Jesus said that someone had been "made whole" through faith (Luke 17:11-19). It was when he healed ten lepers and only one came back to give thanks.
Touching is an important symbol. Remember how the woman came up behind Jesus, unnoticed in the crowd. She could not approach him directly because she believed, in accordance with the custom of her time, that she was unclean. Mark tells us that she had had a terrible time, having been sick for so long, and that she had spent all she had on doctors who had done her no good, but rather she grew worse (5:26). She stooped to touch the fringe, not the hem, the fringe of his garment. Touching the "fringe" or tassel has a special meaning. Even today a Jewish prayer shawl has a special fringe for a purpose that goes back to the ancient law of Moses, which it appears that Jesus observed:
Now let me take this idea of a sacred connection just a little further. It is more by way of analogy and symbol than of anything necessarily supernatural, though I do not want to avoid talking of things beyond the material world.
Mark says that when the woman touched the fringe of his garment Jesus felt power go out of him:
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1. Notes: (Mat 9:22) See note on Greek tr. "well" [NRSV] = "whole", [AV] "healed" [NIV] or "saved".
"WELL" [Strong's Concordance, QV3, 4982]. sozo, sode'-zo; from a prim. sos (contr. for obsol. saos, "safe"); to save, i.e. deliver or protect (lit. or fig.):--heal, preserve, save (self), do well, be (make) whole.
MIRACLE: English word from Latin miraclum, object of wonder, f. mirari, - are wonder, look at (cf. Admire), f. mirus wonderful. [Oxford dict. of English Etymology]. Compare French mirer to look at, to aim at; se mirer to look at oneself, to be reflected, hence miroir mirror.
Greek NT words translated "miracle": semeion "sign"; teras "wonder"; dynamis "power"; ergon "work". English: "terror" from teras (compare "awe"); "energy" from ergon; "dynamo", "dynamic" from dynamis.
2. For the origins of science in the cultural heritage of Christian faith see Harold Turner, The Roots of Science: An Investigative Journey through the World's Religions, Auckland: The Deepsight Trust (PO Box 87-362, Meadowbank, Auckland NZ), 1998; Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, London: G. Bell, 1949; S. L. Jaki, Science and Creation , Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986; C. B Kaiser, Creation and the History of Science, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991; Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks. The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.