Sermon: “Wonders and Signs”

May 7, 2017: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:42-47

“Many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles” – a better translation would be, “through the apostles,” meaning that God was acting through them – but that’s not the point. One of the characteristics of the first days of the Church following Pentecost was the presence of the miraculous.

We don’t see wonders and signs as often these days. The Church has been aware of this for centuries. The third century theologian Hippolytus taught that miracles and visions ended when John wrote the Revelation to John, the closing book of the Christian Bible, at the end of the first century. He probably wasn’t the first to think something similar, and he wasn’t the last. Theologians have raised the notion over and over that God’s visible action in the world ended at some mystical point. It even has a name: Cessationism, the belief that God’s miraculous activity ceased.

Others, I have to say, have said the exact opposite. To them, a church without wonders and signs is not the Church.

Far fewer have been willing to say that universal sharing is a defining characteristic of the Church. I’d say “I wonder why,” but I really don’t wonder about that at all.

Some theologies also question whether wonders and signs ever happened at all, or whether they happened in the way they’re described. Exorcism, for instance – the casting out of demons from human beings – modern people would understand the cause of the characteristic symptoms very differently. They’d say it was the result of mental illness or a neurological disorder, not the influence of a malign independent controlling spirit.

Wonders and signs. Wonders and signs.

The truth is, our world is filled with wonders and signs. They’re so commonplace that we no longer recognize them as such.

Tomorrow, for example, I will step inside a tube constructed of materials and techniques unimagined by Peter and the apostles. The tube will leap into the air, attain unimaginable speeds, and set me down unharmed a quarter of the globe away. Peter and his companions would look at this with simple awe.

We’ve also seen an explosive growth in life expectancy in just the last 150 years. In 1840, the highest reported average life expectancy was 45 years, in Sweden. Today, it’s 83 years, in Japan, with most industrialized countries coming in near 81. According to the National Institutes of Health, that’s the result of lower infant mortality and the reduction in infectious and parasitic disease. Peter and his friends would be amazed.

You don’t even have to look to the 20th century, or to Western culture, for everyday wonders and signs that would have shocked the apostles. As the early Church was gathering, Polynesian navigators had been sailing long distances across the Pacific for over 1500 years. Peter and his fishing family would have thought their navigational skills so far beyond theirs as to be miraculous.

Wonders and signs. Wonders and signs. We are surrounded by wonders – of what are they signs?

Does our ocean navigation, or our capacity to fly, or our healing prowess show forth the love of God?

Sometimes… Sometimes not.

In a recent interview, Congressman Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, said this about the availability of waivers to allow insurance companies to charge more for pre-existing conditions, which is included in the American Health Care Act bill voted by the House of Representatives on Thursday. He said: “It will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher healthcare costs to contribute more to the insurance pool that helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy.”

By “doing the things to keep their bodies healthy,” I presume that he means:

Control their genetics such that they’re not at risk for cancer or diabetes;

Avoid diseases whose causes aren’t well known or understood, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and so on; and, of course,

Not get old.

Representative Brooks is 62. I think he may find that controlling his health is more difficult than he’d thought.

We’ve had an example this week of the willingness of some to withhold a modern wonder from those who most need it, for the benefit of those who have the most. Those receiving the top 1% of income in the US will receive an average $33,000 reduction on their tax bill, according to the BBC.

Withholding a wonder: that is also a sign.

It is not a sign of Christ’s Church.

Its opposite – the sharing of wonders – now that is a sign of Christ’s Church.

One of the wonders is how often people perform wonders for each other. Drivers wave to one another, giving them the opportunity to turn safely. Fast-food workers offer their late-night customers a smile despite the long hours and the low pay. People in clubs trim trees, or ask each other difficult questions, or read stories to children. People turn up to work determined to do their best, and then do it, often without much more thanks than a supervisor’s nod or the monthly paycheck. Inspectors and auditors look over the engineering drawings or the columns of figures intently, determined to make sure that misleading or unsafe mistakes don’t get by.

That’s a sharing of wonders.

Kathryn Matthews writes: “…at the end of worship or a trustees meeting or a mission trip or an adult education class or a church supper, our hope is that lives are affected, changed in ways that may be imperceptibly small and yet quite powerful. Maybe, for some, transformation is sudden and dramatic and even long-lasting, but for others, it’s incremental, born of everyday faithfulness and grace.”

That would be a wonder and a sign, wouldn’t it? If after every worship service, every meeting, every event, every study, each person present could look inside themselves and find the new growth, the insight, the grace. Can we take that up as a challenge, to make sure it happens every time: here, at Church of the Holy Cross?

John Philip Newell writes, “We need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life.”

That’s a challenge for all of us. We can all embody wonders, so that we can all be a sign of God’s love. Not just here, on Sunday, but every day of the week.

That’s the most radical sharing of all. To let our experiences of the Divine soak into us, become part of us, become the force behind our actions. Then, to tell the stories of those experiences, sometimes with words, and sometimes by doing the things those experiences inspire us to do. That’s how we become apostles, messengers, witnesses to grace.

The question for each of us is: How will I, how will you, how will we bear witness to grace?

How will I bear witness to grace… today?

This world is filled with people bearing witness to this, that, and the other cause; some of them claim to be bearing witness to Christ. I’ve found that I’m the most effective witness I can be when I do two things:

First, to own my faith as a pivot point of my life. I grant you, that’s structurally easy for me to do; I’m a pastor, after all. I kind of wear Christianity on my sleeve.

Second, to behave with grace and kindness. Not to use my faith as a weapon, or a prod, or a judge’s gavel, or a pedestal from which I may look down with contempt. To put it more simply, to be visibly a Christian, and not to be a jerk about it.

Instead, to testify to the grace of God with acts of my own: listening intently. Helping as best I can. Making wonders happen. Insuring that they’re signs of God’s love, and not of my selfishness.

The wonders and signs of today are ours to embody. The age of miracles is not over. The greatest miracle of all is love, and when we love another, we become the very best signs of God.

How will you bear witness to grace today?


The image is by Rembrandt – Public Domain, The original is in the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on May 7, 2017

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