Sermon for HIGH MASS – Trinity 2 Sunday 5 June 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We lazily refer to the miracles of Jesus as an undifferentiated class of supernatural actions which we then try, often with some degree of embarrassment, either to explain or explain away. But they are at the core of his project in the gospels, not as random individual instances of wonder-working, but as demonstrations of how God’s relationship with us works.
In very many cases the healing miracles are instances of Jesus crossing a boundary or ignoring a taboo. Elsewhere, for example, the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’ daughter cross several obvious red lines for an observant Jew (and we are never left in any doubt that this is who Jesus is). Contact with women, with blood, and with dead bodies are all high on the list of don’ts for him, yet these and other similar encounters are embraced by him without hesitation. Last week, in the episode of the healing of the centurion’s servant, our received view of the mutual antipathy of Jews, Romans and Jesus was carefully undermined by Luke reporting what turned out to be well-established particular relationships of trust across all these divides. In that episode the centurion is a good guy. He is kind to his slave. He has been not just kind but extraordinarily generous to the local Jewish community (‘he loves our people’, they say to Jesus); he has even built them a synagogue. Moreover the synagogue elders are not only friendly with him but clearly also on good terms with Jesus.
Additionally, in that encounter, there was a link back to the prophets which would have rung loud bells with the original, biblically-literate, hearers: the healing of the centurion’s servant echoes the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha. This morning Luke offers a similar parallel to what we heard in today’s first reading. Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son in Nain recalls the raising from the dead by Elijah of the son of the widow of Zarephath (a little family unit that he has already miraculously saved from starvation earlier in the same chapter of 1 Kings). And we are once again in the area of taboos: notice how carefully Luke tells us that Jesus ‘touched’ the bier on which the body was being carried, rendering himself ritually unclean (unlike last week when the healing of the centurion’s servant was done from a distance).
The raising of the widow’s son at Nain is a story peculiar to Luke’s gospel. We might compare it with the raising of Jairus’ daughter, which I’ve just mentioned, but there the little girl had only just died and was said, even by Jesus, to be ‘only sleeping’. This is a much more confronting story: Jesus intercepts a funeral procession and there is no doubt about the fact of death. Like the raising of Jairus’ daughter (and, still more obviously, the raising of Lazarus) this incident is seen as prefiguring Jesus’ own resurrection. An added motive for Luke including it here may be found in the next few verses. There we hear that Jesus sends messengers to John the Baptist, reporting that:
‘the blind are receiving their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.’ (7.22)
You’ll probably have noticed that there are a number of detailed parallels with the Elijah story we heard earlier. In both stories the son of a widow is resuscitated; in both the bereaved widow is met at the gate; in both the miracle is acclaimed as testimony to the great godliness of the prophet (Jesus is specifically acclaimed by the townspeople as a ‘great prophet‘).
In Jewish tradition, articulated in Malachi (4.5), Elijah was (and still is) supposed to return to usher in the coming of the Messiah. So Matthew and Mark naturally link him with John the Baptist. But Luke more or less abandons this link, identifying Jesus himself with Elijah (and his successor Elisha).
Several stories about Jesus that occur only in Luke directly recall stories about Elijah: e.g. the disciples’ desire to call down fire from heaven on their enemies (9.54) and the story of the disciple who wished to say goodbye to his family (9.61-2). And only in Luke’s gospel does Jesus, at the start of his ministry, explicitly compare himself with Elijah and Elisha, both of whom had a ministry to gentiles; in doing so he mentions both the raising of the widow’s son at Zarephath by Elijah and the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha (4.25-27).
As a gentile himself, probably writing for a predominantly gentile church, Luke is naturally keen to draw attention to Elijah as a forerunner of mission to the gentiles. He was clearly also influenced by the tradition that, having been taken up into heaven, Elijah sent down his spirit on Elisha, who continued his work and repeated some of his miracles. Only in Luke, and his second volume, Acts, are we told how Jesus ascended, and then sent down his Spirit on the disciples, who are then empowered to do works similar to his own. The structure of Luke’s unique two-volume project (his Gospel and Acts) was plausibly inspired by the two volumes of 1 and 2 Kings, which chronicle the careers of Elijah and Elisha, and are separated by Elijah’s ascension.
The differences between today’s two biblical events are also illuminating. Jesus raises the man by the power of his word alone: Elijah cried out to the Lord and had to enact a bizarre healing ritual. Luke insists that the power to raise the dead is to be found in Jesus’ own person. Here there is no request for help from the mother, nor is the raising a response to anyone’s faith. It is an act of sheer grace, occasioned by Jesus’ compassion for her and following on what seems to be a chance encounter. This is truly God-with-us, not merely a prophet: but since the incarnation is a unique phenomenon, continuity with the prophetic lineage is apt.
Drawing these parallels, which are so deeply embedded in our gospel accounts as to be inseparable from the tradition we have received, in no way detracts from the miracles, or our faith. Here, and in the other gospels, the writer is recording events that would have been well-known to many of his original hearers. So he is not merely a reporter of news. He carefully draws parallels with Jewish biblical heritage to elucidate what occurs, how Jesus’ actions bear witness to a coherent biblical account of our relationship with God.
As Bishop Jack said to us repeatedly in Holy Week, Jesus came to show us what God is like. The gospel-writers want to help us understand that this revelation didn’t happen in a vacuum, but as the culmination of long process of interaction and prophetic engagement. We may also notice, significantly, that the incarnation challenges taboos and tribal allegiances as, fulfilling the aspirations of prophecy, it makes new our relationship with God in such a way that all are invited.