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Miracles and Faith

‘Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well’

Did Jesus actually perform miracles? Did he ever do any miracles at all? Or are the miracle stories all made up in order to reinforce the Early Church’s belief that Jesus was the Messiah? It was widely believed at that time that miracles would be a feature of the Messianic age. Are miracles even possible? Well, the simple answer to that one is and  that we don’t know what’s possible and we shouldn’t be too definitive. Our perception of reality and the nature of things is often far too narrow. And if Jesus never performed any miracles, why did people follow him in large numbers hoping to be healed, which they clearly did as we can see from the gospel records. Jesus was known as a healer, that we can say with certainty - although it’s important to remember that in the 21st century we have a very different understanding of physical ailment and what it consists of. So there are a lot of unknowns as we approach the question of miracles. Perhaps it’s enough for us to say that the healing power of God’s love was at work in Jesus, powerfully and even to a unique degree.

With all that in mind we turn to the story of Bartimaeus which we heard in this morning’s gospel. And here, I believe, we have a story which is not just a story in itself but also one which tells us something about the miracles in general and their significance as part of Our Lord’s ministry. Let’s start by considering the situation of Bartimaeus and comparing it with that of blind people today.

Those who are visually impaired are quite simply people who have particular needs and a different experience of life. They are not helpless invalids who need to have things done for them all the time.  That’s generally recognised today - although we can be over-sensitive when dealing with specific groups of people and their needs. I remember once talking to someone who worked as a tutor in adult education and he’d been engaged to work with a group who were visually impaired. And he said that when it came to the end of the first session, he couldn’t think what to say to them as they left. Because he felt he couldn’t say, See you again or, Nice to see you, because the word “see” applied only to sighted people. And he was still agonising over this when one of the group came up to him, clapped him on the shoulder and said, See you next week. So that solved that one. 

And of course there are practical aids, like the traditional guide dog and the white stick. And you must have noticed that the white stick is now specially designed for the purpose and it’s no longer just a walking stick painted white. And of course we have medical technology which is moving far more rapidly than we realise. And let’s not forget the braille alphabet and its increasingly wide use on things like packaging. So visually impaired people have a whole range of opportunities to take a full part in life.

Bartimaeus, by contrast, would have been excluded from the life going on around him. He might have been an object of pity, and the best he could have hoped for was to be shown some kindness from time to time. He would not have been able to work at any recognised occupation and would have been reduced to begging. He might even have been told that his disability was a punishment from God. So he would have been pushed to the margins of society. And by restoring his sight, Our Lord also restored Bartimaeus to wholeness of life.

Healing includes wholeness of life. It did in Christ’s ministry, it does today. Whatever form the Church’s ministry of healing takes – whether it’s the laying-on of hands as part of a healing service, or working with the medical profession, as with the ministry of hospital chaplains, or simply visiting someone who’s ill – the aim is wholeness of life, so that the person in question no longer feels isolated or depressed by their situation. And it follows from this that we must see healing in the broadest possible terms. Because people’s needs are complex. 

This has certainly been brought home to me since I started ministering at the Ace of Clubs for a few hours a week. When I say “ministering”, I hope that doesn’t sound too pompous. The people I meet there do far more for me than I do for them. But I go there as a priest, wearing my clericals and representing the Church, and this church in particular. And the needs of these people I’m privileged to be with can be very complex. Being homeless and unemployed may not be the whole story, not by any means. And so Christians must support, in whatever way they can, any initiative aimed at restoring those in need to wholeness of life, because these initiatives are part of a wider healing process. And at the same time, we might ask some very pertinent questions as to why, in a wealthy country like this one, this important work has to be done by charities.

And there’s more yet to be learned from the story of Bartimaeus. What does Jesus say to him? “ … your faith has made you well.” I can’t help thinking that here lies the key to the whole question of Christ’s miracles of healing. Christ healed in response to faith. I’m reminded of the occasion recorded in Ch. 6 of Mark’s gospel when Jesus went back to his home village and was amazed at their lack of faith in him. And, because of their unbelief, he could do “no deed of power”, as Mark puts it.

Bartimaeus had a strong faith, a persistent faith. He didn’t just ask politely if Jesus had a moment to spare. He shouted at him as he passed by and he wouldn’t be silenced. There’s a model here for us to use. The more persistent our faith, the more God will be able to work through us. We must pray persistently, we must desire longingly. We must want a church which is never satisfied with what it’s achieved but which, week by week and year by year, is even more engaged with its local community. We must want a church which spends more and more time exploring its faith and uncovering its deepest meaning. And we must want a world and a society in which people are valued for their humanity, not for their position on the social ladder.

Bartimeaus, with his sight restored, symbolises the need for healing and wholeness. And he symbolises us, as individuals and as a church, as we believe and pray with persistent faith. Today let’s do our best to learn everything that Bartimaeus has to teach us.

Dominica Ultima post Trinitatem MMXV, CHS