Miracles, trust, and the path to true belief

The presence of Peter the Denier and even of Judas, the betrayer, at the end of Chapter 6 of John's Gospel, is a striking note of hope. Our natural inclination is to turn and leave, avoid the problematic call, and avoid the cross. Yet the world, the spirit, and the Father continue to call, enlighten, and draw us to life.

Image by Robert Cheaib

Miracles, trust, and the path to true belief

By Ron Bruni

Saturday of the Third Week of Easter
Acts 9:31-42
John 6:60-69

Today's readings include verses from the Acts of the  Apostles, and we will continue to have sections from Luke's acts for 50 days through the ascension of our Lord to Pentecost Sunday, which is seven full weeks after Easter Sunday. The Acts of the Apostles is a second volume of Luke's two-volume work, and it continues Luke's presentation of biblical history in which he shows how the salvation promised to Israel in the Old Testament and accomplished by Jesus has now, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, been extended to the Gentiles. He does this utilizing a broad narrative of the church's development from the resurrection of Jesus to Paul's first Roman imprisonment, the point at which the book ends. 

We are witnessing the emergence of Christianity from its origins in Judaism to its position as a religion of worldwide appeal. This progression was accomplished through the divinely chosen representatives Jesus prepared during his historical ministry and commissioned after his resurrection as witnesses to all he taught. However, we hear very little of the actions of most of the apostles; only the stories centered around the roles of Peter and Paul are given in Acts. 

Further, it shows that Peter was the leading member of the 12, a miracle worker like Jesus, the object of divine care, and the spokesman for the Christian community. According to Luke, Peter was primarily responsible for the growth of the community in the early days until  Paul eventually joined the community in Antioch, which subsequently commissioned Paul and Barnabas to undertake the spread of the gospel to Asia minor.

Today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles occurred during religious optimism for the apostles. The Bible says, "The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace." The primarily Gentile populace was preached to, and they gradually grew in the fear and belief of the Lord and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, grew in numbers. We hear that as Peter was passing through the region of Lydda, he found a man named Aeneas, who had been confined to his bed for eight years, paralyzed. Peter told him, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed." He got up at once, and all the inhabitants of Lida and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. 

Peter's statement to Aeneas carries symbolic significance in multiple dimensions, highlighting the divinity of Christ, the holistic nature of healing, the call to active participation in one's spiritual journey, and the power of testimony to witness God's grace and mercy to others.

Peter was then summoned to Joppa, a city near Lydda, where the people were mourning the death of one of their beloved members —Tabatha — also known as Dorcas. She had been very active in that church, and so they were grieving for her intensely. When Peter arrived at the house where her body was, he sent them all out, knelt and prayed, and  then, he turned to her body and said, "Tabatha, rise." Tabitha immediately opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her. He presented her as alive to her friends. 

The sequence of events described in Peter's resurrection of Dorcas carries symbolic significance, particularly in the order of actions following Peter's words, with each action representing spiritual truths. Opening her eyes could symbolize her spiritual awakening; seeing Peter symbolizes recognizing Christ's authority; and sitting up symbolizes restoration to life and vitality. Together, these actions illustrate the transformative power of God's grace in the hope of new life in Christ. Like the miracles performed by Jesus during his earthly ministry, the curing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas from the dead illustrate the authority and power bestowed upon Peter by the Holy Spirit. They underscore Peter's role as a leader in the early Christian church.

The Gospel reading for today is from John 6:60-69. Wwe see Gospel readings from John interspersed throughout the year during times of particular importance and in the middle of cycle B (Mark) readings. This reading is within the Bread of Life discourse in John's Gospel, a relatively long dissertation where Christ presents and expounds on the Bread of Life, which is at the heart of His ministry. It occurs just after the miracles of the multiplication of the loaves and the walking on the water.

Chapter 6 begins with a vast crowd that needs to be fed and is still interested enough to track down Jesus across the lake but soon becomes disenchanted and grumbling.  Jesus, continuing His discourse, presents himself as the "bread of life" that nourishes the soul. This metaphorical language emphasizes the importance of spiritual sustenance and the need for individuals to seek fulfillment beyond mere physical needs. Those who heard these words from Jesus take them literally and go off, confused and disappointed. Even many of his disciples who stay around to the long sermon, in the end, cannot accept it. At the end of the chapter, only 12 are left, and one will eventually betray Jesus.

Throughout this chapter's discussion about the bread that gives life, Jesus's words have been greeted with misunderstanding, confusion, and objection from the crowd, referred to either simply as "they" or "the Jews." The text says, "This saying is hard. Who can accept it?" Even his disciples, his closest associates, are bothered by what Jesus has said. The metaphorical language used by Jesus may have been complex for some to comprehend, leading to confusion and doubt among the listeners.

It's one thing to write off the rest of the crowd as stubborn and obtuse, but having it occur in the disciples is close to home. So here, the problem seems less that the disciples need help understanding what Jesus is saying; they know pretty well but cannot believe and follow what Jesus has said. Jesus says, "The spirit gives life, while the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life, but some do not believe."

Jesus's statement that the "flesh" is useless cannot be read as a rejection of bodily life or denial of creation's goodness. After all, this is the gospel that joyfully declared that "the Word became flesh" (1:14). Rather, "flesh" here indicates the usual way of seeing reality, the way of viewing life judged to be sensible by the world, which cannot see that the eternal life comes through the triumph of Jesus on the cross and which cannot believe that the way to life is by participating in the death of Jesus. Only the spirit can give life by making faith possible. In verses 63-65, Jesus points to his own words as life, to the Spirit as the one who gives life, and to the Father who brings people to Jesus. Faith itself is here presented as the work of the triune God.

And so, the  issue raised in this text revolves around a division between those who believe and those who do not. The pain of unbelief is found among us and within us, as reflected in this text, both in those disciples who leave and those who stay to betray Jesus. When Jesus asks Peter and the remaining Apostles, "Do you also want to leave?"  Peter's response to Jesus is not a word of despair or discouragement nor a statement that they must settle for Jesus because there is nothing else. Instead, Peter's heartfelt and sincere reply is to the contrary, not surprisingly, since Peter and the others who remain have been given the gift of knowing that Jesus is the one who can provide genuine life. 

The paradox remains elsewhere in this chapter: faith only comes as the Father draws us, and yet Peter and the others (and we, too) are asked for our response. Peter and the other 12 "chose" to remain, yet the greater and prior reality is that they have been chosen. Supposed solutions to the paradox do not answer the mystery of faith and unbelief but a grateful confession that the Father has indeed drawn us to faith in Jesus and thus to eternal life. Yet God is working life amid apparent failure and rejection. 

The church is still called to see that it is in such places that the world of life is doing its work around us, among us, and within us. The presence of Peter the Denier and even of Judas, the betrayer, at the end of this text, is a striking note of hope. Our natural inclination is to turn and leave, avoid the problematic call, and avoid the cross. Yet the world, the Spirit, and the Father continue to call, enlighten, and draw us to life.

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