Saturday, April 09, 2011

Working Wonders

Prayer and Miracles

John 11:1-45

Ironic––isn’t it?––that the very things that might have inspired faith in the first century or the second are some of the things that can create obstacles for twenty-first century people. For instance, the only story told essentially the same way in all four gospels is the story of how Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. I don’t know if people a generation or two after Jesus would have found that particularly easy to believe, but it is a cinch that none of the gospel writers considered it a stumbling-block to faith in Jesus as Christ, else they would no doubt have quietly edited it out. Yet no one who serves meals at our Loaves and Fishes kitchen thinks of saying grace over a couple of chicken breasts, multiplying them to feed the crowd downstairs of several hundred. And anyone who came off the street, even I dare say, some Senior Priest or other, offering to do so would be promptly reported to the police, likely banned from the building as a danger to others, and shipped off St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. We have a hard time taking the supernatural seriously.

If you have a hard time with the notion that someone literally fed 5,000 people or more with five loaves of bread and two fish, then I suspect you have a big-time issue with believing that Jesus actually raised the dead Lazarus—after the latter had been carefully buried for four days, long enough for rot to start. Some of you will tell me that you have no problem with that at all precisely because Jesus is God and can thus do anything. Yes; but what do you say to Pat, a young man who once said to me when his father dropped dead of a heart attack, “I know that if we believe strongly enough that Jesus can bring back my dad from the dead, isn’t that right?”? I think you will concede that, well, Jesus is alive and well and Resurrected but that does not exactly mean that we can get the same results from him that those people back then could and did. Others—I myself on many a Fifth Sunday in Lent—have dodged that whole issue, taking this story of the raising of Lazarus as a theological tour de force, highly symbolic, seeing it as a testimony to the truth that indeed Jesus—God—brings us out of various dead places and into new life. Still others will say that the raising of the dead to life actually happens in our world (people who are as good as dead are sometimes resuscitated with wise and timely use of CPR). So, they would point out, we really do the same thing that Jesus did (sort of). We just go about it a little differently.

Are these matters just “academic,” with little relevance to us? I think not. For both the believer and the unbeliever, the supernatural presents a challenge, and not only because it occurs with some frequency in the Bible. How many times have you heard or said, “We’re just praying for a miracle”? When pushed against the wall, and when someone’s life is at stake, like Mary and Martha we send for Jesus or for someone who can intervene and work a miracle. We get ourselves in the frame of mind that if we can call on the right Power, anything is possible. Granted, that shakes out to getting the right professional help, if we are able to afford it. Go to Mayo, Cleveland, Sloan-Kettering, Johns Hopkins, Duke, the Menninger Clinic, Hazelton, if you are financially blessed enough to do so. Still, we are sometimes willing, if one of those things works, to say that the Hand of God was in it. And that may well be true.

But what of the poor folk who don’t have the resources? Are they left just to bang on the door of heaven hoping to God that someone somewhere will hear their desperation and respond? Or don’t we want them to feed on the wonderful mysteries of their religion and ours, replete with stories like healing lepers and blind people and raising the dead to life? That is a roundabout way of saying that miracles are more attractive the fewer resources you have. If you can buy your way through intensive care, you might not find yourself quite so frequently in need of a miracle. But when you are out of resources (and that can happen to the rich, too, by the way), divine intervention can seem like a good idea.

So here we are, a week away from Holy Week and almost two away from Good Friday. It is as good a time as any to deal with how we pray in the face of death—or more generally, how we deal with suffering, tragedy, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. What might help us is to look carefully at a few aspects of this story about the raising of Lazarus.

If we are wondering about whether we ought to pray for miracles, the story suggests that we might be asking the wrong question. One of the major points that the Fourth Gospel makes is that the presence and power of Jesus (and thus of God) is quite different from what we might imagine. Mary and Martha send for Jesus, presumably hoping that he will come and heal Lazarus whom he loves. When Jesus comes, too late for a healing, both of them express their disappointment that Jesus was not there. “Had you been here, my brother would not have died.” No doubt. Martha goes further, saying, “Even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” It is not clear what she has in mind, but it is quite probable that it is not her brother’s resuscitation. She must assume that the time for miracles is over. Something more like the healing of grief, perhaps, or dealing with life after the male on whom the family depended had died: these might have been on her mind and in her prayer.

But look at it from another angle. Observe Jesus. He knows from the moment he gets the message, that Lazarus is dead or soon will be. (That is so characteristic of Jesus in John’s gospel. He is clairvoyant, omniscient.) Then he stays an additional two days east of the Jordan, which is a good day’s hike from Bethany. He says that the glory of God will be revealed through Lazarus’ illness, and specifically that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” I suspect you see immediately that that is exactly what John’s purpose is: to narrate how Jesus is glorified more than to spotlight Lazarus himself. Yet there is a larger truth here. Many times we approach life, quite naturally, from the point of view of what we want, what we need. “We need a miracle.” “I want to be healed.” “Do what you have to, Lord, to make this situation better.” I am not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong about that; but I do think we might acknowledge that we do not always—indeed frequently do not—see the larger picture, including where God’s Presence and Power are already at work. The effectiveness, the dependability, of God’s being in a situation does not preclude our praying for healing or rescue or spectacular intervention. But the point is that God is present whether we are praying for those things or not. One of the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer refers to God’s doing “better things than we can ask or pray for.” Exactly. Practicing prayer involves growing out of the idea that God is largely passive until we start pushing God’s buttons by praying. Prayer includes acknowledging that God is, that God is active at all times and in all situations, just as surely as air silently surrounds us, and just that close.

All the Bethany people in the story are grieving, and ultimately Jesus joins them in one of the most memorable scenes in the New Testament, which we nearly always remember at funerals: “You wept at the grave of Lazarus your friend.” In the King James Version of the Bible, that is the shortest verse of all: “Jesus wept.” He is human, he feels deeply. Perhaps there is a hint here that before this mighty act Jesus is on edge, emotionally raw. But there is a sentence in here that doesn’t make it into English very well. Instead of saying that “Jesus was deeply disturbed in spirit,” the text actually says something more like, “Jesus was inwardly angry” or “Jesus was royally irritated.”* At what? It is not clear, but a good guess is that all the cavorting and crying and carrying on did not set well with him. You might remember another story from the Synoptic gospels in which Jesus goes to Jairus’ house ultimately to raise his little girl from death, and he summarily puts the wailing mourners out of the room. Jesus apparently did not like that kind of drama. Perhaps that was just a personal preference, with no particular implication for us. I think, however, that it might be a commentary on how easy it is for people caught up in their own tragedies, to miss the larger point of God’s presence and power in a situation.

Then notice something else. Jesus himself prays. It has been said, “It is because he is one with God that he prays, and because he prays he is one with God.” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “When the Father does the Father’s will, the Father does the Son’s will.”** What strikes you about Jesus’ prayer? Does he ask for special power? Does he confess that he is nervous? What strikes me is that his is a prayer of thanksgiving. “I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” This, too, is a clue as to the relationship of prayer and miracle. The miraculous, if you want to call it that, is going on all the time, and most of it is wrapped in what we call the commonplace. The supernatural, so named because it does not fit our understanding of the natural, is just more from the same God who is constantly sustaining us and all creation. I myself have known of unexpected joy, surprising healings against all odds, startling rescues from tragedies and disasters. Many of these came on the wings of prayer, and a few occurred without pleading or warning or both. Miracles happen, but never because God has to be convinced to work one, as if somehow God sits on God’s hands until we get worked up enough to mention the possibility of a miracle. “I thank thee that thou hast heard me,” prayed Jesus. You can pray that prayer, too. Avery Brooke, who for years had an astonishing ministry of healing in the Church, taught me to end prayers for healing with, “Thank you God, for hearing our prayer, and for the healing that you have already begun in this person.”

John’s gospel is clear about the place of the raising of Lazarus. It was the tipping point in Jesus’ ministry. We shall be again at Bethany next week on Palm Sunday, because it is from there on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives that Jesus will take the fateful journey into Jerusalem. Raising Lazarus was for John what ultimately convinced the authorities that Jesus had to die. “Better that one man die on behalf of the people than to have the entire nation destroyed,” warned High Priest Caiphas. So Jesus ultimately went to his death. But yet another stone was to be rolled away and another body to be raised from death, this time not to be a resuscitated corpse, but to be the glorified body of the Risen Lord. Sometimes we pray for miracles, and sometimes they happen. But the thing not to miss is that sometimes it is the very cross we would most like to avoid that turns out to be the thing that saves us. The more we learn to trust in a surrounding and sustaining God, the less we might find ourselves praying for miraculous things, yet giving thanks in all our tragedies, doubts, terrors, and deaths for the Presence of the One who is himself our Resurrection and our Life.

*Rudolf Schnackenberg,The Gospel According to St. John, vol. 2, (New York: Crossroad, 1990), pp. 335-336.

** Ibid., p. 517, note 66.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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