“Immediately [after feeding the five thousand, Jesus] made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” (Matthew 14:22-23a, NRSVue)
Whenever I encounter the miracles of Jesus in reading the Gospels, Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founding fathers and the third president of the United States, immediately comes to mind. Jefferson had a complicated relationship with Christianity, admiring its moral and ethical teachings but dismissing any supernatural occurrences favoring a more rationalistic view of humans in the natural world. In practice, Jefferson was a Deist who believed in God but viewed God as distant and inactive in daily life. Jefferson’s personal Bible, which he studied regularly, had all the miracles of Jesus physically cut from the book, leaving only the moral teachings of Jesus as a basis for his belief. I pity Jefferson’s limited view of God’s miraculous power to heal and save.
On the other hand, I empathize with Jefferson’s commitment to reason, even as he doubts God’s miraculous interventions in our lives. My empathy arises from having prayed hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, for the healing of those under my care, only to preside at their funerals when our prayers were unanswered. It’s a mystery why God miraculously heals some people while others suffer and eventually die. Maybe Jefferson had a similar experience and concluded that it was easier to believe in God if God didn’t do miracles. Despite Jefferson’s conclusion, I still believe in Jesus’ miracle, admittedly struggling with the randomness of when God chooses to intervene.
Just after Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000 men in Matthew 14 (+ women and children, according to Matthew’s meticulous record-keeping), Jesus sent his disciples across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and he went up a nearby mountain to pray. It would have been easy for him to heal indiscriminately to get people to follow him. Jesus also knew that if people only responded to him when he performed miracles, they would likely fall away when they no longer needed something from him. Retreating to the mountain was his way of reconnecting with his Father, who would help him keep his ministry of teaching, healing, and saving in perspective. Jesus wasn’t about the short-term gratification of people’s needs—he knew God’s plan included a long-term strategy for bringing about his Kingdom.
This week, I’m preaching on “Reasonable Doubt or Unreasonable Faith.” It’s a sermon on the essence of faith and how we can increase our faith despite being unable to prove our beliefs. Rather than seeing doubt as the antithesis of faith, we’ll treat doubt as a tool for us to use in growing an ever-deepening faith. I hope to see you on Sunday, and don’t forget to bring your friends!