A Stumbling Block
This is part of our No Longer Sola Series.
A stumbling block for me on the road to Orthodoxy was miracles. You can’t investigate Orthodoxy seriously without encountering the lives of the saints; they’re everywhere, and most of them involve miracles. There is even a designated title for those saints who are given the gift of performing miracles. They are called “wonderworkers”.
While I certainly never took issue with Biblical miracles I was always a skeptic about miracles happening today. I wanted to believe that God could still work this way, but the churches I grew up in gave me the impression that miracles were limited to the Biblical times and now God only wants to deal with us by reading the Bible.
In Orthodox writings about God’s grace I encountered a way of understanding a couple of Biblical texts that I was aware of previously but had simply read as a records of miracles, not as texts that teach anything profound. The two texts I kept coming across were Acts 19:12 and 2 Kings 13:21
11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out. - Acts 19
20 Elisha died, and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet. - 2 Kings
As a Lutheran I had no trouble believing that God worked through means. The Word of God, Holy Baptism, and Communion were commonly called “the Means of Grace”. God works through people to proclaim His Word, He uses water in Baptism, He makes the bread and the wine become His True Body and True Blood. Basically, God has no problem using His material creation to convey His grace to us.
But the grace I had come to know in Lutheranism was not an actual "thing". It was not the uncreated energies of God poured out generously on His Creation. Rather it was a theological construct, a proclamation of God’s unmerited kindness or favor towards us. It was an idea of who God is, what He does and how He "feels" - His attitude, but not an actual encounter of God or a participation in God.
Of course Lutherans have a place for encountering God (in the sacraments), but they don't call that grace. Grace is specifically understood as God’s disposition towards man. There was no room in my theological construct for how Orthodoxy understands these two texts and their teaching on grace; it was a totally new framework.
Here is how the Orthodox Church understands the texts. The handkerchiefs or aprons had been in contact with Paul’s body. God’s grace (which Paul had) was transferred from him to those objects because they had touched Paul. This issue of God’s grace being communicated to people and objects is a key to understanding the Orthodox tradition of venerating the bodies of saints and items saints had been in contact with. These bodies and items are most commonly called relics.
The example of Elisha’s bones reviving a dead man after he came into contact with them is a clear Old Testament example of the same thing. The Body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and as such it is also a place where God’s grace dwells.
If these two are not enough we also know that Jesus, as recorded in Mark 5, healed a woman with an issue of blood. The woman of course didn’t even touch Jesus Himself, only the edge of His clothes and she found healing. Jesus, being fully God and Man at the same time, can do this by nature.
So, how did Paul and Elisha’s bones do the same thing? They did it by grace. The saints can share in the works of God by His grace. While I appreciated the miraculous nature of those accounts as a Lutheran, I was missing the point. The Bible itself teaches about God and how He works in the world by grace. Figuring out this understanding helped me to make sense of the lives of the saints and how the Church the Church continues to preserve God’s work through these men and women.
Once I encountered this actual living reality of the grace of God I could finally begin to get over my skepticism. Miracles were not only for the Apostles; they are for all of us, because God's grace is for all of us. There are many Orthodox accounts of miraculous occurrences even today, even in America! We are not excluded from God's grace, and He will work in us and among us if we allow Him. God is gentle and does not force us to believe or to walk with Him, but if we choose that path we leave room for God to work. We open up the doors to do "even greater things than these".