|Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky|
Lord open our hearts and minds to your love. Bless anything I say that is true, and correct my errors in the minds of these kind hearers, through your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Justin Welby was visiting William Hague at the Foreign Office. As they left the building, William saw a chauffeur waiting and asked “Is that your car?” “No” said Justin, “I walked.” “Oh, did you walk over the bridge?” “Well yes, on this occasion” Justin replied. “Sometimes of course I walk on the water but I thought it would be showing off.”
I remember when Tony Blair was first elected and The Economist remarked that the main disagreement between his supporters was about what kind of water he walked on best. Walking on water has become a cliché – but to the disciples it was a complete unknown.
When we read the Bible we almost always look at small pieces of it. This is fine as far as it goes. But we need to remember that the Bible tells and often re-tells the story of God’s interaction with his people which is, as Tom Wright points out, his big rescue plan for creation. He calls Abraham and tells him that through you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. He calls and teaches his people Israel for the same purpose. He sends his Messiah “to be a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the glory of his people Israel.” And the Glory of the Lord, the shekenah isn’t some abstract concept. The shekenah, God’s glory, fills the Temple when Solomon dedicates it – it is the visible sign of God’s actual presence in the temple. It’s clearly closely related to the Holy Spirit. When the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost there are tongues of fire and a rushing, mighty wind. In Hebrew and Greek the words for spirit and wind are the same (ruach and pneuma) – though there is another Greek word anEmos meaning wind which is used here in the Gospels to avoid misunderstanding.
The lectionary we use at this service is the common lectionary in use throughout the world between the Anglicans, Roman Catholics and (most) Methodists. When I worship in the South Cathedral in Beijing I know that they are reading the same passages as we are in London. Wise people with thought and prayer bring together passages from the Old and New Testaments that shed light on each other, and this is one way we are helped to hear the Bible as a whole.
So we start with Elijah. He has triumphed over the prophets of Baal. Their loud prayers and incantations had no effect – Elijah’s brought down fire from heaven and they are routed. But still King Ahab is set in his sinful ways and seeks Elijah’s life. He flees and seems to be on the point of giving up. He’s one of the greatest prophets and miracle workers in the OT and God has to ask him twice: “What are you doing here Elijah?” and the answer is, essentially, “I’ve run away.” So God gives a tremendous demonstration of His power: Mighty wind, earthquake, fire - but the Lord was not in these – he was in the “still small voice” or “a sound of sheer silence” as the NRSV has it. The Lord re-commissions Elijah, to appoint kings and a prophet, and tells him that there are many more disciples than he supposes – seven thousand in fact.
Now let’s come to Jesus. He has just fed about seven thousand people (5,000 men besides women and children) by miraculously extending the supply of food. Elijah did something similar when he stayed with the widow of Zarephath during a famine in Israel. Some say he is Elijah returned to earth. What is going on? There are many times in Jesus’ ministry when he seems to be concerned to make crystal clear that he is not the kind of Messiah that people were expecting – a conquering warlord who will drive the Romans into the sea through a combination of supernatural power and armed might. There was just one Roman Legion in Galilee (VIth Ironclad) and one in Judea (Xth Sea strait) and the nominal strength of a legion was about 5,000. Legions were divided into 10 cohorts each of which was commanded by a senior centurion. People might get the wrong idea if they hear that a charismatic new leader has assembled about 5,000 men, who he is directing through a dozen of his closest followers. So Jesus very visibly sends the “cohort commanders” away, in a boat so everyone can see them go and the crowds can’t follow. Then he personally dismisses the crowds, and goes up into the mountain to pray by himself. John in the parallel passage (John 6.15-21) actually tells us “perceiving then that they were about to come and seize him to make him King”
In the night he comes to them, in a rough sea, with a strong wind against them, walking on the water. Now Israel was emphatically not a maritime nation. The sea symbolises chaos, destruction. “The waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly” says the Psalmist adding, tellingly, “but yet The Lord, who dwelleth on high is mightier.” The only Old Testament prophet rash enough to go on the sea was Jonah, and that was in disobedience to God and went badly (though we are meant to think about Jonah here and Jesus will mention him directly in Chapter 16. He’s the most successful preacher in the Bible and he preaches to the heathens, not to Israel. And Jesus addresses Peter as Simon son of Jonah when he makes the famous profession of faith). Not even Elijah walked on water. The disciples see him and are terrified. They think “it’s a ghost” and they cry out with fear. Are they worried that it could be Jesus’ ghost – that something awful has happened and that he is dead, I wonder? Even though many of them are fishermen and have sailed these waters hundreds of times they have never seen anything like this. They are hundreds of yards from the land. Jesus says “Cheer up, it is I, do not fear!” The Greek in all three accounts (Mark 6.45-52 and John 6.16-21) is “ego eimi” “I am. ” And then Peter does something rash and strange. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And at one word, Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water to Jesus.
How did he do it? How did Jesus do it? Of course we don’t know. I suspect the sea under Jesus’ feet and Peter’s became a Shear-Thickening Fluid, where the surface tension was increased so that it will support the weight of a human for a short while provided they were moving – you sink if you stop as Peter seems to have done. Students can do this to a swimming pool with cornstarch (you can find videos on the web) and it’s safe to assume that God is a lot more resourceful than 20th century students. The point is that Jesus is showing here that he has God’s power within him. The disciples call him “son of God” at this point (there is no “the” in the Greek) but they don’t yet realise what this really means – we haven’t had the confession of Peter or the Transfiguration yet. Looking back we, and they, can see it as an acknowledgement of Jesus’ unique divine status as the Second Person of the Trinity. At the time they spoke wiser than they knew.
So what can we draw from this for our lives? I’d like to suggest three: Listen, Trust and Look.
- First, we must listen. We don’t hear God’s word as clearly and directly as Elijah and Peter did. But God does lead us and speak to us. Sometimes this is with powerful signs and wonders, though Jesus in Chapter 16 speaks against expecting these. Sometimes it is a still small voice. Sometimes it is through reading the Bible, or in prayer, or even in a sermon. And sometimes it is a really unexpected situation. It’s pretty safe to say that we will not be called to walk on water. But we may well be called to do things that seem almost equally impossible and in some cases dangerous. Prayer and attentive bible reading, and making the time and the space for god-centered stillness, are key to this. Preparing this sermon has certainly made me realise I need to spend a lot more time in silent attentive prayer.
- When we are called by God, we need to trust. God will not ask us to do things without equipping us with the power to do what he wants us to do. This is sometimes not quite what we think we are being asked to do. Often we don’t understand what God really wants and he seems to be calling us to do X when in fact he wants us to travel towards X and then turn somewhere else.
- Thirdly, we must look to Jesus. While Peter is looking at Jesus and walking towards him, he is safe. As soon as he focuses on the wind and is afraid he begins to sink, but he cries out “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, and he says to him oligopiste – person of little-faith. Little faith! Peter has just stepped out of a boat onto the sea in a raging storm to walk on the water to Jesus. We don’t understand faith, but if that’s what happens with a little faith, just imagine what we could do if we had faith as big as, say, a single mustard seed.
It was an especial privilege to have in the congregation a remarkable 99-year-old woman whose earliest memory is of Zepplin raids in the First World War.