Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In these weeks of Paschal joy, the Church appoints to be read in place of the Epistle or Apostol, as we call it, the Book of Acts, generally denoted as The Acts of the Apostles. Some would suggest, however, that it might better be called The Acts of the Holy Spirit, since it is the Spirit of God Who is clearly present and at work through the apostolic band in the Church from the Day of Pentecost.
God is absolutely present in His world, always dwelling and active in His creation of which the Psalter bears abundant witness (Ps. 103 :1-35; 134 :1-21). But, because our God is committed to the Incarnation and its incarnational principle – its principle of “enfleshment” – He works His works through His flesh and blood Church, and He is not loathed to utilize the material stuff of His good and blessed creation, called into existence out of nothing purely by His command and will, and fashioned by His hand (Mk. 8:22-26; Jn. 9:6). The acts of the holy Apostles are, therefore, the acts of the Holy Spirit, and the acts of the Holy Spirit are likewise manifested, revealed, made known through the Apostles of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
What Jesus said and did while He was yet with us during His earthly sojourn in the flesh, we find our holy Apostles doing and saying. They are “chips off the old block,” if you will. We find them imitating the Master in Acts. Truly, as our Lord once averred to the 70, “’He that heareth you heareth Me, . . . .’” (Lk. 10:16; Jn. 13:20). The Apostles – the Church – always act in the Name of Jesus Christ, which is to say, with the authority and in the power of the crucified and risen Son of God, just as we find St. Peter doing today when he heals “a certain man named Aeneas.” “’Aeneas,’” says the Apostle to the paralyzed and bed-ridden man, “’Jesus Christ maketh thee whole; arise, and make thy bed.’” It is not Peter who heals; it is Jesus the Christ. Peter, like the Church, is but the vessel of the Lord’s oil of mercy and compassion, an instrument in the hands of the Master, a channel or means of God’s saving and sanctifying grace. Peter is but a man in whom the Holy Spirit of God dwells and through whom the same Spirit flows out in blessing. In the Holy Gospel, when our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ heals, it is always by His own authority in fulfillment of the will of the Father – the Source and Fountain of redemption and sanctification. Jesus does not need a spring or a pool stirred by an angel in order to heal. He simply and merely only needs Himself (Jn. 5:1-15). He Himself is the wellspring of Life Everlasting even as He has declared to another, “’I AM the Resurrection and the Life’” (Jn. 11:25). As someone else has quipped, God is not bound by the Sacraments or Mysteries of the Church. He is free to work as He pleases. But, we are bound to the Mysteries precisely because God has bound Himself to them, but is not limited by them.
If we are listening carefully to the weekly pericopes from Acts, we no doubt are noticing the abundance of miracles rehearsed therein. Early on, immediately following the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, we find this noted by St. Luke in Acts: “And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the Apostles” (Ac. 2:43). This is in fulfillment of what Jesus said to His Apostles just before His ascension into Heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand, according to St. Mark’s rendering of the Great Commission (Mk. 16:19):
‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe: In My Name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover’ (Mk. 16:14-18).
Mark concludes his account by observing: “So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, . . . they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working through them and confirming the Word with signs following. Amen.” (Mk. 16:20). The Lord was working through them who were doing so in His Name, and the Lord confirmed the Word preached and enacted “with signs following.” The miracles serve in the apostolic Church to bear witness (Ac. 14:3). They are a confirmation of the Word of God and a sign pointing us all to Jesus Christ the Word of God made flesh.
It is easy for us to get sidetracked by the miracles and their “miraculousness”. C.S Lewis has written a fine little volume on miracles to which I would invite you to go and read sometime. His is a sort of defense of the miraculous in light of rationalism and science. However, for us who stand solidly in the Great and Sacred Tradition, miracles occur. They are to be expected. We have numerous stories of saints who are noted as “Wonderworkers” and with whom miracles are commonly associated, especially their relics. Some icons also have been deemed miraculous or miracle-working by the Church as have some places. Our personal faith – indeed, the apostolic Faith itself! – is built upon the miracle of the Virgin Birth and is upheld and confirmed by the miracle of the Resurrection! Miracles, when God permits them, serve to substantiate the Gospel claims and to point us all to God and, ultimately, to obedience to Him – “the obedience of faith” (Rm. 1:5; 16:26).
Miracles solely for the sake of miracles is not on God’s docket. In fact, Jesus frequently downplayed them, asking those so blessed not to tell anyone or He sent them to the priests at the Temple to offer the todah, the thank offerings of the Old Testament. Miracles are attractive and tantalizing, but they are not the so-called focus of our faith. In other words, we are not like Herod and the others who kept holding out for one more miracle – they had witnessed numerous ones! – and then they would believe (Mt. 12:39; 16:4; 27:42; Mk. 15:32; Lk. 9:9; 11:29; 23:8). The Faith of the Apostles – the Church – is not some sort of carnival side show. It is the revelation of God Who is always and ever present in His Temple, in the Body of His Son, “to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Pp. 2:13) in unexpected or unmanufactured ways or, as is the case most often, in the ordinary miraculous ways of His Holy Mysteries. There is, beloved, the miracle of sinners being made saints, of baptismal regeneration, of being born again by the power from above (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3, 5-8; Rm. 8:14-17; Ga. 3:26-29; Ep. 1:5; Ts. 3:3-7). Who else but God can do such a thing? Notice how St. Peter “came down also to the saints who dwelt at Lydda.” These are not the glorified and canonized saints we venerate as the Church. These are the Tabithas in our midst whose lives are being so transformed and transfigured by Jesus Christ, that they testify to the power and the presence of God in their pious and devout lives which they live in the most ordinary ways doing good, making coats and garments, praying for the needs of their neighbors, worshipping God at every chance. Such ordinary saints are indispensable to the Church and to the Kingdom of God the Church radiates.
There is the miracle of Holy Unction, of the healing grace bestowed for the healing of soul and body. There is the miracle of repentance and reconciliation (known commonly as Confession and Absolution). Who but God can forgive sins? And yet, He Himself has invested His Church and her priests with His own authority to effect a miracle when the forgiveness of sins is announced to the penitent soul (Mt. 16:18-19; Jn. 20:22-23). There is the miracle of two – a man and a woman – becoming one flesh in Holy Marriage, an icon of wonder in the midst of this increasingly benighted world, an icon of the Bride and her divine Bridegroom (Gn. 2:18-25; Ep. 5:22-33). There is the miracle of ordination when our Lord confers on those in Holy Orders His own authority to act and to speak in Persona Christi – in the Person of Jesus Christ Himself (Mt. 16:18-19; Jn. 20:22-23).
And, then, there is the miracle par excellence, the miracle that is both the source and the summit or the fulfillment, completion, and perfection of all the other Mysteries – the Holy Eucharist – the miracle of the very and true Body and Blood of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. His Flesh is true Food and His Blood is true Drink given and received for the remission of sins and unto Life Everlasting (Jn. 6:51-58; Divine Liturgy). Every Sunday, and more often, this miracle of the Altar is a reality for us and we treat it as though it were nothing so special, as merely common bread and wine.
Miracles, beloved, just as is everything in the Church, are not about us. They are all about our God Who shows Himself to be One God in Three Persons – “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! The Trinity, one in essence, and undivided!” (Divine Liturgy). And, if God should do something so miraculous as raising a Tabitha from the dead or healing a paralytic, then so be it. Let it be so. Let us expect such things and offer up our todah, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, to Him Who alone does wonders. For Who is so great a god as our God (Ps. 76 :13-14)? Such miracles are icing on the cake to be thoroughly enjoyed, delighted in, relished, and savored. But, the icing is not the cake.
And, what of the miracles we commonly chalk up to “luck” or “fate” or “coincidence”? Miracles, beloved, cannot be analyzed or compartmentalized or isolated for future study and experimentation. Miracles are miracles and happen when we least expect them, somewhat along the lines in both the Gospel today and in Acts. Jesus pays a visit to the Sheep Pool by the gate and of all those sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed, one man is blessed with a miracle (Jn. 5:1-15). It is a mystery that defies explanation. Peter is carrying out his apostolic duties and comes across the paralytic named Aeneas. And, it becomes Aeneas’ day for a miracle. And yet, had that providential day not come, his prayer no doubt would have been in Orthodox fashion this, as found in our prayer books:
O Christ my God, Lord of life and death, Master of times and seasons, Thou art He Who loosed the barrenness of Sarah Thy foremother, Hannah the Prophetess, and Anna Thy grandmother, even in their old age; and Who allowed Nebuchadnezzar to suffer seven years of madness before delivering him for the sake of the glory of Thy praise: therefore, although I have suffered and continue to suffer . . ., yet I do not give up hope of being healed from this infirmity. And if I must suffer from it still longer, or even to my last hour and breath, yet, O my Jesus, I do not despair, but instead ask Thee always to support me by Thy mighty hand, helping me to bear this Cross, following Thee to Golgotha. And grant that, through the suffering of the present age, I may attain to the incomparable joy of the Resurrection unto Life, where sickness, sorrow, and sighing are no more (Orthodox Christian Prayers, p. 130).
Such faith and devotion are themselves indeed miraculous, not to be de-valued nor underestimated!
Through the prayers of Thy Mother, our Lady Theotokos; by the power of Thy precious and Life-giving Cross; through the protection of the Archangel Raphael; through the prayers of the venerable Pimen the Much-Ailing of the Kiev Caves, of all the holy unmercenaries, and of all Thy saints, [O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.] Amen (Orthodox Christian Prayers, p. 130).
Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!