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Why people ignore the evidence of miracles?

January 10, 2014

The story of Jesus walking on water (Mark 6: 45-52) is what is known as a ‘theophany’ – a revealing or an appearance of God to human beings. I think it is a very convincing story, not least because it has so much detail in it that it sounds like someone who was there told Mark what had happened – which is pretty likely, given Mark’s gospel was written only 25 years after the events – it’s perfectly feasible that Jesus’ disciples were still around. More convincing still is the fact that Mark’s account includes details that do not reflect well on those disciples.

So let’s briefly look at today’s story. It follows immediately after the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000. Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him in the boat and goes off to the mountain to pray. Perhaps His disciples thought He would follow in another boat. Anyway, Jesus chooses to spend some time in quiet prayer. A good example to us – so often our culture tells us that what’s important is doing things. Jesus could have chosen to continue an unending stream of miraculous good works, But He didn’t. His behaviour teaches us that the spiritual side of our human nature is just as important as our desire to be active, to be doing things.

Jesus praying before and after performing miracles is a sign that his supernatural powers come from God. And by walking on water Jesus is demonstrating his mastery over nature. In the Old Testament, walking on water is something that is unique to God: Job declares that no-one but God has ‘trampled on the back of the sea’ ; and did you notice the words He used to reassure the frightened disciples when they thought He was a ghost. His words are an echo of the theophany of the Burning Bush, when Moses asked God, “What is your name?” God replied, “I am I am” . Jesus calls out, “….it is I, do not be afraid!”

What may seem surprising is how the gospel finishes with the words by telling us that the disciples were completely astounded, that they had not understood the incident of the loaves. In fact, it says, “On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.” What’s going on here? Those disciples, only a few hours before, had seen the Feeding of the 5,000.

But when miracles happen it is very natural for us to try and explain them away. The fancy scientific term for this is ‘cognitive dissonance’. It’s a defence mechanism to stop us getting stressed. There are loads of examples. When faced with the evidence of the harm caused by smoking, a lot of smokers say things like, “Nah, I’ll be OK, it won’t happen to me” and keep on smoking. They ignore the evidence. So I think the disciples’ scepticism is evidence of the truth of Mark’s gospel. Imagine you were one of the disciples and have just seen someone feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes. You might think, ‘No, I’ve got this wrong, people must have brought food with them and I didn’t see it’, or ‘Perhaps people didn’t get anything to eat but didn’t want to complain’. We make excuses. We harden our hearts. In fact, there are people today who will pooh pooh the miracle of Jesus walking on water, saying He was walking in the surf near the shore. Oh yeh? The disciples were trying to rationalize the extraordinary things they had witnessed. Perhaps they thought they were having hallucinations after a day spent out on the hillside, hungry and exposed to the sun. I think Mark is making it clear to his readers that we’re not dealing here with a group of simple, gullible fishermen from Galilee, were dealing with some very rational people who can’t believe their eyes. They are ‘astounded’, stunned and confused. It is going to take a few more miracles for them to be convinced; ultimately it is going to take them to witnessing the Resurrection. We too, like those disciples find ourselves in a boat on choppy waters, on a journey in faith ‘towards the other side’. Sometimes our faith wobbles. When we see miracles happening we try and rationalize what is going on. We need to learn to let go and to trust in God. In a few moments, having prepared by praying, we will encounter Jesus in the form of consecrated bread, and we will, as ordered by Him, take it and eat it as the true Body of Christ. To most people in the world that miracle is nonsense. It doesn’t fit with their idea of how God works. So they reject all the evidence; they ‘harden their hearts’. We know better. We see these sacramental gifts from God, these miracles, every day, and we know the effect they have on us and those around us. Let’s thank God for that gift of faith and pray that we will remain steadfast to the end of the journey.

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