Allow me to share with you the last time I visited the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a warm day, we had a good lunch featuring fish from the same sea and thereafter people made their way to the water’s edge and waded in. Selfie sticks were drawn from back packs and then selfies were taken. “This is me in the Sea of galilee” I thought this was all rather odd at the time and somewhat contrary to the spirit of the gospel which discourages emphasis on the self. Still they were mostly Anglicans so what do you expect.
Our gospel reading today features God and the sea. Another anecdote now. In 1735 John Wesley was outward bound by sea from England to the American colonies. He wasn’t used to sea voyages. He wrote subsequently:
“At eleven at night I was waked by a great noise. I soon found that there was no danger. But the bare apprehension of it gave me a lively conviction of what manner of men those ought to be who are every moment on the brink of eternity.”
Ships were wooden in those days so it’s easy to imagine the sounds of groaning timbers and the noise of the wind amidst the sails and the rigging.
Among the other passengers were some German Moravians. Wesley was impressed by their faith and confidence and joined in their worship. Wesley had found himself on the brink of eternity, his faith had been tested and he had given way to fear. He probably remembered these verses from psalm 107:
They that go down to the sea in ships
And do business in great waters
These men see the works of the Lord;
And his wonders in the deep
They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep
For at his word the stormy wind ariseth: which lifteth up the waves thereof
They are carried up to heaven and down again to the deep.
And so on.
Wonderful and often set to music.
So through the ministry of the Moravians and the witness of scripture Wesley’s faith is confirmed and strengthened. Not faith in the shipbuilders, the captain or the crew but in God.
Switching our attention now from Wesley’s ship to the boat on the lake what do we find? The wind is against them; the far shore is a long way ahead. This is a difficult and dangerous moment.
And then they see something extraordinary; Jesus himself walking on the water. This is truly an extraordinary sight and the text says that they were terrified.
Now all of us, you and I together have to answer a key question-who do we think Jesus is? Perhaps a moral teacher to be mentioned in the same breath as Socrates or Gandhi or to that famous professor, whose name I cannot remember who contributed so lucidly to Radio 4s moral maze, or of course a healer and if you remember last week’s gospel an organizer of pot luck suppers but someone who walked on water come now we are respectable godless people people don’t walk on water. It must be a ghost. So I can imagine the disciples in the boat. But we are wiser than they for we remember a few chapters back how Jesus stilled the storm eliciting the question: who is this that even the winds and waves obey him? Who indeed?
Peter, who is beginning to realise just who Jesus is leaves the boat and receiving Jesus invitation walks on the water until his faith gives way and he begins to sink. Then Jesus rescues him and they all worship Jesus. Remember only God is worthy of our worship.
So sisters and brothers what is all this to us. It’s a warning to us all to remember who Jesus is so that we don’t dismiss him from our minds with an easy verdict such as: It’s a ghost! Our calling is to bear witness to him and not to dismiss him because we are too fearful to take him seriously. Remember he commanded the disciples to leave the shore and push out into the deep.
When I was in theological college one of our tutors preached on the theme of walking on water. That’s what presbyters have to do he suggested-walk on water. What did he mean?
Clearly all Christians have to be sustained by faith, have confidence in Jesus and not succumb to doubt as Peter does in the passage. So far so straightforward but is there more to it than that.
To walk on water is clearly impossible within the normal frame of expectations and customary possibilities. But surely that’s the point. To be a Christian is to believe in a better world than this one, with different frames of expectation in which the impossible becomes possible. The shorthand word for this is the “Kingdom of God” an economy not of scarcity but of grace. I’ve been around long enough now to experience how expectations and customary ideas of what is practical and possible have changed. I have been reminded that in the end Christianity is no religion for this world but is instead revolutionary in the sense that it offers you and me a better world than this one.
As a dominant establishment Christianity fades away in our time the call of Jesus to walk on water seems ever more relevant. A this worldly creed seems ever more absurd and inadequate to meet our deepest needs. So the call that I think I heard from my tutor could be summed up like this: stop splashing about in the shallow end taking selfies and prepare to step out into the deep-and above all think differently.