Sunday, July 26, 2015

explaining away the miracles

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today's Gospel reading concerns that of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, also called the miracle of the loaves and fishes. It is one of the best known of our Lord's nature miracles, which is hardly surprising as it is the only one of his miracles that is related in all four Gospels. It is also one of the best loved, which is again hardly surprising as it shows the homely and touching compassion of Jesus was the practical needs of those who followed him. Hungry people out in the wildness, far from their own homes or a market where they may buy food need feeding. And Jesus' actions here shows that knows and understands people's real life problems.

Now, we live in an era that can be somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of miracles and I am sure that all here have heard at some time or another someone attempt to provide what they call a natural explanation for what happened here. One very popular attempt is what might be described as the miracle of the sharing. Some of those who followed Jesus into the wilderness that day had food; some did not. Inspired by our Lord's teaching those with food shared with those who did not and so all had enough.

Let me begin by saying that I see no basis for such 'novel' explanations. To accept them means that we must first accept that those who were there on the day got it wrong, when the evidence of their own eyes told them that our Lord took a small amount of food and miraculously made it enough to feed thousands. Next we must accept that all Christians from the earliest days until about five minutes ago got it wrong also – great saints and scholars such as St Basil the Great, St Augustine of Hippo, St Benedict of Nursa, St Francis of Assisi, St Thomas Aquinas, and a great many more – were too stupid, foolish, ignorant, uneducated, naïve, or misguided to see the true meaning here; and that it is only those of our generation are wise enough, clear headed enough, and perceptive enough to really understand what all others between that day and now were not. There is a certain arrogance in putting forward such an explanation – and Christians are not called to arrogance but humility. We accept the faith as it has been passed down, as it has been understood by all people in all places at all times; we do not make it up for ourselves or re-invent it to suit the intellectual fashions of the age.

In rejecting the novel interpretation of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes as the miracle of man's generous sharing of what he has to spare with others, I think it important to understand the premise that lies beneath it. For the idea that our Lord did not feed 5000 men, plus all the women and children who were there as well, does not come from a close reading of the texts; there is no hint or evidence in any of the four Gospels that we are to see this as anything other than a miraculous display of divine power, a Sign, as St John terms it, that Jesus is exactly who he says he is, the Messiah, the Son of God. The starting point for such a theory is, essentially, that 'such things can not happen; miracles can not take place and therefore a few loaves can not be made into enough to feed many thousands; therefore we must rack our brains and see what we can come up some natural explanation with which to explain what took place.'

So you can see, I think, that to reject the novel interpretation is not to be anti-intellectual in any way but to be rigourously intellectual; for before one can even begin to propose the 'sharing' idea one must first set to the side the actual evidence, the Gospel accounts, and then enter the arena of pure speculation, unsupported by the facts as we have them, and based instead on the pre-conceived opinion that the facts simply must be wrong. The traditional view of events, on the other hand, takes the evidence we have and deals with it as it is.

We must also compare the effect of such interpretations with the purpose our Lord had in performing such miracles. The effect is to undermine faith in the power and divinity of Christ, for if he did not perform miracles then how are we to believe that he is the Son of God, with an equal power over the natural forces of the world as the Father? For that is the purpose of the miracles, to show he was who he said he was, to give proof and build up faith in him. For as he himself said when he healed the paralysed man who had to be carried to him by his friends 'so that you may know that the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins, I say to you take up your mat and walk.' To argue against the miraculous is therefore to argue against Christ's purpose for performing miracles.

And so I end this morning with the prayer that just as those that day long ago were fed not just in body by Jesus' miraculous actions on that day but in spirit, their faith being built up by this display of divine power, so too also may your faith be built up and fed as you hear and read the faithful accounts given of our Lord's works and teachings by the evangelists in the Gospel. Amen

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