Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Miracles of Jesus: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know BEFORE Confirmation.

The other day, while walking home from church, my son asked me if I ever wonder whether or not the things in the Bible actually happened. 

He said, “ the story of the bush that was on fire and didn’t burn. That just can’t happen.” 

I told him that yes, there are some things in the Bible that are hard to explain and hard to understand AND which seem impossible to us. But the Bible is not just a story of what is possible for us, but there are also parts that tell us about things that are only possible for God to do. 

He wasn’t all that satisfied with this I tried again.

I told him that I can’t really understand everything that happened in the Bible, but what I know is true and I know is real is that these stories were important to the people who came before us. They told these stories to teach each other about God, and this means that we continue to teach them and hear them, and they should still be important for us today. 

This, for some reason, made him feel much better. He could understand the real people who told these miraculous stories even when the miracles themselves were too hard to understand. 

Often when we teach the stories of the miraculous works of Jesus Christ from the gospels, both teachers and students get caught up in the plausibility or the probability of each one. We try to figure out how you fillet a fish into that many parts rather than trying to find the meaning behind a story of abundance. 

Confirmation is the perfect time to really wrestle with the miraculous moments in scripture - especially those done at the hands (and feet) of Jesus. When students have been taught the stories of Jesus’ miracles as younger children, they have had time to integrate the details into their understanding of who Jesus was. In Confirmation they can then wrestle with their faith in Jesus as a miracle worker and the question of what they can do when the miracles seem too hard to believe. 

Can you believe in Jesus without believing in miracles?  For some the answer will be yes. For some it will be no. For some students this will not be a pivotal moment in their year of discernment, but for others this may be the lynch pin that helps them make an informed decision about their faith. These conversations require time to be devoted to this deep exploration and practice in struggling with our faith. This is why it is vital that all students come ready to have these conversations and knowing the following stories from all four of the gospels. 

51. Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44)
We actually do a pretty good job overall in teaching miracle stories to our children either at home or in Sunday school - and especially this miraculous feeding story found in Mark, Matthew and Luke. While each gospel has its own twists on the story, the basic premiss is the same: Jesus has been teaching at length to a large crowd of people, and when the time has come for them to eat there is not enough food. The disciples urge Jesus to send the people to go find food on their own. Jesus urges the disciples to take the meager supplies they have and make it stretch to feed the masses. I have written before on this particular miracle and how we talk to children about it here. 

In Confirmation class a miracle story like this is especially interesting to talk about, because there are many interpretations and some reasonable explanations about what might have happened. Some argue that the miracle in this story is not that something was created from out of thin air, but that in seeing the generosity of the disciples, others pulled out what they had brought, and it turned out that instead of the perception of scarcity the crowd was astonished by the reality of abundance. It is a lovely way to try to explain away a miracle, and so it is important to not teach this interpretation as fact, because students will cling to it a little too easily. Miracles are supposed to make us uncomfortable, and you shouldn’t ease that burden too quickly. Instead, you can pull from this interpretation the valuable concepts of scarcity and abundance and talk about what it means that Jesus tells us that we are to live abundantly.

52. Walking on Water (Matthew 14:22-23)
I think many of these miracle stories are so prevalent in children’s Sunday school because they make wonderful visual images. In Matthew’s version of this story (which occurs immediately following the above feeding miracle) the disciples have been sent away from Jesus to spend the night on their fishing boat while Jesus spends solitary time in prayer. Jesus comes out to them on the boat, walking on the surface of the water.  At first they mistake him for a ghost; then Peter (always wanting to be the most faithful) asks Jesus to call him out so that he too can walk on the water. When Peter inevitably sinks, Jesus chides him, “ye of little faith,” and we are left to wonder what exactly Jesus was trying to achieve through this violation of the laws of physics. 

One of the things that we often forget in this time of waning biblical literacy is that there are many expressions in the English language that come directly from the Bible, and their meaning is colored by the stories from which they are taken. Two come from this story. Characterizing someone as being able to walk on water has become a way of describing someone who is perfect, someone who can do no wrong, someone who is beyond all other people. In Confirmation we talk about what it means that Jesus was human and divine at the same time. Were these kind of sensational miracles a way to remind readers of the gospels of this?  Yes, Jesus was human in that sometimes he just needed a little alone time to rest from the pushing in of the crowds and the whining of his disciples, but lest you think he is fallible, here he is walking on water to remind you that he is also divine. 

The second phrase that is pulled from this story is Jesus’ comment to Peter - O ye of little faith. In Confirmation we can really wrestle with what Jesus meant by this. Did he mean that if only Peter were more faithful, he too would be able to walk on water? Did he mean that if Peter had more faith, then Jesus would have been able to help him walk on water? Did he just mean - as we tell all children when they are learning to swim - that they just need to trust themselves, and they will float in the water and not drown? 

53. The Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45)
This story, found only in the Gospel of John, is one of the weirdest in all of the gospels. In John’s gospel, Jesus has a particularly close relationship with Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. This is why it seems especially strange when, upon hearing of Lazarus’ poor condition, Jesus waits to go to him until he has died. It does allow for a wonderful scene between Jesus and the sisters and occasion for what many students have come to know as the shortest verse in all of scripture - “Jesus wept.” Jesus goes to the tomb, asks for the stone to be removed, and calls Lazarus to wake up and come out - which he obediently does. 

This story provides a wealth of questions to pose in a Confirmation class, both because of its weirdness and John’s particular way of telling it. In Confirmation class we can take a story that students might think they know and ask them to do a closer and slower reading of the story. When they do that, hopefully these are some of the questions they will have: Does Jesus really let Lazarus die just so he can perform this miracle of resurrection? Does God let bad things happen to us today just so we can later experience God’s grace? Why does Jesus weep if he knows that Lazarus will be resurrected? Does God weep at our loses with us? Is God affected by our pain as Jesus was affected by the sadness of Mary and Martha? Does Jesus sometimes do things just for show - just for the spectacle?

54. Water into Wine (John 2:1-11)
Like the story of Jesus walking on water, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding seems a little out of sync with the other miraculous deeds he performs. What is the lesson to be taken from a miracle about restocking the open bar at a party? Jesus, his disciples and his mother are in attendance at a local wedding, and when the wine is just about to run out Mary comes to Jesus to compel him to solve the problem. Jesus’ response to his mother is often read as being a little rude, but he complies and turns several containers of water into superior wine. 

I never understand why couples choose this story as a passage to be read at their own wedding, since it doesn’t address the idea of marriage at all; it is, though, a great springboard for a Confirmation class to discuss the uniqueness of the Gospel of John. John is all about signs and miracles (including the raising of Lazarus mentioned above). It is both a great way to teach students that each gospel has its own color and theological perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus and to help them talk about what kinds of signs we recognize in our world today. Are there signs that Christ is coming again? Are there signs that God is at work in the world? Are there signs that the Holy Spirit is still among us today? Who gets to recognize these signs and who interprets them?

55. The Healing of the Paralytic (Luke 5:17-26)
There are numerous stories of healing miracles in the Gospels, but we tend to teach children this one more often, because it involves a group of friends. Often healing stories are just about Jesus and the sick person, or Jesus and the blind man, but in this story Jesus is not the only one who acts. Here a group of men take action to secure healing for their friend by extraordinary means. Jesus is teaching in a home that is packed full, and yet these men know that Jesus is the only hope their paralyzed friend has for healing. So they choose to take him up (prone on his bed) to the roof of the house, pull open a hole in the tiles, and lower him down to Jesus. Jesus witnesses the faith of the friends, and upon the forgiveness of his sins the man is healed. 

This story opens up a lot of questions about how faith, prayer and healing all work together in our lives today. We pray for our friends and family when they are sick and dying. We talk about the power of prayer and the support we give each other in prayer. Yet unlike the faith and intercession these men make on behalf of their friend, which compels Jesus to offer healing, our faith and our prayer is sometimes not enough. This can lead to questions about how we experience Jesus today. Does the risen Christ still work miracles of healing? We thank God when someone gets better; should we curse God when they don’t? 

Miracles are hard to understand, hard to believe, and hard to find. It can take just one miracle not given or one moment when Jesus seems late to the party, for a person to struggle with their faith and their understanding not just of how Jesus acted 2,000 years ago, but how God acts in our lives and in our world today. 

We throw the word miracle around all the time. In Confirmation class students can gain valuable tools to bring to these hard but inevitable conversations and struggles, but only if they come to class primed to have these important conversations.


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