2nd Sunday of Easter
Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles.
In the Gospel of St. John, chapter 14, after speaking about the wonders He has performed, which testify to His Divine Sonship, Jesus then goes on to say to his Apostles: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Now, in today’s first reading from Acts, we are told that great miraculous power was operating through Peter and the Apostles in the first days of the Church, and we are told that people carried “the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.” The power of miracles, manifesting the mercy of God, was thus accompanying the early preaching of the Gospel, confirming the message as coming from God, and the Church was adding great numbers daily, and the authorities of Jerusalem were disturbed enough to begin a persecution that would drive the Apostles out of Jerusalem to evangelize the world.
But were these great acts of mercy accomplished by the miraculous power operating Peter and others what Jesus was speaking about when he said those who believed in Him would do greater works than these marvelous acts of mercy which Jesus Himself performed to testify to His person and mission? The answer surely has to be no, for the gift of miracles is definitely not given to all who have faith in Jesus. In fact, this charismatic gift is given only to a very few, and yet Jesus says simply that all “those who believe in Him” will be capable of greater works than these iracles. What then does Jesus mean by this promise?
The answer has to be found in the very first words Jesus spoke to His Apostles after the Resurrection in the upper room:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.”
The world has radically changed with the Resurrection of Jesus, for he pours forth His Spirit on the whole Church, beginning with the Apostles, who will, by the power of the Spirit, in fact do greater works than such physical miracles. They also will certainly be gifted with miraculous powers by the Spirit, as we see in the Book of Acts. But notice that Jesus does not say in today’s Gospel “Receive the Spirit and now go forth and perform miracles,” but he says “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”
In truth, the forgiveness of sins is a greater work of divine mercy by far than the greatest physical miracles, including raising people physically from the dead, as Jesus did. It is the same power of the Spirit that makes both kinds of works possible, the physical miracle and the spiritual work such as the forgiveness of sins, but the greater work and the greater power by far is the spiritual act of mercy, as in the forgiveness’ of sins.
That fact is confirmed even by the Pharisees who were scandalized when Jesus forgave sins. Recall their words; “no one can forgive sins but God alone!” Thus, there is now a whole new order in creation when it comes to power and great works of mercy. Indeed, the Apostles will also perform other “greater works” when they transform bread and wine in the body and blood of the God-man so that Christ’s sacrifice may be offered perpetually to God, and we God’s children may be fed with the Bread of Angels. These stupendous works of the Spirit are now being accomplished through mere men, and these spiritual works far surpass all works of man whether they be the natural wonders of science or technology or the supernatural works of miracles performed by Christ and those he empowers after his resurrection. For, it is the Spirit’s divine power that works all these supernatural wonders, whether they be the miraculous cures of the Apostles or other miracle workers, or the even greater spiritual, sacramental works that will be performed by the Apostles, and in a different way participated by those who receive these sacraments of grace. These works not only communicate greater gifts to men, but they also confirm the truth that the spiritual order is superior to the material order, and that a new creation if being established by invisible power manifested in visible signs.
Unfortunately most people, perhaps even most Christians ,still do not really understand or believe that it is a far greater work to forgive sins and to confect or receive the Eucharist in which one communicates in the Life of grace than to work some physical miracle that men can see and experience in the visible world. Understandably, people are naturally more drawn to these visible miracles than to the unseen miracles of grace. Even Jesus Himself had to limit his miracles lest people should be drawn to him simply for their own sake, and not to receive the greater gift, the greater work he had come to do for them, the gifts of God’s Spirit and Eternal Life. And the Church too, while she would have this gift of miracles more intensely at the beginning, would have it less widely as time went on, lest men should be drawn to the Church not for supernatural, spiritual gifts but these lesser wonders in the physical order of human life.
Only faith can discern the greater gift of Jesus and the Spirit, the gift of Eternal Life that comes through the remission of sins. Only faith can discern the greater power manifested in the sacramental forgiveness of sins than even in raising the dead back to their natural life. For what is the forgiveness of sins but the raising of a man who is dead in the spiritual order by virtue of sin to share the very Life of God, that is to an infinitely greater form of life than life in this world. And that is the power that Jesus gave to the Apostles and His Church when he rose from the dead and breathed on them the Spirit who if the very source of His own risen Life.
As mentioned above, The Church today does not seem to have the same degree of the gift of miracles as did the Apostles. The Pope does not go around the world healing the sick, curing the blind, etc. And yet the Church continues to perform the greater works Jesus foretold in John’s Gospel. In Baptism, she remits Original Sin and raises the spiritually dead to Life in Christ, to a Life that will finds its fulfillment in the Resurrection of the body, just as the soul was raised to life in Baptism. And Baptism can be performed not just by the priest, but by all the faithful in danger of death. There you see in one way how anyone who believes in Jesus, can perform a greater work than a miracle, when the Church permits it, in this case in danger of death.
But what about the laity, do they also do greater works of divine mercy, even though they do not receive the power to forgive sins, confect the Eucharist, anoint the Sick, and so on? Well, in at least one sacrament, Matrimony, the Church teaches that the bridegroom and Bride actually confer the Sacrament on each other. The priest or deacon is simply a necessary witness but not the minister of that sacrament. It is the couple who minister the sacrament which is a supernatural work that confers grace on them.
Likewise, every penitent actually participates in effecting the efficacious sign of confession; they so by the very act of confession of their sins in sorrow, without which confession there can be no sacramental sign and thus no gift of grace. The same can be said for the reception of of the Eucharist. St Thomas Aquinas taught that the reception itself is an act of the priestly power received in Baptism, the power which makes the reception effective and without which the spiritual grace of the gift is not received.
Moreover, parents perform a greater work of mercy in transmitting the faith to their children than they would in performing a physical miracle or any merely human work in this world. It is a supernatural power of faith that is productive of the communication the faith to others.
Truly, then, everyone who believes in Christ can do greater works than miracles, and many Christians do so on a daily basis. Every time they receive the Lord in Communion, every time they confess their sins they do a greater work than any miracle. Every time they help to strengthen another’s faith or perform a true work of charity, they do the greater works of mercy Jesus was speaking about to the Apostles. This is the new order things that Christ began on Easter Sunday, a whole new Life for His faithful, a Life of unseen miracles of grace, which are far, far more numerous and far, far greater in substance than even the physical miracles of Jesus. Those miracles, at best, could only restore man’s natural life; the miracles of grace raise a man to a Life that never ends, to a share in the Life of the Triune God. May Jesus Christ be blessed now and forever, Amen.