Miracles Reconsidered

From cover to cover, the Bible is filled with miracle stories. Choose a book. Ezekiel? Bones that lie dry and lifeless in the middle of a valley are knit back together. How about Exodus? Moses stretches out his hand, and the waters of the Red Sea part. The Psalms? "O Lord, I have cried out to you, and you have healed me." The New Testament is overflowing with miracles as well. Water is turned into wine. Lame people walk. Blind people see. Demons disappear. In the 6th chapter of John, we encounter not one, but two miracle stories. First, Jesus feeds the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish; then he walks across the Sea of Galilee.

Sometimes our modern minds have a hard time believing in the miraculous as it comes to us from the ancient texts of Scripture, which were written, after all, by and for people who had no trouble believing in the miraculous. We likely lean more in the direction of incredulity. We cook up rational explanations to explain them away. Maybe there was a big stash of fish and bread hidden behind a tree or a bush, which Jesus used to feed all those people. Maybe the disciples in the boat only dreamed that Jesus was walking towards them across the water.

Do you believe in miracles? I am helped by my own response to that question by something Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, "The common impression," he said, "is that it is the unintelligent who believe in miracles, but the fact is that it is the great minds who believe most fervently in unforeseen possibilities."

Let's hold on to that idea of "unforeseen possibilities" as we turn to John's account of the feeding and the walking. In three of the four gospels, the two stories are coupled together, indicating their prominence in the life of the early Christian community and the commonality of their message. May they be God's Word for us today.

First, the feeding. Jesus has been in Jerusalem where distrust of him by religious leaders has been growing in intensity. Now he is back in Galilee. Great numbers of people follow him wherever he goes, impressed by his power to heal the sick. One day he is sitting with his disciples on a mountainside having a moment of respite from the demands of his ministry. When he looks up, he sees a large crowd coming toward him. Immediately he focuses on their need. No one has expressed that need to him, but Jesus knows that they are hungry. He says to Philip, "Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?"

Philip, the realist, answers, "Six months wages would not be enough to feed all those people." Andrew, the practical, chimes in. "There is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are they with this size crowd?" Neither disciple is wrong. There is a great need, and there are what appear to be too few resources to meet the need. Jesus doesn't argue with them. Instead, he directs the disciples to tell everybody to sit down on the grass. Then he takes two loaves and when he has given thanks to God, he himself distributes the bread and the fish as much as the hungry people want. When all is said and done, there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.

Everybody is impressed. With joy the people exclaim to one another, "This is the prophet, the one for whom we have waited!" Soon they are on the verge of taking him by force to make him king, but Jesus will have none of it. He withdraws again to the mountain to be alone.

Here we have what I would call a revelation story that comes by means of a miracle story. It reveals both Jesus' divine capacity to know immediately the needs of the people and his response to that need with extravagant compassion, indeed an overabundance of compassion to which the baskets of leftover bread bear witness. The word "compassion" comes from two Latin roots: "com" meaning "with" and "passion" meaning "deep feeling over the suffering of others." In the end, Jesus will respond with compassion to the needs of the whole world by offering his body and blood on the cross. And each time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord's Supper, we taste in the miracle of the meal the real, redemptive presence of Christ in our broken world. "I am the Bread of life," he said. "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."

The feeding of the 5,000 is divine disclosure. It discloses that God is not only for us; God is with us in the person of Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Now that is truly awesome.

The setting of this grand scene is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrating God's liberation of the Hebrew people from their long captivity in Egypt. Think of how on their journey to freedom, the Lord provided them manna in the wilderness, Now, Jesus, the new Moses, will free the people from all that separates them from God and one another. He provides them with nourishing spiritual food along the way, and he is ushering them into the new reality of God's reign on earth as it is in heaven.

The well-fed crowd doesn't exactly get it. They want a king with a scepter and a crown, chariots and horses. But Jesus is not that kind of king. He reveals that the true, transformative power of God is at its heart the power of unconditional, self-giving love. Who would have thought that back in the day? Jesus, by nature, was perhaps the greatest unforeseen possibility of all time. We still struggle ourselves to get our minds around that. I think of Paul's words, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God." (I Corinthians 1:18)

Well, back in Galilee, evening comes at last. While Jesus is still off by himself, the disciples decide it's time to head for Capernaum. And off they go in their little boat, sailing upon smooth water as darkness falls. Then, suddenly, the sea becomes rough because a strong wind is blowing. Choppy waters batter the boat. This goes on for three or four miles, a very long distance when the wind is against you. Then the disciples see Jesus walking across the water and coming near them. Already frightened by the peril they are in, seeing Jesus really terrifies them. Perhaps they think he is a ghost. Perhaps it is their habitual inability to be open to "unforeseen possibilities," just as it had been on the mountain when Philip and Andrew couldn't imagine how so many could be fed by so little. Jesus says to the disciples whom he loved; "It is I; be not afraid." They want to take him into the boat, but "immediately they reach the land toward which they have been rowing."

Jesus' authority over the unruly sea is further revelation that he is the Son of the God who formed the earth when darkness covered the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. It was a revelation that the God who said to Moses, "My name is I AM," is to be found fully in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world.

I AM is here again, beside the storm-tossed boat in the person of Jesus, who knew the danger his friends were in even from far away. I take great comfort in the thought that when my own dark and stormy nights threaten to undo me, I have every right to expect the real presence and power of God in Christ to get me through.

In a recent sermon Shannon Kershner said, "God does some of God's best work in the dark." After the crucifixion, when all appeared to be lost, when everything was dark, Jesus was buried in a stone-cold tomb, God raised him from the dead. That resurrection--the miracle of all miracles.

Back to the boat. The disciples were rowing in the dark, in the middle of a situation over which they had no control. You and I will, no doubt, sail in that same boat one time or another before we die. Illness strikes. A job is lost. A relationship dies. We keep trying, but the wind blows us back. Even in regular, old daily life, things can get really choppy and frustrating; hardly anybody gets smooth sailing 24/7. I take comfort in the thought that God knows what we need. In little messes and through the big catastrophes, God can change terrible situations into ones of possibility. Always listen out for that voice coming from another realm that says, "Be not afraid. You can handle this. I will help you. You can handle anything with me by your side."

I believe in miracles. I believe in them because they happen all the time. William Sloan Coffin said it better than I can: "Miracles do not a messiah make. But a messiah can do miracles. If you ask me if Jesus literally walked on water, I will answer, "For certain, I do not know. But this I do know: faith must be lived before it is understood, and the more it is lived the more things become possible. I can also report that in home after home, I have seen Jesus change beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. In instance after instance, life after life, I have seen Christ be 'God's power unto salvation' and that's miracle enough for me."

The miracle stories we have heard today tell us that God was and is all in on this earth in the person of Jesus, whose redeeming work is not confined to one time and place long ago but is real and active in every time and place.

The great Scottish preacher James Stewart put it this way, "All things are ours in Christ--forgiveness, yours, hope and peace and courage, yours, There is no trial you cannot meet as a conqueror, no perplexity you cannot master to the glory of God in the here and now."

Amazing, but true. Amen.