Walking on Water (7/27/03) John 6:16-21)
University Congregational Church — Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
I don’t know what to think about that passage from the Gospel of John we heard read from the lectern this morning. The image of Jesus walking on the water is a powerful one, but I’m not sure what it means for me. Charlie Daniels probably said it best way back in the 1970’s in a song about a poor old country boy. Charlie sang, “Jesus walked on the water, and I know that it’s true. But sometimes I think that preacher man would like to do a little walking too.”
While not too many of us have deluded ourselves into thinking we would one day be able to tiptoe across a river, I dare say there isn’t a preacher alive who hasn’t dreamed of laying his hands on some hurting person, and seeing them restored to health. It’s the nature of the beast. We ministers are supposed to believe that anything is possible with God, and that if we have enough faith, God will make amazing things happen through our ministries.
I do believe some wonderful things have happened as a result of my ministry, and I have great faith in the power of prayer, but I have yet to find the prayer that is certain to make cancer cells suddenly vanish into thin air. And my most sincere prayers have repeatedly failed when it comes to restoring health to a person whose time is up, even though family members and friends are not ready to let go of a loved one.
I think they should teach everybody who enrolls at either medical school or seminary two rules on the first day. Rule number one is, people suffer and die. And rule number two is, you won’t learn anything here that will allow you to change rule number one.
This fact leads many to turn away from religion altogether. Many people assume we must have one of two gods. We either have a God who can snap his mighty fingers and make everything wonderful, but for some reason chooses not to; or we have a God who doesn’t have any power at all. The first God, who could make everything great but won’t, seems too cold and uncaring to be worthy of worship. The other God seems too powerless to deserve our worship.
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Well, it’s a little early in the day to try to unravel the mystery of God. I will say that if I believed those two ideas concerning God were the only possibilities—if I thought that God is either uncaring or powerless—I would hang up the robe. I believe God cares, and I believe God has power. But I don’t claim to understand suffering. And this is frustrating to me. When I decided to dedicate my life to serving God, I assumed God would want me to serve in an advisory capacity. That’s not the way it’s worked out. In fact, God repeatedly seems to ignore my best advice about how the world should operate.
As a Christian, I remind myself that the mystery of God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Now, in this congregation this morning, there are as many opinions about what that means as there are people in the pews. That’s what I love about Congregationalism. As I look out at your beautiful faces this morning, I see people who think Jesus was a great teacher and nothing more; I see people who think Jesus is the Eternal Christ—the Word made flesh through whom all of creation came into being; and I see people whose theology falls somewhere between those two extremes. I love this place!
But I do think we agree that while we can never fully get our minds around God, we can learn something of God’s nature by looking at Jesus. And as I struggle with the suffering that I see in this world, and in my ministry, I am reminded that this Jesus, who somehow reveals God’s love, was born a helpless infant, and wound up dying a painful and shameful death. I’m not sure exactly what that says about God’s power, but if we’re looking for a mighty, warlike God who angrily crushes his enemies, we’re probably looking for something other than the God we find reflected in Jesus.
So let’s look at Jesus as we find him in the passage we heard this morning. Let me set things up, because this occurs at a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry. After healing many people, Jesus goes up into the mountains near the Sea of Galilee, where he sits with his disciples. But the crowds come after him, and five-thousand gather on the side of the mountain. The disciples urge Jesus to send everyone home, pointing out that the five barley loaves and two fish they have on hand will not feed such a crowd.
You know this story well enough. Everybody eats to their fill, and there are twelve baskets of scraps left over. This story is also found in the other gospel accounts. But in John’s gospel, something unique happens after this miracle. According to the Gospel of John, the people decide Jesus is not only a great prophet, but should also be made King. When Jesus figures out what they are thinking, he again withdraws from the crowd, and secludes himself on the mountain.
That’s the setup. Jesus has just fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread, the people have tried to make him their king, and he is sort of hiding out on a mountain. That’s where today’s story begins. I’ll read the passage from John’s gospel: When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got in a boat, and started crossing the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
I think it is important to understand that this story of the frightened disciples crossing a stormy sea happens immediately after the miraculous feeding of the five-thousand. Remember, our contention is that the nature of God is somehow made evident in the person of Jesus. If that is the case, what do these back-to-back miracle stories—the feeding of the five-thousand and the rescue of the disciples from the raging sea—what do these stories say about God?
The first thing I see is that God wants us to be well fed. Forget all the possible symbolism of the story of the five loaves and two fish feeding all those people. The story tells us that God will provide. Of course, our natural inclination is to say God provides for us in much less amazing ways than the miraculous multiplication of the loaves. But is that true?
Remember our old friend Einstein, who I believe was every bit as much a religious mystic as he was a theoretical physicist. Einstein said the world contains two types of people: those for whom there are no such things as miracles; and those for whom everything is a miracle. That may be one of the few things he ever said that I actually understand! When Einstein looked at this world, he was radically amazed at what he saw. And it was not just the vast expanse of the cosmos that sent his mind reeling. Everything he saw was, in a word, impossible.
Everything is miraculous. Imagine seeing the world through the radically amazed eyes of Einstein. The fact that a person can plant one vegetable seed in the ground, and that seed grows into a plant—impossible! The fact that the plant from that single seed grows hundreds of more seeds that can be planted and grown into food—amazing! The fact that the fruits from those plants can feed human beings—outrageous!
And consider those human beings. Consider what’s happening right now. I’m standing here using the breath from my lungs to vibrate a couple of vocal folds in my throat. When those folds vibrate between about 40 and 8000 times per second, they create sound waves that float through the air between us and arrive at your eardrums. Your eardrums vibrate at the same frequency as my vocal folds, and you actually hear the sound I am making. But wait—there’s more. Because of this amazing mass of gray matter we have between our vocal folds and our eardrums, you, from way over there, can actually understand the thought processes going on in my brain. Or maybe not! You can at least understand the lack of thought processes going on in my brain.
Because this happens all the time, we take it for granted. But Einstein didn’t. And we shouldn’t either. What is happening right here, right now, with every breath we take and with every beat of our hearts, is a radically amazing miracle. And the way God makes that possible—with the generation after generation of seeds that grow into more and more food—actually, the miraculous feeding of the five-thousand is a pretty tame story. We have the miraculous feeding of the seven billion happening every single day on good old planet Earth.
Now would be a good time to ask ourselves why so many of those billions of people are without the food and water resources required for a healthy life, and how much of that is God’s fault, and how much is the fault of humanity. But that’s another sermon, and I think it best this morning to stay on track and get back to those biblical miracles we find in the Gospel of John.
We decided, or more accurately, I decided on our behalf, that the story of the loaves and fish says God wants us to be well fed. And that tells us something about God’s nature that is very good to know. But what happens next–between that miracle and the calming of the storm—what does that tell us about God’s nature?
The people decide to make Jesus their king. So what is wrong with that? What is wrong with having Jesus of Nazareth ascend to the thrown? At first glance it would seem that the people recognize the true greatness of Jesus. They realize that he is something so great, he should be placed in the highest pinnacle of earthly power.
Ah. There’s the problem. Earthly power. To make Jesus an earthly king is to force him to become a part of the principalities and powers of this world—the very powers we, as Christians, are commanded to stand against. To raise Jesus to the height of human glory is to take away that which gives him the power of God: love, humility, compassion.
And that leads to the heart of this morning’s story—the frightened disciples lost in the storm at sea. The original Greek writing of this story has Jesus say these words to the disciples when he walks to them upon the water: “I am; do not fear.” The significance of this is that the phrase “I am” is the traditional name of God. When God is revealed to Moses in the Hebrew Bible, God says, “I AM who I AM. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent you.”
The fact that Jesus identifies himself this way reveals that God’s nature is being revealed in this moment. The words of Gail R. O’Day capture the truth of this passage. O’Day writes, If the crowd’s intention to make Jesus king distorts Jesus’ glory, then Jesus walking on the water and his words to his disciples (“I am; do not fear”) counterbalance that distortion with a true picture of his glory. Jesus reveals himself to his disciples as one with God, sharing in God’s actions, identifying himself with God’s name, speaking God’s words. Yet this manifestation of the divine in Jesus is not bravura, not a moment of glory for the sake of glory, but a moment of glory for the sake of grace. Jesus reveals himself to his disciples in order to allay their fears, to ensure their safe passage, to remind them that God is, has been, and will be their rescue. Jesus’ glory is not revealed for power, but for grace…
Those are powerful words, and they capture the nature of the God Jesus attempts to reveal to us. Because aren’t we the disciples in that story? Isn’t this a story about us? We find ourselves sailing through life, and the inevitable storms come and go. Feeling lost and adrift is almost as common as feeling on track. No matter how hard we row, or how carefully we set the sail, we don’t always go in the direction we intend. And no matter how hard we pray, there are times when the violent waves sweep over us and things seem hopeless. We lose a job we really need—the lightning cracks; we make decisions that are unwise and come back to haunt us—the thunder roars; we lose a loved one to the unstoppable march of time, and the inevitable rhythms of life and death—the storm overwhelms us.
And where is God in the midst of these wretched storms? We want to shake our fists at the sky, to scream into the seemingly empty heavens, “I did not ask to be born. I did not ask to be thrown into a world where good people suffer and bad people triumph; where I have only a temporary hold on everybody and everything I love; where despite my attempts to be a good person and to live a good life, the storms keep coming at me with greater and greater intensity. I didn’t ask for any of this!”
And then we remember the one who tames the storms and walks upon the waters. We remember Jesus, and we remember the God he revealed. This isn’t a God who keeps the storms from arising; this is the God who comes to us in the storm and rides through the storm with us. This isn’t a God who promises to keep us from ever rowing into a storm; this is the God who gives us the strength and the hope to grab the oars and keep rowing when the storm is at its worst. And this isn’t a God who keeps us forever afloat; this is the God who promises to be with us yesterday, today and tomorrow, in life and beyond life, above the waves and even when the storm overtakes us and drags us to the bottoms of the sea. Even there this God of ours wants to allay our fears and provide us safe passage, beyond the seas we’ve known, beyond the horizons we’ve dreamed.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know if Jesus walked on the water or not. I like to think he did, but if for some reason it was proven that the physical body of Jesus didn’t actually defy the laws of physical science on that evening long ago in Galilee, I wouldn’t be too bothered by that. Because what Jesus is all about goes way beyond simple matters of physics. We found out all we need to know about God with the life of Jesus, and while I don’t know for sure if he walked on water 2000 years ago, I do know for sure that he can calm the storms that arise in our lives today.
And whether our boats are anchored safely on the some shoreline, or floating dreamily beneath a sky of blue, or tossed mercilessly by storms that may or may not be of our own making, I hope we always have Jesus in the boat with us. Because if we have Jesus in the boat with us, we are always where we are meant to be. We are always in the presence of God’s love, and it doesn’t matter so much which way the winds of fate blow us. Remember the final line from today’s Bible passage: They wanted to take Jesus into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.