June 9, 2013
Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.
Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. Now matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.
In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work. There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories describe the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus, his person and his mission.
The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.
Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her economic security and her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death.
When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.
The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha; In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.
All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify not John but Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews.
The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from the Jewish people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.
Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’ the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers. He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.
But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater.
There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation. He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. He shows himself to be above human laws of purity. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple command “Young man, get up”. His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.
Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.
The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. I trawled the internet and couldn’t find a single modern example of a ‘resurrection’ without medical procedures which had been independently verified. But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable, and and, therefore, fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to tell us.
In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a Gentile widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it.
In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow Jesus gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.
All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.
In the Bible, physical death, like physical handicap, can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through true faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life and that is the most important resurrection of all.
The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions.
Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, just as the gospel writers did; but particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives. We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.
And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.
August 7, 2011
(1 Kings 19, 9-18; Romans 10, 5-15; Matthew 14, 22-33)
I spent all of the early part of my childhood living near the sea. My mother was also brought up at the sea side, and we spent our holidays with my grandmother and my aunt – who both lived by the coast – so I was always at ease in the water. I can’t remember learning to swim – I just always could, and in those days I did things I’d never dream of doing now. When we lived at Dover, I used to jump off the breakwaters into the sea; when I look at them now, as we go through Dover to join a cruise ship, I wonder how I ever had the nerve.
I swam and played in the water with confidence only because my mother was nearby, and I was sure she would not let me get into difficulties and would rescue me if I did. But coming from a family with seafarers in my ancestry, and spending so much time near the sea taught me a respect for the power of the water, especially when it was rough weather. That means I would never have dreamt of doing anything as stupid as getting out of a boat into a rough sea, as Peter is shown as doing in our Gospel reading.
But we are not meant to take this story literally. As the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, pointed out in his book “The Meaning in the Miracles”, trying to find out what actually happened when these incidents took place – or even if they did – is pointless. What is important is what the Gospel writers are trying to tell us through the miracle story.
First of all, the miracle is telling us about Jesus. There is a strand of the Old Testament that sees the sea as the place of chaos, inhabited by sea monsters who cause storms and the deaths of seafarers. But one strand of the creation myths, echoes of which are found in the Psalms and Job, tells how Yahweh defeated the sea monsters to form the earth. So, when Jesus calms the storm, the text is telling us that God is present. There are also passages in the psalms which talk of God walking on the surface of the sea. So when Jesus walks on the water, the story again is telling us that God is present in him. And just to confirm it, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, I am” ( using the name of God given to Moses in Exodus).
The miracle is also telling us that Jesus is at hand to help, even when he appears to be far off. Perhaps the church for whom the Gospel was written was going through a time of troubles, when they thought their very survival was in question; and as their troubles continued, they felt that God in Jesus had deserted them. Everything, represented by the waves and the contrary wind, was against them. The story tells them, and us that on the contrary, though unseen, Jesus is keeping watch from far off, and will come when they really need him – and that when he is there, the storms will be stilled, and they will reach their safe harbour quickly. In this, the miracle story echoes our Old Testament story. Elijah, too, thinks God has deserted him, and sinks into depression and despair; but it is only when he has reached this lowest point that he is able to hear the ‘still, small voice’ of God, commissioning him to undertake the impossible in God’s name.
Secondly, the miracle of walking on the water is telling us something about the life of the Christian disciple. It is telling us to trust in God’s care and presence, even if we cannot feel him close. It is telling us to trust that his help will be there when the storms and troubles are at their worst, when we most need it. It is telling us to keep our eyes upon Jesus if we want to succeed in following him.
Peter, the story tells us, was able to walk on water so long as he kept looking at Jesus. It was when he looked down, and let his trust be overwhelmed by fear, that he began to sink. In the same way we need to keep Christ at the centre of our thoughts as we live out our discipleship, and to trust in the way of love and acceptance he showed us, however difficult it may seem. We follow the path of discipleship not in our own strength, but in the strength we get from Christ. That is why being part of the Body of Christ, the Christian fellowship, is so important for us. If we try to do God’s work in our own strength, through our own limited resources, we will not succeed. This is also the message of Paul in our passage from the letter to the Romans. It is through our faith in Jesus that we will be saved, not through our own actions, however righteous.
But this miracle story also tells us that sometimes God in Christ will call us to get out of the boat, and do something amazing for him. Too many of us live our lives firmly sat down in the safety of the boat, firmly enclosed in our own comfort zone. In our church life, in our daily lives, we are not willing to take risks for God. But sometimes Jesus asks us to metaphorically get out, and into dangerous waters to meet him – because Jesus is not often to be found sitting where it’s comfortable and safe! So, the story is saying, be ready to leave your comfort zone if Jesus calls, and willing to do things you would not normally do – you will never walk on water until you do.
Of course we will sometimes fail; but that should not deter us from making the attempt. What people tend to remember about Peter is that he sank – they forget he was the only one of the disciples to be courageous enough to make the attempt. Just as they remember that he denied Jesus – and not that he was the only one of the Twelve who came out of hiding and followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house.
Taking risks and failing is as important as succeeding. We cannot live our lives without risk. Our present day society tries to minimise risks, especially with children – and as a consequence we are raising a generation who don’t know how to judge when a situation is really dangerous, or how to cope when things get difficult, or how to judge who to trust. With our children, and with ourselves, we have, sometimes, to face difficult situations in faith, even if we fail.
The story reassures us that, when we do try, and when we sometimes fail, God in Jesus will be there to catch hold of us and keep us safe. If we keep trusting in God, he will not let us go under.
The final and most important message to Christian disciples from this miracle is contained in Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid”. As Bishop Gene Robinson said in his sermon at Putney before the last Lambeth Conference, we live in a world and in a church which is paralysed by fear. Much of it is unrealistic, a fear of things and situations that are not really so much of a threat as they seem. But whether the fear is realistic or not, the effect of being afraid is to prevent us from loving, and loving is what we are commanded to do in Christ’s name.
“Do not be afraid. I am” said Jesus. And the storm ceased and the wind dropped.
When I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I was sent a prayer in the Celtic style, one of a collection by David Adams. I found it a great help in keeping me calm and unafraid when things were difficult. Perhaps it will help you to stay confident in the midst of the storm, and even to walk on the water, if Jesus calls you to do so:
Circle me O God.
Keep peace within.
Keep turmoil out.
Circle me O God.
Keep calm within.
Keep storms without
Circle me O God.
Keep strength within.
Keep weakness out.