2 Kings 4: 42-44; Ps 145. 10-19; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6:1 -21
In the past I have spoken about the story of the feeding of the 5000, so, I was a bit taken aback to find that the main Bible reading again related to that story; so today I will be asking you to think about the second part of the story where Jesus comes to his disciples when they are in trouble on the lake.
Just over two weeks ago the country was gripped with the Football World Cup fever, and even Veronica featured it in her sermon. Our team did well, but had they returned with the trophy I am sure that one of the newspaper headlines would have said that Gareth Southgate, or the winning goal scorer ‘walks on water’, acknowledging an almost superhuman performance. But that success in the world cup did not quite happen.
‘Walking on water’ has become an accepted sign of divinity since the evangelists recorded this story -which is exactly why they wrote it down. But the water he walked on was no ‘millpond’. Jesus was seen, striding across a tempestuous sea.
Now I believe in miracles. I believe in the really big ones, the Incarnation and the Resurrection; I believe that Jesus healed the sick and cured the lame, the blind, the deaf, the dumb. I believe in miracles, but I do not believe in magic; there is no place for magic in the Christian faith.
When it comes to the ‘nature miracles’, however, I have to pause and wonder; but I’ll keep an open mind.
You have heard me speak about Bishop Tom Wright, and he has written the book ‘John for Everyone’. The book is a very easy to read commentary on the Gospel of John and in it the bishop says he believes that St. John has already made it clear that this chapter is to be all about the Exodus, and so when we have this scene of Jesus walking on the water we should be prepared to understand it as part of the same story. The children of Israel began their journey to freedom by coming through the Red Sea, with the waters parting before them but closing again on their pursuers. It was, of course, Moses who led the way through the Red Sea, and the crowds have just declared that Jesus is ‘the prophet who should come into the world’ – the prophet, that is, like Moses.
Now, even though the crowds have misunderstood what such a prophet might have come to do – they were looking for another act of political liberation, but Jesus was offering something far greater and deeper – Jesus nevertheless does something which the disciples, on subsequent reflection, are bound to see in terms of the Exodus story, the Passover story.
They would see it like this – not least because the Jewish people were not very keen on the sea. They were not much of a seafaring race, unlike the ancient Phoenicians to the north. In some of their ancient stories and Psalms, the sea was associated with chaos, evil, untameable forces within the natural or the spiritual world. True, they sang psalms which celebrated the fact that YHWH, their God, was king over the mighty waters. But small lakes can make big waves as we saw on the TV last weekend, when the Duck boat sank on a small lake in America with the loss of all those lives. So even the fishermen in the story, used to squalls on the Sea of Galilee, could find themselves not only in trouble but in real fear of their lives, as the sea would suddenly become rough, and chaos threatened to come again.
All of this is in the evangelist’s mind as he tells of how Jesus carried on praying on the mountain, away from the excited crowds, until late in the evening, while the disciples set off back to Capernaum in the boat. The lake is about twelve miles long by seven wide at its widest point, and it looks as though they had rowed, through the storm, most of the way back from the east side of the lake to Capernaum on the north side, when Jesus came to them walking on the water.
This event is recorded by Matthew and Mark as well as by John – with all three of them locating it immediately after the feeding of the multitude – and there is no way of rationalising it. (People have suggested that maybe Jesus was standing on a sand bank near the shore, or something equally unlikely). You either come to the story with a firm view of what is and isn’t possible in the world, which won’t allow any fresh evidence – which is not, perhaps, the best way of approaching a book like John, which is all about the challenge of the gospel to all existing world-views – or you come with at least an open mind to new possibilities as yet unimagined. This isn’t the same as being gullible, or credulous.
Nor are the extraordinary stories in the gospels designed, as some seem to have imagined, to portray Jesus as being able to do anything and everything, simply for the sake of making a supernatural display. They are there, rather, as moments in the text when the strange glory of the Word-made-flesh shines through, not so much because Jesus can do whatever he wants, but because this particular act is so closely associated with what Israel’s God does at a key moment in Israel’s history.
The reaction of the crowd is explained in detail in the next four verses.
22 The next day the crowd that had remained on the far side of the lake saw that there had only been the one boat there. They knew that Jesus hadn’t gone with his disciples, but that the disciples had set off by themselves.
23 But other boats came from Tiberius, near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
24 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him beside the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
John wants us to understand the fact that not only had the disciples seen what had happened but also that the crowds were puzzled. They knew Jesus hadn’t set off on the boat, and yet when they managed to get to the other side of the lake they found he’d already arrived in Capernaum. Last week, the Revd Rob Wardle told us about his night walk around the north-east side of the lake, so it is easier to understand that it would have been difficult for Jesus to make the journey by land in that time.
As so often, John leaves us with their puzzled question, to which Jesus will now give what seems an even more puzzling answer. This story of Jesus’ walking on the water can easily be used as a theme for meditation.
There are many times in our lives – and we never know when they will strike – when, metaphorically speaking, suddenly the wind gets up and the sea becomes rough. As we struggle to make our way through, sometimes we are aware of a presence with us, which may initially be more disturbing than comforting. (We may think ‘We’re already nearly drowning, and now we’ve got ghosts following us!’) But if we listen, through the roar of the waves and the wind, we may hear the voice that says, ‘It is me – don’t be afraid’. And if we are ready then to take Jesus on board, we may find ourselves, sooner than we expected, at the harbour where we will be calm and secure once more.
Remember, God in Christ is with you; even in the deepest darkness.
Do not be afraid.
God’s Hand Is Always There by Helen Steiner Rice
I am perplexed and often vexed
And sometimes I cry and sadly sigh,
But do not think, Dear Father above,
That I question you or your unchanging love
It’s just sometimes when I reach out
You seem to be nowhere about…
And while I’m sure that you love me still
And I know in my heart that you always will,
Somehow I feel that I cannot reach you
And though l get down on my knees and beseech you,
I cannot bring you closer to me
And I feel adrift on life’s raging sea…
But though I cannot find your hand
To lead me on to the Promised Land,
I still believe with all my being
Your hand is there beyond my seeing!