This is from a few weeks ago, so apologies for the late arrival. The story of the gospel was the healing of blind Bartimaeus. The season was the distressingly commercialised one of Haloween, where people throughout the land hide in fear of children demanding sweeties.
Well as you will have all realised the season of pumpkins is with us once again. Halloween seems to be getting more American by the year, and come Wednesday, Children will roam the streets dressed as Dracula, demanding not the blood of the living, but jelly tots. I never knew vampires had a sweet tooth.
People do seem to love the idea of the supernatural. There is a sort of thrill about the supernatural. And it is a thrill that the church can well do without. I’m thinking of this not just because of Halloween but because of our Gospel. It’s such a tiny little story, so simple. Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, Jesus says “what do you want”, Bartimaues says he would like to see, and bingo, so he does. Such a simple story, but it raises so many questions.
Can you be healed by your faith? If you are not healed, is your faith lacking? What about those friends and loved ones of ours who are disabled? But particularly for today, does God behave supernaturally? Does God break the laws of nature in order to interact with the world?
We don’t know much about Bartimaeus, but we do know what it would have been like to be blind in those days. It’s not dissimilar from being blind in many countries today. He was utterly reliant on other people, his life was hand to mouth, day to day. There was a strong connexion in his culture between the physical illness and sin, and whilst people would have given him food, there would be a taint about him which must have added to his isolation. He didn’t say “heal me” he said “have mercy upon me”. And that is just what Jesus does. He empowers him, says “your faith has healed you”.
And the question for me is, did he? Did Jesus do something supernatural?
I speak as someone who does not believe in supernatural miracles. I don’t believe in demons, ghosts, astrology, hobgoblins. Halloween does nothing at all for me. I believe in God, I believe in the soul, I believe in heaven, and I think there are good sound reasons for belief in those things.
I do believe in miracles, too. But where I part company with the idea of the supernatural is that I don’t believe any miracles are inexplicable. It seems to me, from observing the universe and through consideration of how God seems to operate, that God has made the world to be understandable, explorable, consistent. I find the whole idea of God behaving supernaturally to an odd one. In our talks on science and religion we have learnt about how beautiful and how mysterious and endlessly fascinating the laws of physics are. Almost anything seems possible, when looking at the natural laws.
So why do we want to search for something above those laws? Why do we need God to break these rules in order to interact with the world? What sort of God would construct this wonderful universe with the elegant and beautiful laws, and then paint himself into a corner to the extent that the only way that (s)he can interact with the word is by breaking those rules?
So do I think Jesus healed Blind Bartimaeus? Well, I think it possible, but if he did, it was according to the laws of nature. Perhaps the blindness was psychosomatic, perhaps his cataracts were removed, perhaps one of those billion to one things occurred which we would ascribe to the workings of God and others would ascribe to chance.
I know that sounds dissatisfying. It sounds like a get out of jail free card, doesn’t it. Someone said to me, “don’t try and explain it away”. That’s an interesting phrase. As though explaining it removes it, takes it away. As though if we understand something it no longer belongs to God.
We’ve got to be very careful about that. Because that suggests that God’s realm is the supernatural. But if we seek God only in the supernatural, then God becomes merely a lazy explanation for things that we can’t understand. God becomes the stuff of fancy, a super-hero, to be called on in time of need, to perform a miracle and help us out. Prayer becomes the equivalent of sending up the bat-signal. And as we know, as we all know, we pray for miracles and they don’t happen. And when we see God only as the miracle worker, the fix-it man, we feel angry and cheated when he doesn’t work miracles – what’s the point in a superhero who doesn’t save us? And we lose our faith.
If we think that miracles are by definition beyond our understanding, that means that the more we learn about the world, the fewer miracles there are, and the smaller this supernatural God gets. To hang on therefore to our wonder in the idea of God, we have to stay ignorant. And we should never have to choose between knowledge or devotion. We should reject any religion which requires ignorance, for it is by definition blasphemous – it cannot possibly by worshipping the God of truth.
But the worst thing about this supernatural way of looking at God is that we miss the point of the incarnation. The message of Christ’s coming to earth is to say that now is eternal life, that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near, God is with us.
That should change the way we see the world, because God in every small cell of every creature, in the atoms and nuclei that make everything that is, in the energy of heat and light, from the coldest palest dawn to the burning heat of the sun; and so miracles are miracles, giving sight to the blind is a miracle, whether it is a Doctor with a scalpel or a sudden remission or a course of medicine, these are all the miracles that God works.
When we stop seeing God as supernatural, we begin to see the true magic which is woven into the world. Our knowledge of how things happen is absolutely irrelevant to the fact of the incredible beauty and truth of this God-breathed world. The we begin, in the words of William Blake,
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wildflower
Hold infinity I the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Of course God can heal, but if we are to see God as God is then we have to stop confining the sacred to a supernatural realm. He have to see the ordinary as sacred, because all the world is part of God.
Perhaps when we do that we will see that we have the power to heal as Jesus did. We can give sight to the blind. If we have a fiver in your pocket, we can save somebody’s sight, because that what it costs. It’s not as glamorous as a supernatural miracle, but to the person who can see again, it’s just as wonderful.
When we release ourselves from the idea of the supernatural, then we begin to see that miracles are not beyond us, we are capable of being miracle workers. That frees us to live out our calling, to be the ones listening for the cries of the blind, calling to us “have mercy”.
Then we will be free to heal, by the same means which causes all miracles to happen. The compassion which is at the heart of God.