Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin from the first book of Kings. Elijah, reaching the top of Mt. Horeb, sent the night in a cave. He was told to go out and stand before the Lord. When the Lord went by Elijah experienced a wind strong enough to shatter rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. Nor was the Lord in the next event, an earthquake, nor the fire that came next. Finally there came a gentle breeze at which point Elijah covered his face and stood at the entrance of the cave. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus went off by himself to pray. When he finished (on the fourth watch) he saw the disciples out on a boat in a storm. Jesus then walked on the surface of the water. Af first they thought Jesus was a ghost but he assured them he was not. Peter asked to join Jesus on the water and Jesus invited him. But when Peter stepped onto the water he began to sink and panicked. Jesus reached out and saved him and said: “Man of little faith, why do you doubt?” When Jesus boarded the boat the storm ended and Peter proclaimed: “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
When did you decide to become a disciple of Jesus? I think it’s tempting to look at Biblical scenes and feel a little jealous. We’re all familiar with the scene in the Acts of the Apostles where Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus by Jesus who demanded of him: “Why do you persecute me?” He remained blind until he was led to Damascus and healed by a follower of Jesus. Paul described his conversion in such gripping terms that he claimed his place as an apostle, one who had seen the risen Jesus.
And in today’s Gospel the disciples witness Jesus walking on water. The phrase “walking on water” has become a metaphor for miraculous power. If it weren’t enough that Jesus walked on water, he did so during a storm, during the “fourth watch of the night” (ie, between 3:00AM and 6:00AM). Anyone on a boat, during a storm and at night, who can remain calm, is pretty incredible. Some of you know this, but thirty years ago I spent a long night in a swamped canoe on Lake Erie. I can tell you from personal experience that the dichotomy between faith and fear skews heavily toward fear in those conditions.
So what do we do with these miracles? Clearly Paul and Peter found their path forward in following Jesus by these miracles. But, let’s face it, they complicate things. Miracles, by definition, interrupt our lives. In the 1991 movie Grand Canyon a woman finds an abandoned baby in an alley and believes that her discovery constitutes a miracle (the baby would have died had she not been jogging by at the moment the baby was crying). Her husband, seeing this baby as a complication in their lives, claims to have a headache. She responds by saying: “It’s just an inappropriate response to get a headache in the presence of a miracle. It’s… tasteless!”
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson (the author of the Declaration of Independence, America’s first Secretary of State, its second Vice President, its third President, founder of the University of Virginia, etc.) felt Jesus’ walking on water didn’t happen. You can read this in the Jefferson Bible, but Mr. Jefferson did not believe God would create a universe with physical laws and then violate them. For him miracles simply didn’t happen.
But are miracles simply violations of physical law? Much as I admire President Jefferson, I think these readings point us in another direction: miracles are encounters with God that change our thinking and change our journey of faith.
Miracles are more difficult in the 21st Century than they were when Scripture was being written. We have achieved a mastery of our world that would have astounded Peter and Paul. Anyone of us who sees someone walking on water would assume he had flotation devices strapped to his feet or that this was done by cgi (computer graphic interface). In the modern world I think we need to see miracles in a new light.
Many of us are familiar with C.S. Lewis, a 20th century author and philosopher. He was born into an Anglican family but by his adolescence he described himself as an atheist. He wrote about this in his legendary book Surprised by Joy: by his late 20s and early 30s he began to interact with people of equal brilliance who were also Christians. Over a period of years his reasons for atheism began to collapse and in 1929 he “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet.”
People in the time of Jesus would likely not look on Lewis’ conversion as a miracle but I think it was. It was, in many ways, an intellectual conversion but nonetheless it was an encounter with God that caused him to change his journey. In an irony that can only come from God, after Lewis published his book he met and married a woman named Joy Davidmann. He was surprised by Joy in ways he never could have expected.
So perhaps when we look at miracles we should look less at violations of physical law and instead look at encounters that change our lives. For those who were not born into or raised in Christianity this may be easy to see. But even for those of us who were born into the faith and never left, we can look back and see miracles. Maybe it was a retreat from years ago we remember like yesterday. Or the day we got married. Or (almost certainly) the day one of our children was born.
But if we look at miracles as more than seemingly impossible things, like walking on water, we can expand our role. We can still be recipients of miracles but we can also be agents of miracles. Through the saving power of Jesus we can participant in experiences that cause others to see faith in new ways and make discipleship in Jesus possible. For C.S. Lewis this came through friendships with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson; also the writings of G.K. Chesterton and George McDonald.
So how do we become miracle workers? Several years ago I saw a print ad for a charity that raised money to prevent blindness in third world nations. It showed a picture of a 10 year old boy at bat in a baseball game. The caption said: “This is Billy. He is 10 years old. He hates broccoli, math, and sometimes his little sister. He loves baseball, summer, and chocolate ice cream. Last year he gave $10.00 to prevent blindness in 5 people in Africa. We think he’s pretty special. Five people in Africa think he’s a miracle worker. Be a miracle worker.”
If we can agree that $10 to create a miracle is money well invested, can we also agree that a simple (free) act of kindness can do the same thing. I hope that while we can look back on our lives and see miracles that happened to us, I also hope that others can look on our lives and see miracles that happened to them. Maybe it was something as simple as a warm welcome, or as complex as a donated kidney. Teachers recognize the magic of seeing a light bulb go on over a student’s head. Doctors recognize the time they dared and acted boldly and a life was saved.
And while I like to think we can find encounters where we created miracles, I hope more that others can look back on miracles that we don’t recognize. Is your next encounter a miracle for someone else? I hope so.