“After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days. And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said. Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.” John 2:12-25
I want to address two issues concerning Jesus and miracles. First of all, I want to say something about what I am calling “Western scorn” and then I want to say something about the historic Jesus and miracles. Last week I mentioned Rudolph Bultmann’s famous declaration: “It is impossible to use electric lights and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” “It is impossible… to believe…” — right there is Western scorn. If ever a thoughtful discussion of miracles occurred publicly, say at an American university, say like this great University, it would be tolerated a short time and then dumped, once again, onto the trash heap of empirically falsified beliefs –- that is beliefs scientifically proven to be false. Or for the kinder and gentler there is the default back up: “One can neither prove nor disprove miracles because it is a matter of faith and faith is a private matter and it is inappropriate to bring private belief into a public discussion.” That would be the kinder, gentler shut down. But I submit to you that behind all the smiling and grinning lurks the smirking Western liberal absolutely sure in his heart that sophisticated, modern men and women are beyond that silliness. What he really means when he says, “one can neither prove nor disprove miracles because it is a matter of faith,” is that it is unreasonable albeit a little amusing when a modern person claims to believe in miracles.
Before we go any further let me remind you of what I mean by the word “miracle.” A miracle is an extraordinary, startling event that is at least in principle observable and it is an event that cannot be explained in terms of human abilities or known forces working in the universe. Therefore a miracle is an event “that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human power can do.” And, I submit to you that it is intelligent, reasonable, and responsible for you to affirm miracles.
I mean to be very strict with this definition and therefore even the Christian mysteries, the dogmatic truth statements of the Church, such as “the miracles of grace” or even “the miracle of Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist” are excluded from this discussion. Yes, I believe in them, but I want to focus on the miracles that Jesus performed that are recorded in the New Testament; startling events that a fair and reasonable person could perceive and observe. For example six stone water pots were filled with water and then the water became wine. Jesus performed many other miracles that are recorded in the New Testament. They are observable, they are startling, they are beyond human ability to effect –- such events are the result of a special action of God doing what no mere human being can do.
Sometime we label an event a miracle when it is not a miracle in any sense whatsoever. The word miracle when used in such phrases as, “the miracle of conception,” or “the miracle of space travel,” is inaccurate. Nor do street magicians who appears to levitate or apparently read one’s mind perform miracles. They are illusionists who delight and amuse their audiences with tricks that seem to defy human understanding. But do nothing beyond human understanding; they do nothing that you or I could not do with training.
Jesus was not a magician; he was not an illusionist. He actually turned water into wine and he healed a man who was blind from birth. He was not being clever or tricky by manipulating people’s perceptions. Nor was he using some kind of group psychology in order to appear to be working miracles. Last week I pointed out that like everyone else in the New Testament narratives you either love and worship Jesus or you try to eliminate him.” Killing a person is not the best way to eliminate him. It is much more effective to change the narrative. Once again I want us to remember that this culture does not share the horizon of Jesus Christ. Therefore Western man has changed Jesus’ New Testament narrative to a culturally approved narrative of Jesus as a vagabond teacher of wisdom, living one day at a time, cheerfully accepting everyone just as they are, and bringing out the best of every person who meets him. This is the narrative of Western liberal theologians, the cynical chaplains of this culture, who no longer believe in anything beyond their experience of the material. So, for example, when Jesus was faced with feeding 10,000 or 15,000 people he had them set down and he said a prayer and showed the loaves and fishes that a young boy had given him. And low and behold the people were so inspired by the little boy’s generosity they began pulling out the food they had been hiding all along and they began sharing it with their neighbor. This is the last and only hope for modern men and women who no longer believe in miracles. But that is no miracle. Nor is that what Jesus did. Jesus took a handful of fish and loaves and he began distributing them to his disciples and as he did so they multiplied far and beyond what the whole crowd could eat. This was a special act of God doing what no mere human being can do. That is what a miracle is. This is what the Western world scorns: modern, educated men and women are not so crude and superstitious.
The materialist philosophers and movie stars are the high priests of the Western academy and Rudolph Bultmann, with all his veneration, his glorification of the scientific marvels at modern man’s disposal, was just one of their chaplains. But as one of my favorite teachers has pointed out, when today’s Successors of the Enlightenment pontificate on the character of modern man they ignore one scientific marvel of modernity — that careful statistical corpus known as the Opinion Poll. There you have as pure an expression of science applied to human belief as you could wish to find. Surely a scientific instrument, promising certainty (at least for the moment) would show that the Western academy has correctly prophesied what modern people can or cannot believe!
But alas, that would not be the case! According to scientific polls — like George Gallup’s research — something like 82% of Americans believe that God actually works miracles even today, and then there are various other categories of belief, while something like 6% of Americans believe that God never has and never will work miracles because there is no God. Based on the logic of Western scorn that means that only 6% of Americans are truly modern. But more accurately, that means that 6% of Americans share the same worldview as a few dead German college professors and a most of the actors in Hollywood.
The fact of the matter is that educated modern people are able to enjoy electric light bulbs and all kinds of scientific marvels that Bultmann never dreamed of and at the same time believe that God sometimes acts in a way that has the unmistakable mark of his power and divinity upon it. Therefore it is the faith of Bultmann and the Western academy — “Modern men and woman cannot believe in miracles” — that is out of step with history and science and reality. It is the pale, empty ideology of the likes of Bultmann & the West that ought to be relegated to the trash heap of foolish beliefs.
Why am I making this point in such detail? First let me say this: I don’t believe in the reality of Jesus’ miracles because of the opinion poll, or because they have been proven to me scientifically – I believe in the reality of Jesus’ miracles because the Church says this is true and it is reasonable. In fact, I believe it is unreasonable not to believe in Jesus’ miracles. This is the second main point I want to make: I want you to see that the miracle of turning the water into wine, of healing the Centurion’s servant at a distance, of healing the leper, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising the dead really happened like the texts says and it is reasonable to believe. These are not myths, metaphors, or fantasy stories. Jesus really did all this and more. He did what no mere man could do; he acted upon people and things in this world, healing and making whole, doing what only God himself could do. A Jesus who does not work miracles is a figment of the Enlightenment’s imagination — the liberal, romantic Jesus; that sweet wide-eyed rabbi who taught universal love and brought out the very best in people does not square with historic reality.
Jesus is a man of miracles. That may embarrass some people, but it is still the truth. His life makes no sense without the miracles. He raised children from death. He spoke to the raging sea and it purred like a kitten. He gave sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf. The lame walked. He walked on water. He spoke to a fig tree and it withered up. Demons fly from his presence. All that torments men and women, all that bends us down, all that breaks us, all that would snatch sight, sound, beauty, and happiness from God’s creature of Man, in the presence of Jesus must entirely submit to his will.
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.”