Sunday 10 August 2008

Walking on Water

1. Have you ever been out on the water at night in a small boat in a gale? I have, and I can vouch for how terrifying it can be!

When I was a teenager, I used to spend the summer holidays with my parents in a cottage on Lough Derg. The only way to get to it was by rowing-boat, though it wasn’t really on an island, and the distance to row wasn't very far. Those were lovely holidays! But I remember one stormy night when my mother and I were returning to the cottage. It was blowing a full gale, with a big sea running, and the waves breaking. With one oar each, side by side, we pulled against the wind, inching forward, sometimes being thrown sideways as the wind caught the side of the boat, shipping water all the while. We made several attempts and were thrown back, but eventually we made it to calmer waters, and arrived safely on the other shore. By that time I was shaking like a leaf and quite scared, as I think my mother was too, though she never showed it. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: respect for the water – it’s not our native element, and we must never underestimate the power of wind and wave.

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-33) brings this memory back to me. I feel I can identify with the disciples, even though I don’t think I was in real danger, as they must have been. The Sea of Galilee, more than 200 metres below sea level in the Jordan rift valley and surrounded by hills, is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly.

The story of Jesus walking on the water comes immediately after the feeding of the 5000, and it is recorded in the Gospels of Mark (6:45-52) and John (6:15-21) as well as Matthew, but not in Luke’s. I want to try to enter imaginatively into the story, drawing on all three accounts, and then finish by reflecting on what we can learn from it today.

2. First, why did Jesus send the disciples away by boat and go up himself into the mountain alone to pray?

Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that Herod had executed John the Baptist, he went across the lake to be by himself. Herod’s rule did not extend there. Perhaps Jesus was afraid that Herod would try to arrest and kill him as he had John. And no doubt he wanted time to pray for God’s guidance on what he should do next.

But the crowds followed him. And we heard last week about what happened then – the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.

After that John tells us that Jesus realised that the crowd was ‘about to come and take him by force to make him king’. This I think is the clue. Jesus knew that earthly power was not what God intended for him. It was a dangerous situation. Perhaps Jesus thought the disciples might complicate it, because they were still thinking of him as an earthly ruler as well.

So Jesus sent them away, dismissed the crowd, and went up the mountain into the night to pray about it, until early morning.

3. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble in one of the lake’s notorious storms.

They had set out in the boat in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. Mark records that Jesus ‘saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind’. I imagine the night must have been bright and moonlit despite the storm, for Jesus to be able to see the little boat.

Matthew agrees with Mark that, ‘early in the morning’ Jesus ‘came walking towards them on the lake’. The Greek words translated as ‘early in the morning’ literally mean ‘in the 4th watch of the night’. In those days, with no clocks, time during the night was counted in 4 watches of 3 hours each. So at around 3 am, Jesus walking on the high ground after praying clearly saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down to the shore to help.

John adds that ‘they had rowed about three or four miles’, so they must have been making painfully slow progress through the storm. I can empathise with that!

4. But what is this about Jesus walking on the lake? Should we imagine Jesus far from land, in the middle of the lake, walking on the water over the waves?

This is how most Christians have imagined the scene, I suppose, and many artists have depicted it. But there is a difficulty with translation here. The Greek words translated as ‘on the lake’ could equally mean ‘towards the lake’, or ‘at the lake’, that is by the lake shore.

The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage. The first describes a miracle in which Jesus actually walked on the water. In the second, the disciples boat was driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus came down from the mountain to help them when he saw them struggling in the moonlight, and Jesus came walking through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one and some the other.

All three Gospels agree that when the disciples saw Jesus they were terrified, believing him to be a ghost, until Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

However we interpret the Greek, the significance to the disciples is perfectly clear: In the hour of their need, Jesus came to them, to help and reassure them.

5. Only Matthew adds the detail about Peter trying to walk on the water too.

It’s a charming vignette, and so in character for Peter, from the other things we know of him. He was brave and impetuous, but often found it hard to live up to his good intentions. Remember, it was Peter who swore undying loyalty to Jesus only to deny 3 times that he knew him the next day.

When Jesus said ‘Come’, Peter bravely ‘got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus’. But his courage failed him and he started to sink. ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”’

Whether Jesus was miraculously walking on water, or whether he was walking through the surf on the shore to help the disciples in the boat, Peter surely learned this: It is not always easy to follow Jesus, but Jesus is always there to catch him when he stumbles and sinks.

The Gospel writers differ on what happens next. Matthew and Mark both tell us that as soon as Jesus got into the boat, the storm ceased. But John says that ‘immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going’. Whichever it was, the disciples must have been very relieved that they were safe. Only Matthew records that they worshipped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.

6. Finally, as Jesus’s disciples today, what can we learn from this story, 2000 years on?

Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus the man and sail the Sea of Galilee with him. But we are privileged too to know the spiritual reality of the living Christ.

In life the wind is often against us. Life for every one of us sometimes feels like a desperate struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of decisions made. But none of us need struggle alone, for Jesus comes to us across the storms of life, bidding us to take heart and have no fear in his calm, clear voice. In the hour of our need, Jesus will come to us as he did to the disciples long ago, to help and reassure us. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’!

If we seek to follow Jesus, we will find like Peter that it is not always easy. It will test our faith at times. Our faith will not always be enough and we will have doubts. But when we feel ourselves going under, if we cry out ‘Lord save me’, Jesus will be there for us, just as he was for Peter, reaching out his hand to catch us. Jesus is always there to save us when we are sinking. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

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