Walking on Water...and Other Risks
Author: Dennis Haas
In my 30 years of preaching, I have never done a sermon on the passage just read, Jesus walking on water. (Mark 6:45-52) Why? One commentator says, "It's a story difficult for modern readers." How's that for understatement! The miracle story of Jesus walking on water is outrageous, certainly not for reasonable people like us who want a perfectly reasonable Christianity. Sure, I can understand walking on water during a typical Iowa winter when, of course, the water is frozen. But to do that in Galilee any time of the year, that's miraculous! (Though I am told that the Salt Sea in that part of the world, better known as the Dead Sea, is so saturated with salt that walking on it is indeed in the realm of possibility.)
My problem is not that of the deist Thomas Paine, noted for his Common Sense writings, who said, "Miracles no longer happen." Period. End of discussion. No! As proclaimed in our Call to Worship this morning, "To worship God is to celebrate the mystery and miracle at the heart of life ... all mystery ... all miracle." I believe that! I believe in miracle, in the possibility of the presence of God in our universe, in the breaking through of mysterious divine power in our midst.
However, this particular miracle, walking on water, how can one deal with that? One way is to present this miracle as a test of faith: if you or I do not accept this story as a historical happening that occurred sometime around 30 A.D., then we are not true believers. Another way to deal with our story is to understand it as a natural occurrence that the early church turned into a pious legend. This so-called "sandbar theory" purports that Jesus was really walking along the shore of the lake and, because of the mist, Jesus was taken by the excited disciples for a ghost walking on water. Or others suggest that what we have here is really an account of a vision of the resurrected Christ placed earlier during Jesus' days on earth.
I find none of these explanations satisfactory. I feel the need to translate this miracle account from the past into our present in order to explore its possibilities for us today, here and now. As Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, proposed: "Have faith in search of understanding." Therefore, by examining this story closely and faithfully, perhaps understanding will break through for us.
This miracle, reported by three of the four Gospels, has three aspects I wish to explore: its setting; the storm; and the response to the storm.
First, the setting: Mark tells us that Jesus, after performing the miracle of feeding 5,000 people, commands his disciples to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee by boat. They commence to do so; Jesus remains behind to pray alone. Next, the storm: that night the disciples are in big trouble on the lake. The wind is against them; their crossing turns out to be full of danger, as any transition to a new situation can be. The disciples' response? They are understandably distressed. Life just isn't fair. They were good disciples, obeying their leader's order to cross over. Now this. Jesus' response? Sometime around 3 a.m., Jesus goes to his followers who are in trouble, walking on the sea. This distresses the disciples even more. "It's a ghost," they cry out. They are totally terrified. At once Jesus calms them with the wonderful words, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear." Then Jesus climbs into the boat and the wind and sea become calm. Amazing! One miracle after another. The disciples are utterly doubly terrified.
Mark concludes this episode with an editorial comment: if the disciples had not had hard hearts that result in closed minds and impaired vision as to the full personhood of Jesus, as had been revealed earlier in the feeding of 5,000 miracle, then they would not have been so completely astounded by Jesus' godly powers now. True believers are not surprised by anything Jesus might do, says Mark. Matthew, by the way, who in his Gospel consistently avoids putting down the disciples as plagued by hardness of heart, concludes his account with the words, "And those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God." (14:13)
In fact, since Matthew also has the tendency to stress the miraculous, this Gospel writer adds the following scene to his "walking on water" story. (14:28-33) After Jesus walks close to the boat and says, "Take heart," the disciple Peter responds, saying, "Jesus, if it's really you, bid me come to you on the water." That sounds like Peter, whom Jesus renamed the rock: impulsive, enthusiastic, self-confident, daring. And that's not all bad. Better to attempt the leap of faith than never leap at all. Peter can never be accused of assuming the agnostic stance of sitting on the fence.
Jesus tells Peter to come, Peter does, and, miracle of miracles, Peter walks on water toward Jesus. Amazing! Outrageous! But, we read, when Peter sees the strong wind, when Peter looks at the storm instead of Jesus, he sinks into the water like a rock and cries out, "Jesus, save me," Jesus does, saying to Peter, "O man of little faith, O half-believer, why do you doubt?"
That's the story of this "oh so difficult" miracle. What to do: ignore it, dismiss it, make it a test of orthodoxy? What? With faith in the possibility of miracles, a faith seeking understanding that speaks to us here and now, I share the following reflections for your consideration.
Water is a key symbol in many miraculous events in the Bible (and other ancient literature). For example, there's the God-ordained flood in Genesis, which destroys the whole world, save Noah and his family. There's the parting of the Sea of Reeds or Red Sea by God to save the Hebrews fleeing slavery in Egypt, an exodus miracle involving water repeated by the Psalmist as read earlier: "Thy way, God, was through the sea, thy path through the great waters; yet thy footprints were unseen. Thou didst lead thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." (77:19-20) Earlier in Mark's Gospel, Jesus actually rebukes the turbulent sea and says, "Peace!" and the sea obeys. (4:35-41) And in the final book of the Bible, Revelation, concerning God's new heaven and new earth, we are told that there will be "no more sea." (21:1) What's the point of all this?
Water is often a symbol for chaos, for the universe and life in disorder. And only God, says the Bible, has the ordering power to contain chaos as was done at the beginning of creation, and as must be done continually for the survival of divine creation. As stated in Job 9:8, "God alone stretched out the heavens, God alone walked on the waves of Yamm," a mythical name for the sea, water, chaos. Thus in an important sense, our "walking on the sea" miracle story proclaims the belief that Jesus has the God-given powers to subdue chaos, to walk on it when it threatens the lives of others, in this case, his followers. That's the miracle behind this miracle: we are not alone in a world constantly threatened with disorders of all kinds. Impossible as it may appear in times of chaos, our story of old holds out that kind of hope behind that kind of miracle. Faith seeking understanding.
Mark, we believe, wrote his Gospel for Christians in Rome sometime before 70 A.D. I wonder what faith understanding came to those Roman Christians as they heard the story about Jesus walking on the water, then calming his disciples and the sea? What was happening in Rome then? The Roman Emperor Nero, whom most historians believe was responsible for the burning of Rome in the mid-60s A.D., blamed the fire on the Christians and proceeded to amuse himself and other Romans by publicly persecuting Christians. The first-century Roman historian Tacitus, an eyewitness of this chaotic storm, writes: "Wanton cruelty marked the Christians' execution. Covered with skins of wild beasts they were torn in pieces by dogs, and thus perished; many were crucified, or burned alive, and even set on fire to serve as an illumination by night, after daylight had expired. Nero had offered his own gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited races, mingling with the crowd in the garb of a charioteer, or himself driving. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, it seemed, for the common weal, but to glut the cruelty of one man, that they were being destroyed." Before Nero was finished, Peter was crucified and Paul was beheaded.
In that terrible terrifying context, imagine the power of the words, "Take heart, it is I, Jesus; have no fear." At the center of this universe is not just whirling water, speeding light, dissolving heat, exploding atoms. At the center of our world so often invaded by the chaos of persecution, terror, distress, there is a personal God of love who is fighting such chaos, one who can trample the stormy waters. This faith seeking understanding proclaims that the last word in creation is not storm, sea, chaos or death, but a voice saying, "Take Heart," a voice that still speaks 20 centuries later, if we would only hear it. The miracle is there, if we would only see it. The miracle is here, in some form, hoping to pierce our dullness, our hardheartedness, our despair, trying to convince us of the presence and power of God who continually would engage us in the divine battle against life's chaos. Faith seeking understanding.
But such a faith understanding probably won't sell, especially on a college campus, in an academic community. I am quite aware of that. For example, a study of college students of the 1970s titled, "When Dreams and Heroes Died," talks about a lifeboat mentality among those students, perhaps still present today. "Every student is alone in a terrible storm, far from the nearest harbor. Each boat is beginning to take on water. There is but one alternative: each student must singlemindedly bail. Conditions are so bad that no one has time to care for others who may also be foundering." No room for believing in miracles or even God, I suppose, in such a "meism" world view.
That same study states that half of those students of the '70s agree that an individual can do little to bring about change in our society. That's certainly not the view of the Psalmist read earlier who, in the throes of trouble and distress, thinks of God and God's past actions and knows in his heart that this God will again somehow miraculously tread "a path through the great waters." Most certainly those students are not like Martin Luther King Jr. whose recent biography is titled Parting the Waters, highlighting the civil rights changes in our nation.
Jesus walks on water. Yes, it is indeed a story cloaked in mystery. which finally defies explanation. Yet what persons of faith proclaim is that Jesus came to them and their story became a calm. For such folk, it is a simple fact of life, one proved by countless women and men in every generation, that when Christ is there, storm becomes calm, tumult becomes peace, the undoable become doable, the unbearable becomes bearable, people pass the breaking point and do not break.
The understanding of this miracle story I would like to live is that without God, you and I are in danger of being overwhelmed by the dark and stormy experiences of life. I, and perhaps you, would like to live the understanding that in the hour of deepest need and distress, Jesus comes and his presence brings peace and composure; courage returns and forward movement is again possible. "I believe, help my unbelief" is a familiar biblical cry.
Like Peter, I, and perhaps you, hear the voice saying, "Come to me," but I'm often afraid of sinking, as Peter did. And yet the call continues. Jesus, alive more than ever, is calling us to take some risks, beckoning you and me forward to step into the unknown with him, yes, to walk on water. The miracle is that so many do! So many do! May we be numbered among them.