Trinity 9, 9th August 2020
Jesus must have been extraordinary. This week I was reading, not today’s passage, but one from Luke (7:36-50) about the woman who came to Jesus when he was eating at a pharisee’s house. She wept at his feet, wiping them with her hair and putting precious ointment on them. The book I was using focused on the woman’s forgetfulness of herself, unembarrassed, lost in her devotion to Jesus. But it made me wonder just what Jesus must have been like to inspire such devotion. It is a story we have heard many times, and we know what happens, but suddenly you see it with fresh eyes, and think, this is really unusual.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus walking on water, is similar, familiar from Sunday school onwards, but extraordinary. It follows the feeding of the five thousand. Then, it was late in the day when Jesus fed the crowd, and they would have gone home in the last of the daylight. Jesus sends the disciples off too, and it say that by evening he was there alone. He went up into the mountains to pray, and must have been there for many hours, because the passage tells us that it was early in the morning when he came walking towards the disciples on the lake. (And note, this was what he did after teaching the crowd for a whole day.)
These events take place at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. There are slightly different locations in the different gospels, but the feeding of the five thousand seems to have been on the north-east side of the lake, around Bethsaida (Lk 9:10), and the disciples sailed across to the north-west, around Capernaum (Jn 6:15) or Gennesaret (Mk 6:53). It is about 5 or 6 miles. The wind was against them, so it was slow progress, and the boat was fighting against the waves. This is not a storm, and unlike the story of the calming of the storm, they were not in trouble. Many of the disciples were fishermen and familiar with the lake and with boats, but they are in a workboat, stable but slow. John’s gospel says they had gone 3 miles or so when Jesus caught up with them, after rowing much of the night (Jn 6:19), so they could not have been making much headway.
When Jesus approached them in the early hours (the original says it was in the ‘fourth watch of the night’, which is between 3-6am), the disciples could not work out who, or what, he was. You would not really be expecting someone to be walking on the water, and they thought he was a ghost. Jesus calls out to let them know it is him, and to tell them not to be afraid.
So what is this about? Is it just Jesus using his superpowers to take a shortcut?
I am reminded of other improbable abilities. One I really like comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent, the main character, learns how to fly. The Guide helpfully explains that, “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Clearly, it the second part, the missing that presents difficulties.” Arthur manages it by falling, and then being distracted on seeing his towel, which was lost some time and several planets before. This causes him to miss the ground, and he finds himself flying. It is a great bit of invention by Douglas Adams, in that is manages to sound strangely plausible. But it is not something you should try at home.
The Hitchhikers Guide is fun, but not meant to be taken seriously. Presented with the story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, we need to look for something deeper. The gospels do not give us magic. This is not waving a wand to save effort or do the impossible. And this walking on water is a one-off. Jesus does not do it again, and we have no record of the disciples or the early church using it as a means of getting about.
In the miracles we generally see some other purpose. In Jesus’ healing there is both compassion for people, but also signs of God’s presence and power. There are a few miracles, like the transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8), the coin in the fish’s mouth (Mt 17:24-27), or the cursing the fig tree (Mk 11:12-25), that seem simply to be signs.
What are the signs here?
The sea was seen in Judaism, and by many of the societies around Israel, as a force of chaos, home of monsters. In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth by overcoming this chaos and putting the waters in their place. Psalm 29 says You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves surge you still them. In the Old Testament, God alone has the power to subdue the seas. Here we see Jesus walking on the sea.
When Jesus approaches the terrified disciples, he calls out “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” The “It is I” in our translations hides the force of the Greek, which is literally “I am”. “Take heart, I am; have no fear.” This points through the Aramaic Jesus spoke to the way God refers to himself in the Old Testament, “I AM”. Jesus is able to do this because he is God.
This is certainly how the disciples took it. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Peter joining Jesus on the water is not in the other two gospels that record this miracle (it is not in Luke). It is often presented as the meaning of the story: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus; have faith; if you feel overwhelmed, call upon Jesus and he will save you. These are all good lessons, but seem secondary to the main meaning. Even in Matthew the passage ends with the disciples’ awe at Jesus. Their response is worship.
At the end of the calming of the storm, which appears a few chapters earlier (Mt 8:23-27), the disciples’ reaction was Who is this man? Even the wind and the sea obey him. This time, they have moved on, Truly you are the Son of God. Again, we are so familiar with these stories that we forget that this is an extraordinary thing to say about, or to, someone you know. The disciples came to believe, however imperfectly, and through however many misunderstandings, that this man they had spent years with was actually God.
St. John & St. Stephen