The 5000 are fed and there are twelve baskets left. And the next sentence is, “immediately Jesus made the disciples get in the boat and leave for the opposite shore.”
Did they take the food with them? Why did Jesus ‘make’ them go? The Greek makes it sound like he forced them…and in a hurry. I wonder why? I half suspect that Jesus was absolutely exhausted. What you may not know is these stories come right after he finds out that John the Baptist has been killed. John was his cousin and his friend. He tried to go mourn in peace, but the crowds wouldn’t let him. In his compassion, he healed and fed them.
Now. Finally, he can go somewhere quiet and away from everyone and grieve in peace. So he ushers his disciples into a boat and tells them to go. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he probably says. They must figure he’ll row across later and meet them for breakfast…with those leftover baskets of food! “Go! I’ll be fine…I just need some time alone.”
He will be fine, but they won’t.
The next thing you know, is the boat is about to be swamped in a wild windstorm in the middle of a lake, in the darkness of night. There are probably more people in the boat than it was made for, but they have lived by the sea all their lives and many of them are fishermen. They know the Sea of Galilee and they know not to try to go ashore in the middle of a storm. But the howling wind and the raging sea have these 12 people terrified for their lives. And there terror grows when a person or a thing starts coming toward them.
Have you ever been so terrified? It doesn’t matter the circumstances or the event. There is something for each of us that frightens us to the point of terror. We’re all grownups, so it isn’t a bump in the night, but a late night phone call or an unanswered call. It is the despair of depression or addiction, the end of a relationship or the termination of a job. It is a diagnosis. It is the empty checkbook and the hungry child you cannot feed. It is the fear of an invisible, yet deadly pandemic.
The wind howls in our ears and the waves crash over the sides of our little boat. It is pitch-black dark in the middle of the night. There are no lights on shore and there is no moon or stars to guide us.
We are hanging on for dear life and our boat is taking on water. We are all but lost and we may not even have the voice to cry out, ‘help me.’ And even if we did, the words would be ripped away with the next blast of wind.
For the second week in a row, I want to be less concerned with the miracle that we’re all so familiar with. Last week it was this amazing feeding of people. This week it is Jesus walking on water. I think they are so familiar to many of us that we lose the other pieces of the story that might also speak to us.
We have this image in our heads of Jesus walking toward them in full sight and not appearing and disappearing as the waves go up and down. How do they even see him at all in the darkness? We imagine Peter getting out of the boat & walking over to him as if he were floating on a calm sea before his fear overtakes him again and Jesus saves him from drowning.
But then…of all the words in this gospel reading today, the ones that grabbed my attention most were, “When they (meaning Jesus and Peter) got into the boat, the wind ceased.”
Did you miss that part like I did the first couple of times I read it? The wind ceased and calm was restored. The disciples finally recognize Jesus and a truth settles on them. This man is different. He comes to be with us to join us. This man is God’s son!
I have to back up a minute to make that calmness meaningful though.
Debie Thomas writes a commentary on the gospel almost every week. She made me think about how the story isn’t about Jesus walking on water or Peter’s lack of faith, but of how Jesus continues to have the disciples lives at heart. She writes,“From the very beginning of the story, Jesus moves towards his disciples. He moves towards them when they’re struggling at sea. He moves towards them when they decide he’s a menacing ghost. He moves towards them when they’re terrified by his approach. He moves towards them when they’re reckless enough to set him a dare. He moves towards them when they begin to drown. He moves towards them when they ask for help. He moves towards them when they’re shivering and sorry for their rashness. He moves towards them when they realize — for a beautiful, flickering instant — who he is and what he is. He moves towards them when they worship him.
In other words, Jesus never stops moving towards the ones he loves. He never stops crossing the dark water to come to where we are. Neither our fearfulness nor our faithlessness ever alters his steady approach. We are the ones he’s bound for. Our flailing bodies are the ones he pulls out of the water. Ours is the boat he climbs into. It is for us that he calls out across the terrifying waves, again and again and again: “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” *
That’s where the calmness piece grabbed me. In the midst of every storm and every terrifying moment is Christ’s peace. And it isn’t that we search for it, but that it is moving toward us every step of the way. We may reach out for it in faith or in fear, but that isn’t what matters. Jesus is coming toward us all the time. Jesus has been coming toward us since we took our first breath. Peter may have stepped out toward him, but Jesus gets in the boat for all of them.
We usually think of Christ returning in the Second Coming. That’s all well and good, and lots and lots of people are waiting for this to happen any day now or sometime in the future. That’s what so many are waiting for But what about the times we realize that Jesus is coming toward us now? Jesus is coming in this very moment in the midst of the storm? Maybe precisely because we are in the midst of the storm? And when those moments come, soon or just in the nick of time, there is an amazing calm that comes over us that wraps itself around us like a prayer shawl, that feeds us like a box that comes out of nowhere filled with nourishing food, it is like prayers that come from all over everywhere to support and sustain and hold us in the midst of crisis. There is quiet and there is a presence that fills us with hope and gratitude and an awareness of who we are and whose we are.
I would invite you today to take a few minutes to ponder your terror…or if you don’t have to go that far or want to go that far, your fear or your anxiety. There’s plenty of it swirling around us these days. I would defy anyone to say there is nothing that bothers you. We are all somewhat anxious, or somewhat frightened, or somewhat terrified.
Sit quietly as the storm rages and know that Jesus is coming because he never stops moving toward those he loves. And you are loved more than you know. And when you realize that, notice and be aware that there is calm in your boat. The wind has died down and your boat is safe. It is the peace that passes understanding. It is that quiet, gentle presence that helps us through the next moments, helps us take the next breaths, helps us relax into Christ’s love, that love that will never end and will never stop moving toward us to tell us – whisper in our ear or scream through the wind – “You are loved. I am here. Do not be afraid.”
* Journey with Jesus. Debie Thomas: email@example.com
The Reverend Patty Baker
St. Clare Episcopal Church