Walking on Water
Mark 6 : 45 - 56
This incident in Jesus’ life takes places just after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus dismissed the crowd no doubt with a blessing or benediction. Maybe he used the blessing given to Moses recorded in Number’s 6:24-26 which we use at baptisms, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” But the people were not all that keen to be dismissed. In John’s account we are told, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself”. Galilee was a hotbed of revolution. Some nationalists realised that Jesus was a powerful leader and sought to enlist them for their cause. But this was the path that Jesus had rejected during his time of temptation in the desert. It was possible that even the disciples were catching this flame of rebellion and so Jesus sent them away also, to return to the other side of the lake. Jesus wanted time to pray. He needed to touch base with his heavenly Father. He needed time to think. He needed to stabilise everything and he needed some peace. We might think he sailed through these miracles and nothing touched him but that is probably not true. He was taking on great odds. Spiritual forces both good and bad were being unleashed. The Gospel was being preached. People were being healed and saved - but - misunderstanding and opposition were brewing also. He had by now made significant enemies, Orthodox Jews, King Herod Antipas and local would be revolutionaries. Imagine Jesus’ loneliness. He had no-one to talk to but God. No-one understood him and no-one spoke to the depth of his own being and soul. That’s why people who showed him kindnesses are mentioned in the Gospels. Not all that many people did. Surprising it is - but human nature is fickle and selfish and deeply needing to be born again to see the Kingdom of God.
No doubt Jesus intended staying in that hill area for most of the night, praying and then perhaps having some hours of sleep. This was springtime because the grass was green. Maybe there was a full moon which lit the lake below. From where he sat, Jesus could see where the disciples had been and were with their rowing across the lake. A west wind was prevailing against them. It is possible that it was becoming dangerous. The squall could easily capsize the small craft. What happened next is to us a bit scary. To academics it is fanciful. To atheists it is preposterous. About 3 00 am Jesus decided that his disciples were in danger and he went down to the water’s edge and began to walk on or rather just above the water. That cannot happen. Water does not support a human body. But Jesus dealt differently with the limitations of human existence. He was not bound by them and he was not subject to them as we are. We should remember that the Old Testament has many examples of God breaking the rules that govern our life as human beings, beginning with the parting of the Red Sea and including for example, the floating axe-head of the prophet Elisha. But since it the same person who brought earth and life itself into existence, there is no inconsistency in this person not being subject to the local natural laws on our planet and our life.
We are told that "About the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake". That suggests he went to help them in their struggle. On their first journey across he had stilled a violent storm thus saving all of their lives. Perhaps he was needed to do the same again. He would not see his friends perish nor would he leave them to struggle on their own. Sometimes meteorological violence seems personal. It is as if some force wishes to destroy us. The small city of Joplin in America was recently visited by perhaps the fiercest tornado anyone there can remember. More than 130 died. More than 900 were injured. More than 8000 structures were demolished. The place was flattened. Why? We cannot tell. Last Monday as the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland took certain decisions, a destructive unseasonal storm swept across the land, uprooting strong trees, damaging property, injuring some and killing at least one person. Some of you may remember that when a certain bishop of Durham, who had expressed doubts about the actual resurrection of Jesus was consecrated, lightening struck York Minster, starting a fire and causing damage.
There is a detail in Mark’s Gospel that may help us to accept that this incident actually did take place. Verse 48 says, "He was about to pass them by". Why would he do that? Why would he pass them by? There are references in the Gospels to Jesus passing by and people calling after him, like the blind man who shouted to gain attention and then asked to see again. Was it a means of eliciting faith? Was it a way of getting people to respond? Was it a way of making people share in their own healing and salvation by asking for help? Certainly, for most of us today, Jesus passes by and we lack the faith to cry out to him and ask him to stop and help us. We don’t pray enough and we are content with our lot. It is too much of an effort to try to save His Church from decline. Serious prayer is beyond our level of Christian commitment. If we were in that boat - we even might have let Jesus carry on past us without asking him to stop and help.
Perfectly honestly, the text tells us that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. Some academic scholars think that is all that actually happened. A bizarre scientific explanation has recently been offered for this incident. Florida Professor Doran Hof suggested in 2006 that patterns of ice had formed on the lake allowing Jesus to walk out across the lake. Leonardo da Vinci in the late 14th century invented and made large wooden clog-like shoes which were able to support his weight on water. I don’t think that Jesus had thought of the idea earlier. In India there are fakirs who lie on beds on nails and who levitate their bodies above ground level. Some Christian saints also levitated in prayer, notably the 16th century Saint Teresa of Avila.
Spiritual teachers describe times of spiritual heaviness when we drag ourselves along seemingly burdened, slow and troubled. Then God lifts our heaviness away and we feel light and fast and free. Scotland’s Olympic athlete and devout Christian Eric Liddell said that when he ran fast he felt God’s pleasure. It lifted him making him the fastest man in the world at the time. Jesus’ walking on the water seems fanciful but it is not so far removed from certain aspects of human experience at all.
Jesus spoke to the disciples and reassured them and got into the boat and the wind died down. In Mathew’s Gospel, we are told that Peter challenged Jesus to make him walk out on to the water. He did so and began to sink until Jesus rescued him. Neither Mark or John include this, which is surprising. Further details however suggest authenticity. The text says "They were completely amazed for they had not understood about the loaves"; what had they not understood? Surely that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and not a human Messiah. The text then explains that "their hearts were hardened". This at last is something we all know well. How often every day do we harden our hearts against many things in this world. Against the poor people of the world in Africa and elsewhere! Against members of our families with whom we have fallen out! Against neighbours and work colleagues! Against members of our Church! Against husband and wife! We humans do hardness of heart well and a lot. And we harden our hearts against the Holy Spirit too and against the Living Lord. Maybe the disciples were angry that Jesus had not taken the opportunity to begin a revolt and set Israel free. Maybe they were disappointed that he had sent them away and himself fled into the hills for peace. They grumbled a lot we know - about many things in the three years they were with him. This incident must have refocused their minds and thoughts on the true nature of Jesus even if at the time all their knew was fear and then his peace.
Near 2000 years of preaching on this passage have always included the spiritualisation of the meaning of the incident. Jesus comes to us to calm our fears and still the anxieties of our hearts. Jesus saves us from sinking in the sea of life with its emotional storms and its mental buffeting. Jesus saves us from spiritual drowning when our sins engulf us. Jesus rescues us from the dangers of our imagination. All of this is true - but it is not the full meaning of the incident. That is to do with who Jesus really was. No other person asks us to remember his life and death in a sacramental meal such as this here today. No-one else makes the connection for us with the life of our Maker. No-one else takes these ordinary elements and makes them his very self. For this is God incarnate among us who has acknowledged us, claimed us, cared for us, loved us and saved us into and for eternity.