I can’t really swim. I can swim about as long as I can hold my breath under water, so I can swim about three quarters of a width of a standard pool. Then I sink. Like a lead balloon. It’s not a pretty sight. I used to make the joke that because I only use one hand I swim round in circles. It’s actually not that far from the truth. You have to push your body in a straight line. So if I wanted to take up a job that had anything to do with needing to be near or in water – I’d be rubbish. And I could never be a fisherman. The disciples would have been fair swimmers. They’d have had to have been. We know Peter was a good swimmer because once when he sees Jesus walking on the shore after a night of poor fishing, he dives into the water to swim ashore to him. Not very interesting. Except that he swims to shore with more clothes on him than when he was on the boat. On the boat he stripped down. He gathers his clothes and ties them around him and swims ashore. The weight of these clothes would have dragged him down a little, so he had to be a strong swimmer to compensate.
The majority of the disciples would have been in the same boat, metaphorically. Not all were fishermen. But of those that were, they would have been able to handle themselves in choppy waters. Yet here, the weather has become so bad, so harsh that they can’t manage. They might have to test their swimmers skills. To add to their distress, they see what they think is a ghost walking on the water. It is of course Jesus. The question arises: what was Jesus doing walking on the water? Mark’s gospel states that Jesus was actually not bothering to make effort to go to the disciples in the first place saying ‘he meant to pass them by’. So his intention was not to interact with them, until of course they needed his help. What was he doing?
This story is not a chunk of writing on its own. Rip it out of the gospels and just tell it like a story and seems very nice and just a story about Jesus demonstrating he has control over things. Which is kind of true. But there is a deeper meaning when its put back into context. It’s part of a 3 part story. The first part is the news of John the Baptist’s death and with that the return of the disciples, then the feeding of the 5000 and then this. The first is the account of Herod taking life, the second is Jesus giving life, the third is Jesus’ sovereignty over life. Herod had the power to take life, and did so in John’s case because John was making Herod feel uncomfortable and guilty.
He was arrested for speaking accusations against Herod for sleeping with his sister in law whom he made his wife. It is actually Salome, Herod’s step-daughter that forces his hand. In any case, John is beheaded and it hits Jesus on a very personal level. Jesus wants to get away from it all. And as we saw last week that wasn’t going to happen. He tried to get time alone, but was met with a sea of people and their own problems. Feeding the 5000 is a reversal of John’s beheading. Herod took life and John’s head was served on a plate. John spiritually nourished the people and they were now robbed of that nourishment. Here, the symbolism is that Jesus actually has the power to feed not just the people’s spiritual needs but also their physical needs in the feeding with bread. They will be nourished – in all respects. Herod nor no one else can stop that. Jesus does actually get some time alone, and perhaps after being uplifted or nourished himself decides walking on water is an appropriate response. It’s not a leisurely stroll and the walk in itself serves no purpose – unless it’s a demonstration, a symbolic gesture of something going on within. I reckon Jesus has been ministered to. And in so being, his outward walking on water is a reflection of the emotions he’s feeling on the inside. Hence why today if someone is feeling good they might say they can on water.
That’s the first thing. The second of course is that as I said earlier, he was in Mark’s gospel, meant to walk on by. So initially this had nothing to do with the disciples. Even more impressive if you think about the last time you watched waves moving. Water shifts every single second at sea. You can’t place a foot on a volume of water and it stay at peace, stay still. If you touch it you only add to the movement of the water. Nor would the water be perfectly horizontal to the touch. It would be all over the place, different angles and at different depths by a few inches here and higher by inches there. Literally every step would have shifting water under it. In one second, the water under you foot would have changed depth and angle. Jesus keeping upright and stable is a miracle in itself. So when he came to the disciples what was his walking on water saying to them? Remembering the lessons of the two previous incidents, what might have been implied was this – Jesus doesn’t just have the power to feed the hungry with good things both spiritual and physical despite those who can take things away, Jesus, who is also God, is ultimately in control.
The walking on water, the storm ceasing as Jesus entered the boat - all a demonstration that nothing is outside the remit of God. More so, it is God who nourishes our faith and occasionally tests us, or to be more precise, he tasks us to stretch it.
Upon seeing that it is Jesus, Peter, the one who will swim ashore when he sees Jesus on the shore after his resurrection, is the one who asks Jesus to task him now. Jesus has identified it is him and not a ghost. To prove this to himself, Peter must take that first fearful watery step. The wind is howling, the boat is shifting every second as is the level of the water and the only thing that compels Peter out of the boat, is his need to be with Jesus. His faith in the one they’ve come to call Lord and friend is what makes him want to get out of the boat. We know the rest. Eyes fixed on Jesus – he’s fine. Eye’s fixed on all else – Peter sinks. And although Jesus sounds quite harsh on Peter ‘O you of little faith. Why did you doubt?’…I wonder. I wonder did he really just say it to Peter. After all he was the only one who dared to walk on the same water as Jesus, the rest stayed in their seats. If it was directed to Peter and him alone it was said with good reason – Peter was to be set with the special task of being group leader in the time of the acts (remember it was Peter that spoke at Pentecost). His faith had to grow – fast.
The underlying theme of this story is Jesus putting all things under his authority. As far back as the last story, the theme has been that no matter what tragedies may befall us in life including the removal of our loved ones from us (like John) God is not the absentee landlord uninterested with what happens in the world. He is lord, not only of life and death but also the very physical things we need in order to survive. More than that, water and earth were symbolic of not just the world but also the nations. In scripture, waters were linked to the many nations. The hills and lands were linked to the people of God. Walking on top of the waters and in another story where Jesus commands the storm to cease, is a way of Jesus saying that God’s rule extends beyond the rule of any oppressor (Herod, or even Caesar) who thinks they’re in control.
I constantly need to step out of my boat, my comfort zone and grow my faith. I also need to realise that God has life in hand and see his authority, his control. He is not an oppressor. He wants to feed and nourish us all. When the waves crash and the wind howls, my default is to stay in the boat. I would imagine that’s the same for the most of us. Rather than ask Jesus to get in the boat with me, I think Jesus is asking me to go out onto the water with him. Its not just an act of faith on my part – going to him means keeping my eyes fixed on him instead of on the storm. Each of us is very good at sitting in the boat. It’s safer. The boat asks nothing of us. The opposite is true of faith. It asks us to move – its scary. But if we invoke the name ‘follower of God’, then we must step out and step up to what that means. It doesn’t matter if we fall, we’ve at least tried. The important thing is that we place ourselves into the hands of the one who has all things under foot and remember the reason we do this – because God is Lord of all and all things are held together in God.
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