A sermon by the Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?
[Reading: John 2:1-11]
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our gospel reading this morning told us of the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus performed the first of his miracles. It is a well-known miracle – perhaps too well known, as familiarity may lead to underestimating its power as a sign and its place in Jesus’ ministry.
Do you believe in miracles? Are the biblical reports of miracles important to your faith? How, for example, do you consider the miracles of the virgin birth, the feeding of the five thousand, walking on water, or of the Resurrection? Or, indeed, of water being turned into wine at that wedding feast in Cana?
Atheists despatch all talk of miracles as either trickery or wishful thinking by gospel writers. For believers, however, we really do need to consider where we stand on the possibility of miracles. But to do so requires, in the first instance, a definition of what constitutes a miracle. The OED defines a miracle as:
A marvellous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity or of some supernatural being.
The concept of an event being created independently of any natural agency has led some to deem miracles an impossibility. Spinoza, for example, declared that:
Nature cannot be contravened, but … preserves a fixed and immutable order … if anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature – an evident absurdity.
Now last Friday was the International Day of Logic, and in that context what Spinoza wrote seems infallibly logical, at least in our four-dimensional existence. Yet there is a flaw in his logic; for the statement assumed that the ‘laws of nature’ formed a closed system incapable of being acted upon from beyond its four-dimensional state. Identifying this flaw, C S Lewis put forward the idea that the laws of nature are an open system, not closed, and that the infinite dimensions of Eternity may intrude and alter that system. He argued:
It is inaccurate to define a miracle as something that breaks the laws of Nature. It doesn’t. If I knock out my pipe I alter the position of a great many atoms: in the long run, and to an infinitesimal degree, of all the atoms there are. Nature digests or assimilates this event with perfect ease and harmonises it in a twinkling with all other events … If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born …
I have quoted these statements from Josh McDowell’s book Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith; they appear in a twelve page section entitled Science and Miracles. That section contains a detailed discussion of the subject of miracles; I am happy to provide anyone interested with a copy of those pages. But fascinating and, to my mind, convincing as the arguments are that miracles are conceivable events, questions do arise – firstly, okay they may occur, but why? And what purpose do they serve?
The answer comes down to a consideration of the person of Jesus and the essential nature of Christianity. Quoting C S Lewis again, this time on the question of whether deleting all evidence of the miraculous from the gospel narratives would matter to our faith, he wrote:
You cannot (subtract the miraculous) from Christianity. It is precisely the story of a great Miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian.
Lewis is of course referring to God’s incarnation of His Son as the Great Miracle. In this context, the virgin birth and the Resurrection both were miracles that not only have validity of theological purpose, they were essential for they established Christ as no ordinary human being – human, yes, but also divine. While perhaps of lesser order, the miracles of walking on water and the feeding of the five thousand also have their place in establishing faith in Christ as God made human; as indeed do all the healing miracles. But turning water into wine? Why was that miracle important in our understanding of God’s reaching out to humanity through the incarnation of his Son?
The wedding feast at Cana occurred very early in Jesus’ ministry and in a place equidistant between Nazareth and Capernaum, in other words in Jesus’ native region. We don’t know much about the marital celebrations of the story other than that a rollicking party had been taking place that had consumed an enormous amount of alcohol and was going to need much more – no less than six stone water jars holding between them 150 gallons (in other words 900 standard sized bottles of wine in today’s terms). Apart from relating a somewhat engaging story about Jesus and his mother – Mary saying ‘Jesus, they’ve run out of wine’, Jesus responding in an ‘Oh, Mom!’ kind of way; then, Mary, ignoring him, telling the servants to do as Jesus asks, seemingly leaving him with little other choice than to do the chore his mother had asked – why else was the incident incorporated into John’s gospel, which was written over four decades after the wedding at Cana?
John’s answer to that question was:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him [v11]
The second half of the previous chapter [verses 35-51] of John’s gospel revealed that it was in the two days before the wedding that Jesus had called together the first of his disciples – Andrew and Simon Peter on day one; Philip and Nathanael on day two. On that second day, Jesus had told Nathanael:
You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. [v51]
While the miracle at Cana the very next day wasn’t as dramatic as an heavenly angelic escalator, the disciples did witness an amazing divine intervention in the known natural order – water was converted into wine. By the miracle, an element of Jesus’ glory had been on display; and those four disciples never left Jesus after that. I do wonder, however, whether three years later at the Last Supper any of those four disciples recalled that early miracle. I find it intriguing that John, in his gospel, named one of those first four in his record of conversation that Paschal night. After Jesus had said:
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. [14:6-7]
It was Philip who responded:
Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied. [v8]
To which a possibly exasperated Jesus replied:
Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?
Philip had been there at Cana, where water had been turned into wine; now, at the Last Supper, the Living Water had sacramentalised the Paschal wine as His own blood. Up to that point, Philip had known enough of Jesus’ divine nature to follow him all the way up to that night; but he still seemed not to grasp the fullness of whom Jesus was. As with others, the Resurrection would change all that; for we next hear of Philip in Acts 8:26-40 when, in response to the enquiring Ethiopian eunuch, we are told:
Philip proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. [v35]
The good news about Jesus – a short statement but worthy of more thought. Philip had by then come to understand the completeness of Jesus in the whole divine miracle so that he could tell the Ethiopian of God’s saving grace through the miracle of His Son Jesus. The other night I started reading a small book that was written in 1951 by an Orthodox monk, Archimandrite Lev Gillett. The book, entitled The Jesus Prayer, anchors around the prayer of the same name often frequently recited by Orthodox Christians and many others, including myself:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.
In my reading of the book very much more stood out to me than a simple analysis of the purpose and power of that brief prayer. In the first chapter of his book, entitled The Invocation of the Name of Jesus, Gillett quoted the C4-5 St Paulinus of Nola who had written about the name of Christ that it is:
Nectar in the mouth, honey on the tongue … (it is) a living ambrosia … if you have tasted it but once, you cannot endure to be parted from it … (it is) for the eyes a serene light, in the ears the sound of life. [p29]
Gillett then quoted St Bernard of Clairvaux of C12 who had echoed Paulinus when he wrote:
Write what you will, I shall take no pleasure in it unless I read there the name of Jesus. Jesus is the honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, a sense of joy in the heart. But the name is also a remedy. Is any among you sad? Let Jesus come into his heart and from there spring up into his mouth … does any fall into sin? If he invokes the name of life, will he not breathe at once the air of life? [p113]
What both Paulinus of Nola and Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about was the ever-contemporary power of a comprehension of who Jesus is rather than just a recording of who he was and what he did in Palestine in the time of Herod, Pilate and Tiberius. This ever-contemporary power which they suggest may be summoned by the simple name of Jesus must surely be the greatest miracle of all.
If (one) invokes the name of life, will (one) not breathe at once the air of life?
In 1563 Paolo Veronese painted a huge portrayal of the Wedding at Cana. At over 67sm, it is the largest painting in the Louvre, to where it was taken as plunder during the Napoleonic Wars. It had originally graced the refectory of the San Giorgio monastery in Venice having been commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of St Benedict. Its artistic style is of the Renaissance and depicts a scene far removed from that which would have been there that day in Cana. Interestingly though, it seems Veronese deliberately intended not to portray an image of middle-eastern marriage festivities which would have made it an historically interesting work. Instead, as Aline Francois, of the Louvre, has noted:
Veronese’s artistic prowess with perspective and architecture (actual and virtual) persuaded the viewer to see The Wedding Feast at Cana as a spatial extension of the refectory.
In other words, Veronese seemed not to have wanted the dining monks merely to consider the miraculous events at the Cana wedding feast as historical artefact but as contemporary for them in their own faith. I come back then to the general issue of biblical miracles – do we consider them to be contemporary in our faith? In other words, do we seek to find the miraculous Jesus in our Christian faith?
Let me close with words from Archimandrite Gillett:
To utter the name of Jesus is to draw near the Father, to contemplate the love and the gift of the Father which is concentrated upon Jesus; it is to feel, to a limited extent, something of that love and to unite ourselves to it from afar; it is to hear the Father’s voice declaring, ‘Thou are my beloved Son’ and humbly to respond ‘yes’ to this declaration.