Stories about the miracles of Jesus often form the substance of the Gospel lessons, especially for the Sundays after Epiphany and the Sundays after Trinity, and we have often had occasion to speak about the meaning of them in a general way. They are the signs that in Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has come in power. With these miracles, or signs, Jesus shows himself as the promised Messiah, who, according to ancient prophecy, makes the deaf to hear, and the blind to see, and the lame to walk, and so on. They are signs that Jesus is the Son of God.
Thus the point of these miraculous deeds lies not just in the deeds themselves, but in what they signify about the mission of God in Christ. They are symbolic acts. Jesus feeds the multitude in the wilderness, and the point is not just that a crowd of hungry people are fed; the point is to show that Jesus is himself the bread of life, the Word of God, who has come to nourish hungry souls. The feeding is a sign of that; that is the point of it, as he himself explains. Jesus changes water into wine, and the point is not just to relieve an embarrassed host; but to show that Jesus is Lord of the marriage feast, the spiritual union between God and his people. Jesus gives sight to the blind man, and shows, symbolically, that he is the truth of God, bringing light to our dark minds. The miracles are significant acts, symbolic acts. The point is never just the deed itself, but what it reveals about the meaning of God’s coming and the nature of his kingdom.
I think the healing miracles are, for many people, especially difficult. As in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus heals the sick and resuscitates the dead. To some, these deeds suggest that if we were really faithful Christians, we would never be sick, and never have to face the pains of death. Our faith should save us from all such tribulations. God should produce a miracle, It seems that solid faith, like early rising, should be a sure recipe to make us “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” From this standpoint, it appears that sickness and disease must be the signs of lack of faith, the consequences of our sins. And, of course, there is some truth in that; our spiritual condition has a great deal to do with our health, and we do sometimes physically suffer the obvious consequences of our sins. But there is no simple correlation. Remember the story in St. John’s Gospel, when Jesus and his disciples met a blind man. The disciples asked, “Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9.2-3)
Our faith does not insure our health, and certainly not promise an earthly immortality; and such is not the meaning of Jesus’ miracles. The point is, rather, that in Christ, the Word of God, there is power to overcome — not to evade, but to overcome — these tribulations, to look beyond them, and set our hearts upon the eternal good. The Psalmist says, “It is good for me that I have been in trouble.” (Psalm 119.71) And so it is: worldly tribulation is the testing-ground of faith. Jesus’ miracles are the signs that he is Lord of these tribulations, and that in him is power to meet the worst of them with wholeness of spirit, “that the works of God should be made manifest in us.” A familiar hymn expresses it this way:
It is in and through the suffering and the tribulation that our faith will make us whole.“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
His grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; his only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
Suffering is therefore the occasion and opportunity of great good. That is not to say that we should seek tribulations. There are stories in the early history of the Church of children running away from home in hopes of meeting martyrdom. Commendable zeal, no doubt; but the Church had to put a stop to that. Suffering need not be courted. In one form or another, it comes to all of us sufficiently. We dare not seek it for ourselves. Which of us is so sure that his faith is ready to withstand the terrible temptation to despair which must belong to long and painful illness? And who is sure that he can face the trial of death with perfect resignation? We have some sense of our fragility, and therefore pray, “Lead us not into temptation”; that is to say, “Don’t put us to the test.”
We dare not seek trials for ourselves, and we must not seek them for another. Charity and compassion require that we relieve suffering where we can, and we must thank God for the means, the scientific means, and every other means of doing that. But we must never delude ourselves that we are building a utopia of perfect comfort, or that we are achieving an earthly immortality. What a horrible thing it would be if we could achieve it! In one form or another, the test does come, and we must pray, above all, that our faith fail not.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus heals the sick woman, and raises the ruler’s daughter. He does not thereby do away with the tribulations of sickness and of dying. Rather, these deeds of his are signs that he is Lord of all such trials, that in him there is a wholeness which lies beyond these things, a wholeness which we, in faith, may share.
Faith reaches out to touch his garment’s hem, and he replies: