The four Gospel narratives are filled with examples of Jesus performing miraculous acts. According to Matthew’s version, even his life began supernaturally, in that his conception was not the result of a sexual union.
For most Christians, the picture of Jesus working miracles seems to be exactly what one would expect of a divine being -the Son of God. These supernatural acts “prove” that Jesus was no mere man. For many others, though, these miracle accounts are not easily swallowed and deter them from accepting much, if not all, of the Gospels as truth. Probably the most famous of these skeptics was Thomas Jefferson, who went through the bible with scissors and glue, removing all the supernatural accounts. His truncated version, the “Jefferson Bible” is more like a collections of Jesus’ sayings than the story of his life, death and resurrection.
I talked with a friend not long ago, an ex-Roman Catholic, now an Evangelical Protestant, who said that the idea of the ‘virgin birth’ was very important to him, as this underscored the idea of Jesus as God. Without the virgin birth Jesus would be just another man. But is that a fair assumption to make? Do we need miracles to sell ourselves on the idea that Jesus is in some way ‘other’ than us – that he is divine?
If miracles are the (super)natural by-product of divinity, then Jesus’ life must have been full of them. This is suggested in the various apocryphal Infancy Gospels. There the boy Jesus is said to have made clay birds fly and he magically kills a naughty playmate (who he later brings back to life). No serious scholars give these folk stories much credence, although bestselling horror writer Ann Rice has written a novel based upon them. There is something appealing as well as appalling to these tales. (I have a theory that they were the inspiration for that old Twilight Zone episode where the young Billy Mumy uses his awesome supernatural powers to terrorize his family and neighbors.)
Recently our church considered the story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus stilled the stormy Sea of Galilee. While asleep in the boat, a squall rose up and his disciples, who were for the most part experienced fisherman, began to panic and they awakened Jesus. But why? Did they expect Jesus to provide them with nautical advice? He may have been a carpenter, but Jesus was certainly no sailor. Did they expect him to magically calm the storm, as he does before scolding them for their hysteria? Their reaction to this event would seem to suggest otherwise.
Was it the purpose of this miracle account to prove that Jesus was God, or at least in touch with supernatural power? Is that the purpose of all of Jesus’ miracles? Because if we look at them in that way, adding them to the pile of evidence needed to make a “case for Christ”, then we may risk losing other, deeper meanings hidden within the stories.
Perhaps, as our pastor suggested, the main thrust of this story is to portray Jesus as a powerful presence that can calm the storms that rage within us. Rather than joining us in our stress and hysteria (which we have invited others to do) Jesus projects calmness upon what we often perceive to be the ‘perfect storm’.
Isn’t this usually what happens when we call upon Jesus for help? Really, how often is it the case where he has literally changed our circumstances, fixed our external problems or calmed the storms we are caught in? Isn’t it more likely that he help will help us to find the strength we need to deal with our crises? Jesus gives us a glimpse of things from his infinite perspective, a glimpse that tends to diminish our own earthly struggles.
Do we need to believe in miracles in order to be in communion with God? Are miracles necessary proof that there is a God? Conversely, does a disbelief in miracles, an ‘inability’ to see them, indicate a lack of faith? When we question the historicity of Jesus’ miracles, are we diminishing his divinity? What kind of faith is it that must depend upon evidence of miracles in order to survive?
I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think it is necessary for me to believe that the miracles actually occurred to hear what God is telling me, something that when put into practice, underscores the divinity of Jesus. Something that Thomas Jefferson might have missed.