Saturday, April 23, 2011

Christ the Lord is Risen Today

A man was walking on the beach on Easter Sunday, deep in prayer. Then God spoke to him saying that because it was Easter, and he had always been faithful, one miracle would be granted to him. “Great!” The man said, “I want a bridge to Hawaii, so I can drive there whenever I want.”

God said, “Too materialistic, too difficult, and it would take too many natural resources. Think of something else.”

The man thought for a time, then said, “All right, Lord. For my miracle, I want to be able to understand my wife, know her feelings and read her mind. I want to know what she wants without her telling me. And I want to know what’s going on whenever she gives me the silent treatment then insists that nothing is wrong.”

The Lord was silent for a moment, then replied, “You want two lanes or four lanes on that bridge?”[1]

Easter is the day that Christians around the world celebrate the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I want reflect with you about this Easter is the concept of miracles in the New testament, and how it relates to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Some miracles are easy to understand, like coincidences which bring positive results. Who hasn’t had that experience? You need an answer to prayer, and it appears from a source you never imagined. Unity people call that Divine Order, also grace. Sometimes healing occurs when medical science says it can’t happen. Sometimes people forgive and forget. Sometimes old wounds are finally healed. Miracles are unexpected events which cause a surge in faith.

The New Testament has three Greek words which can be translated as miracle: terata, dynameis, and semeia. Each word conveys a different sense of the miraculous.

The word terata literally means “wonders” and suggests feelings of amazement caused by the event. Terata is the word used to describe the amazement of the crowds when Jesus spoke his wisdom, or the amazing conversion of Saul the persecutor into Paul the great Apostle to the gentiles. It doesn’t require a supernatural event. Just something astonishing which shows the presence and power of God.

Do you remember the lyrics from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song? ..

A hundred million miracles are happ’ning ev’ry day,
And those who say they don’t agree
Are those who do not hear or see.
A hundred million miracles are happ’ning ev’ry day. ..

In ev’ry single minute so much is going on,
Along the Yangtse Kiang or the Tiber or the Don.
A hundred million miracles! ..

A swallow in Tasmania is sitting on her eggs,
And suddenly those eggs have wings and eyes and beaks and legs!
A hundred million miracles! ..

A little girl in Chungking, just thirty inches tall,
Decides that she will try to walk and nearly doesn’t fall!
A hundred million miracles!

Are happening every day.[2]

That is the sense of terata—everyday events which, when properly noticed, show the miraculous nature of life.

The second Greek word, dynameis, means power. You can hear it in the word itself—dynameis, sounds like the English word dynamo. This is the classical understanding of a miracle as a mighty act of divine power. Jesus calms the sea. Jesus curses the fig tree, which withers. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. By choosing a form of the word dynameis, the author of the passage wants you to know that “no natural power could bring it to pass in any manner or form whatsoever, as e.g., the raising to life of the widow’s son (Luke 7), or the cure of the man born blind (John 9).”[3]

Modern scholars are skeptical of the historical basis for events which present dynameis. It all began with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In July of 1838 Emerson, who was a Unitarian minister, was asked to speak to the student body at Harvard Divinity School. He arose that warm summer night and delivered a devastating blow to orthodox religion by challenging the idea that Christianity is built on miracles. Here is Emerson describing the message of Jesus:

He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends.  But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.  It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.[4]

That has been the one of the critiques of thinking people since the early years of Christianity. Does the faith of Jesus rest upon a series of super-natural events, or, to borrow Emerson’s poetic phrase, is it, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain”?

The New Testament authors struggled with this question, too. Listen to Matthew’s description:

41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42’He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

Most commentators today are more comfortable with miracle as terata, meaning wonder, than as the suspension of natural laws by dynameis, or power, which requires the action of a super-natural God. There is something about the suspension of the natural order which smacks of magic. Even though we laughed at the story about the man who wanted a bridge to Hawaii, God is not a genie granting wishes. Metaphysical Christianity does not attempt to get God to do anything which the divine power would not ordinarily do. We attempt to open ourselves to the good which God is continually showering upon us.

The final Greek word used for miracle is semeia, which means sign. Not sign like “Do Not Enter” or “Yield Right of Way”, the word semeia as sign is “an appeal to intelligence, and expresses the purpose or final cause of the miracle.”[5] However, far too often the demand for a sign from God leaned toward a requirement for a miraculous event. The Apostle Paul complained:

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Miracle, as understood by the word semeia, points to a meaning beyond itself. Not just raw power or astonishment, the miracle says, “This is what God is like.” It is less like magic and more like metaphysics.

Now we come to the empty tomb and Easter. And all three words come into play. Surely there is great astonishment, there is the revelation of great power, and the sign of God’s handiwork. But what happened? I think we can link three possibilities to the three Greek words.

o Terata – It was an experience of wonderment.

§ Visionary experiences of resurrection

§ Encountering Jesus in dreams, meditation, prayer, and personal encounters.

o Dynameis - It was an experience of divine power.

§ Physical Resurrection—perhaps so.

§ Angelic testimonies…who knows for sure?

o Semeia - It was an experience of signs from God.

§ Spiritual/psychological resurrection

§ Disciples gathered their strength and courage and saw in the events of the crucifixion the presence and power of God despite appearances to the contrary.

§ The community rose from the dead; they knew Jesus was eternally alive in their hearts.

Actual historical truth? We’ll never know. But we do know that the small band of powerless disciples went forth with utter fearlessness, and within four centuries they had conquered the Roman world. Mark’s gospel records it simply, and the old ending to the oldest gospel leaves everything up in the air.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ “ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8 (NRSV)

If a miracle is an unexpected event which causes a surge in faith, whatever happened that first Easter certainly qualifies. Perhaps even Emerson would agree. I can find my biography,” he wrote, “in every fable that I read.”[6]

[1] Paraphrased and adapted from “The Lighter Side of Talking with God” at

[2] “A Hundred Million Miracles” excerpted from Flower Drum Song by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, (accessed 04-22-11).

[3] Catholic Encyclopedia online, (accessed 04-22-11).

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” July 15, 1838, (accessed 04-23-11).

[5] Catholic Encyclopedia online.

[6] Ralph Waldo Emerson

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