I wonder how many of you remember Kathryn Kuhlman. Ms. Kuhlman, who died in 1976, was a well known evangelist and faith healer. Her television program featured a now familiar mix of preaching, music (with Dino at the piano) and faith healings. Ms. Kuhlman began each of her broadcasts with these very carefully enunciated words, “I believe in miracles” or more precisely in Ms. Kuhlman’s own inimitable pronunciation, “I believe-a in miracles.”
Next Sunday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon here at the Monastery, four distinguished scientists will discuss issues of evolution, cosmology and religion. As I read and re-read today’s New Testament readings, I couldn’t help thinking about what they might have to say about these two narratives. I wonder if any of them would say, “I believe-a in miracles?” Would you say, “I believe in miracles?”
Both narratives are conversion stories replete with fantastic details which we might call “miracles.” Saul, the fire-breathing enemy of the emerging church and Peter, Jesus’ erstwhile friend turned betrayer, experience life changing encounters with the resurrected Christ. Both stories are peppered with details that defy the rational.
Walking along the Damascus Road, fresh from approving and witnessing the stoning of Stephen, first Christian martyr and with permission in hand to punish any Jesus’ followers, Paul is knocked off his feet (note there’s no horse mentioned in Acts) hears a voice, literally from nowhere, that asks, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” When he gets up he can’t see; struck blind in that very instant. The text goes on to tell us about the same voice speaking to a Damascus disciple, Ananias, telling him that the notorious and much feared Saul is about to become his friend, a follower of the Way, and Christ’ chosen apostle to the Gentiles.
In the strange post-resurrection narrative of the last chapter of John’s gospel, we have more miracles. Jesus, the dead man returned from the grave (now there’s a miracle for us to ponder!) inexplicably unrecognizable, appears out of nowhere on a Sea of Tiberius beach, suggesting that Peter, his friend-turned-deserter, cast his fishing net on the other side of the boat from which he and his friends have been fishing through the night without a catch. Immediately the net is full to bursting and Peter, now aware that this is the man he betrayed, jumps into the sea and heads for shore. Having gone ashore and again without explanation, Jesus has already prepared a breakfast of charcoal-grilled fish and bread.
The breakfast is reminiscent of the last meal the disciples shared with Jesus before his Passion. Jesus, we are told, took the grilled bread and gave it to his disciples and likewise the fish. The story is the basis for some biblical scholars’ speculation that fish might have figured in early Christian Eucharist banquets.
After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and three times questions him about his love. It’s probably a question that needed to be asked given Peter’s denial and desertion of Jesus in his moment of greatest need. The three fold questions, of course, recall Peter’s three-fold denial. I imagine Peter stammering his protests of true love for Jesus. Love despite painful memories of his own fear and guilt at saving himself while leaving Jesus to his fate.
Now every one of these details that I’ve mentioned can be teased out, developed, and receive various interpretations and emphasis. Saul’s experience of theophany clearly follows biblical tradition dating back to Moses on Sinai; blindness giving way to sight as faith replaces unbelief followed by a divine commission to fulfill the words of the prophet to make Israel’s God known to the Gentiles. The miraculous haul of fish recalling Jesus’ words that his disciples will be fishers of men; the bread and fish meal reminiscent of Jesus’ feeding miracles and containing Eucharistic allusions; and the strange question and answer interchange where Jesus uses the Greek word agapan, that is preferential love as in “more than these,” while Peter responds with the word philein, expressing passionate personal affection.1
So this morning, two New Testament texts bursting with the miraculous and some might even say fantastic details telling two stories; one of original conversion and another of one in a series of conversions.
In a sermon preached during Holy Week, I suggested that one way of understanding the crucifixion is to see Jesus as becoming the ultimate sacrifice in order to teach us about the futility of all murderous sacrificial acts. Once the nonsense and futility of trying to assuage a supposedly blood-thirsty God is acknowledged and recognized the work of restoration and reconciliation receives a new kind of opening.
Having put aside sacrifice by his death on the cross, Jesus, now in his resurrection continues his teaching about the original purpose of God’s creation and man’s true relationship to that a benign, loving divinity. St. Augustine taught that there is only one miracle, the miracle of creation. In that original miracle God planted all future possibilities including the miracles reported in today’s readings but most especially the miracles of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and its corollary miracles of re-creation and restoration of our original state with God.2 Jesus was fond of reminding his disciples that he had come to do the work of his father and that he is continuing the work of a creation not yet finished.
Both stories of reconciliation and conversation are also examples of Jesus teaching us about the original purpose of God’s creation and the true nature of the God who created us. And the manner in which this teaching is shown and played out is indeed miraculous.
In the tit-for-tat world of human justice, we should expect divine retribution against Saul for his assaults on the church and its members. We would expect that Saul should be in some sense sacrificed to pay for what happened to Stephen. Instead, what do we get? Divinely-induced blindness wiping clean the slate of Saul’s heart and soul, banishing darkness and hate, and transforming him into God’s chosen instrument for spreading the gospel news to the nations. Paul, murderous persecutor, converted into the ardent believer and lover of Christ entrusted with a sacred mission.
And Peter: neither words of blame nor retribution; neither accusation, nor resentment nor reminders of his betrayal. Jesus behaves in precisely the same way as the God he teaches us about in his Parable of the Prodigal Son. A God who forgives before we ask, a God endlessly willing to wipe the slate clean; even a God who entrusts his church and its mission to someone who, at least, based on past behavior is untrustworthy. And probably most significantly a God, who even in his transformed and resurrected state, willingly remains vulnerable to all of the possible vagaries and treacheries of human behavior. Ms. Kuhlman, wherever you are, I’m ready to say that I believe in miracles.
- Brown, Raymond E, S.S. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (xiii-xxi). Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970, p. 1103.
- Ward, Benedicta, SLG. Miracles and the Medieval Mind. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, p. 3.
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