Christ performed many miracles; He healed many people, from various diseases and from demonic attack. He even raised the dead. It is recorded in today’s Gospel (John 5:1f) that He healed a man in Jerusalem of infirmity. The man had been hoping to be the first person into the water and to be healed, but he was unable to get into the pool as he had no friends to help him. It is interesting that just after that passage we are told that “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute Him”. There was clearly no doubt in their minds of the efficacy of the healings of Christ. However if the efficacy of the healings was not in question, then the interpretation of the miracles and therefore their validity was another matter. Allegations were made that Christ was using some demonic power.
We hear stories even today of strange events. There are claims of spiritual benefits and physical effects from various healing practices, not all of them of course in a Christian context. These healings may well happen, but it does not always mean that they are from God. Real miracles are blessings and Christ Himself said to His opponents that if he was driving out demons by the power of God, then God’s kingdom had come upon them (Matthew 12:28). That is an aspect of the significance of miracles; they demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is real and present.
The reality of the Kingdom means God’s healing is thorough, because it restores a relationship with God broken by sin. So it is that Christ, meeting the same man later in the temple, told him to take care and sin no more. It seems the man was suffering because of some wrong doing in his past. Indeed it was commonly thought at the time that all illnesses were some form of punishment for sin. Now, we tend to take a different view because we understand disease better. We can still, however, observe that doing things right is healthier and that some illness is the result of doing things wrong. People, for example, who drink too much alcohol may get liver problems. Aside from that we see that Christ does not just deal with the symptoms of a problem, he gets to the root cause. That is what we would expect of a loving God. When we meet Him we are transformed and truly healed.
It doesn’t stop there, Christ promised that His followers would also do great things. He said “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12f)
We need to be clear that to pray in Christ’s name must mean more than just tagging a name onto a prayer and hoping. It means praying according to the will of God. Prayer is not just a shopping list of things we would like. It means being with God, conversing with Him and wanting to do His will. If we are open to the will of God and trying to do what He wants, then He can do great things with us and through us. It is not in our own strength that we do these things; rather it is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course this means faith and expectation that God can and will act. We need to do more than nag God with a series of requests. We need to work with God, and pray with expectation. Otherwise all we are doing is expressing a vague hope.
We see this promise of great things happening being fulfilled in the life of the Church. Indeed today’s Epistle (Acts 9:32f) records just such events, involving St Peter. There is the healing of Aeneas in Lydda who was paralysed and had been bed-ridden for eight years. This is followed in Acts by the raising of Tabitha from the dead in Joppa. In both cases we are told that many came to believe in the Lord.
The miracles involving St Peter are, like those of Christ Himself, a demonstration of the power of God and demonstration that the Kingdom of God is present. God is always the one who heals. The Kingdom is here now and we are members of it.
Now the big question that arises when we hear of the miracles of the early Church is do they happen now?
(Discussion with children … )
The answer is yes they do. As a friend of mine pointed out there are votive offerings on many icons in Orthodox countries, little representations of eyes, legs and other body parts, given as a thank you for a healing received.
Living in the west we tend not to hear of miracles. We live in a society which is secular and sceptical in its thinking, which tends to see everything in rationalistic terms. There is an assumption by secular folk that God, if He exists, is not active directly in human affairs. Some see Him as perhaps setting things moving at the moment of creation but then leaving us and the cosmos to our own devices. This idea became current in the eighteenth century and has never gone away, it was called Deism and was the practical belief of many of the founding Fathers of the United States. Belief in miracles is, according to such views, a relic of superstition. If someone is healed of a disease then it is matter of biology or antibiotics. So if someone gets a particular blessing, a good result after prayer, then this will be dismissed as co-incidence or attributed to other causes, including of course the famous placebo effect where belief (not necessarily in God), can itself lead to healing.
Is there any argument against such Deist beliefs? There is but this is perhaps missing the point as to why miracles tend not to happen for people with such views. What is happening in such cases is there is an assumption being made that the miraculous cannot happen. Anything that looks like a miracle is therefore explained away.
A young girl in class was once delighted by the story of the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea and her teacher explaining it was just a matter of the tides and wind. It was a co-incidence that they got over when conditions were right and Pharaoh’s men did not. The little girl said: “Hallelujah!”. The teacher said: “I just explained what happened”. The girl replied that yes he had, but was it not miraculous that God had arranged the tide and the wind to work just at the time the children of Israel needed to cross? The girl was right, what matters was not the exact mechanics of the event but the timing and significance of what had happened.
What separates those who are blessed by miracles from those who remain untouched? Part of the answer is faith. Faith takes the risk, it expects an answer, and faith shows trust in God. Not that we believe He exists but that we believe that He cares. That faith is undermined if we assume He will not be interested.
God acts as He wishes, but our reluctance to trust can stop God from acting, because He will not force His blessings upon us. Miracles are visible to the eye of faith, but, as we see in the Gospel accounts and still today, the opponents of God do not accept them.
Of course miracles do not occur all the time, very often they are unnecessary. We pray for daily bread, that is for everything we need and we can give thanks that we have what is necessary to live, sometimes with the support of others. We also have the blessings, at least here in this country, of medicine and health care. We have shelter where many do not. We do additionally receive many blessings which are miraculous; for instance our encounter with Christ in the Liturgy, the release from guilt and sin in confession, and the love of our fellow Christians. All these happen because of the power of God and are no less miraculous than the healings which also sometimes happen.
What matters is the reality of the Kingdom of God. So whether we see miracles happen or not, let us respond with joy and gratitude for all God’s blessings.