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Friday, 9 May 2014

signs, wonders, and weeping statues

(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
 (8.00 a.m. Eucharist only)          

Readings:       Acts 2:42-47
                        Psalm 23
                        1 Peter 2:19-25
                        John 10:1-10
In at least two major strands of Christianity there is an obsession with the search for the spectacular. It will be no surprise to any who know me that I have deep concerns about aspects, indeed most aspects of the charismatic and pentecostal movements, but on this subject I turn my sights equally on my much closer sisters and brothers of the Roman Catholic tradition. I hope I approach both wings of Christianity with love.   
For Luke’s writings about “signs and wonders,” a phrase that Luke has deeply imbued with his own theological meaning, he opens himself up to manipulation and abuse by those wings of Christianity that dwell in the spectacular, by those wings of Christianity that major in the minors, and for those wings of Christianity (which has many wings!) that dwell on sentimental piety rather than Luke and the other New Testament writers’ vehement focus on the cross of Jesus the Christ.
I mentioned in passing a week ago – I’m not organized enough to have planned this! – the silly moment when pastor and evangelist John Wimber cried out “more power, Lord, more power” as he set about healing the sick on an auditorium stage. By turning God’s power into a quantifiable commodity of which there can be “more” or “less” Wimber was reducing the meaning of the cross of Jesus, in which the fullness of all God is for us was and is revealed.
For the healing, restoring cross of Christ is not a spectacle. Luke is careful in his telling of the resurrection story to emphasise that even the women were absent in the period between taking Jesus down from the cross and the first empty tomb realization of the Easter morn: they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment”: in that brief sentence Luke clays down more than one theological boundary.  Matthew, the most dramatic of the Jesus story-tellers, has guards sealing and watching the tomb, has earthquakes and angels, but has the guards comatose in fear at the moment (if as such it can be described) of the resurrection.  
The resurrection breaks outside the power of human understanding or human telling, and only the constitutionally powerless women are entrusted with its announcement precisely because human power structures and human understandings of power, understandings that have to quantify power as a commodity, will fall short even of the beginning of understanding this in-breaking of eternity. It belongs to the language of mystery and faith and even the poetry of creation (the word “poet” and the word “creator” are from the same stable of Greek thought, although the New Testament writers prefer to use a different word when speaking of God and God’s creation).
At the time of writing the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic community are engaged in the process of canonizing – making into saints – the former popes John XXIII and John Paul II. While I have undaunted respect for the former and some tarnished admiration for the latter I find myself saddened at the process of canonization and its emphasis on secondary miracles – the allegedly authenticated stories of those who have been healed or saved by the intervention of the deceased heroes of faith. I’m sure there are cases of miraculous healing in many tradition, and was privileged to know one humble recipient of such a gift in my parish f origin, but I feel the greater miracle by far is the simple faith against all odds of a John XXIII or a John Paul II, of a Mother Theresa or a Mother Mary McKillop or a Mother Aubert, is that they continued through a lifetime to reach out and receive the sacred signs of God in bread and wine, and to receive in their being the enflaming words of God’s scriptures, believing these to be the imparting of the will and purpose and healing and redemption of God for them and for humanity. I need no greater miracle that to know that a believer has believed and does believe. I need no slaying by the spirit on an auditorium stage beneath neon lights, nor weeping statue in a scared grotto, nor face of Christ in rising damp or on a piece of toast, to see the miraculous touch of God at work in human and cosmic history.
Or, to put it another way, despite the degradation that is the footprint of so much of humanity on and now beyond our planet, I need no greater miracle than that some humans still exercise Christ-like compassion and justice and even something akin to that much misunderstood state of holiness (and around that word I suspect the whole real sexuality debate revolves, but that is a matter for another time!) in order to see and know the Spirit of God and the miraculous love of God at work.  It is when I see that work going on in the name of Christ, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, that I am re-convinced over and again that the “I am” who is the gate to the eternities of for ever, and the for evers of God is indeed opened in the event of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and remains opened even despite our blundering, fallen human propensity to close it.

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