This Sunday’s reading is another very famous story from the Gospels, the account of Jesus walking on water from Matthew 14.22-33.
Walking on water is one of those phrases that has passed into common English usage. Sometimes as a compliment but usually as a way of damning someone who is perceived to have got too big for their boots. Tony Blair, it was said, was so popular at the height of his powers that he could walk on water. Of course, after the war in Iraq, it was used a stick with which to beat him. He had, it was said, a Messiah complex.
I think part of the reason it’s become so much a part of the popular understanding (or, as is often the way, misunderstanding) of what a Messiah might do or believe they could do is that it is so clearly impossible (even if some professional illusionists may try to present a version of the miracle for entertainment purposes). A human being cannot walk on water, basic physics tells us that – as does the fact that when we step into the bath, we step into – not onto – the water in the bath.
So, what does this event tell us about Jesus, about us and about the world?
The account comes as part of a sequence across chapters 14 to 16 of Jesus subverting accepted understandings of the physical universe (and using some of those events as a means by which to teach his disciples) that will culminate with Peter’s declaration of Jesus as Messiah at which time Jesus begins to explain to his disciples about his forthcoming death. During this sequence, Jesus is seen to be able to multiply food (twice, usually taken to be once among Jews and once among Gentiles), he debunks the notion that the physical world can make a person spiritually unclean and he uses the bread from the multiplication miracles as a means by which to warn his disciples to be on their guard against other teaching.
Jesus is by this account, within the broader sequence outlined above, shown to have mastery of the physical world – whether by controlling it by making food go a lot further than it ought, by disobeying its rules by walking on a lake or by declaring its limitations by stating it cannot spiritually defile a person. Here there are hints of Jesus’ divinity, underlined by those in the boat worshipping (proskuneo, the New Testament’s most common word to be so translated) Jesus and declaring him to be the Son of God. We see more in Jesus that that though. Immediately prior to this event, Jesus has heard that his cousin John has been executed. His response to that was to try to get a little bit of space, some personal time – to reflect, to mourn, to pray, to make whatever his response was to be to the news. He had tried to do what many people would do on hearing of the sudden, violent death of a loved family member but the people who were following him did what all too many congregations do to their pastor, vicar or priest and they follow him into his solitary time, they invade his personal space and they will not let him alone. This is hardly surprising, people have needs. At the most fundamental level, people need to connect with the divine, with the Creator and – whether they knew how closely that were true here or not – they had found that connection in Jesus. Jesus, of course, has compassion on the crowds, bringing healing to those who were ill and the feeding them miraculously at the end of the day.
What he had been unable to do was what he had intended, to process the news of John’s death. I can’t help but think that at the end of that day of all days, Jesus must have been exhausted. No wonder, then, that he dismisses the crowd at the end of the day and finally gets his alone time. It is very easy at times to either under- or overemphasize the human or divine nature of Jesus but here is a reminder for us that we must always hold the two together, neither blended or distinct, not in conflict with each other nor in a bland harmony. In the midst of showing us Jesus’ mastery over the physical world, a powerful statement of his divinity, Matthew also shows him needing to be alone, grieving, tired, vulnerable. This is the Jesus seen by his closest friends walking on the lake, this is the Jesus nailed to a cross, this is the Jesus risen, ascended and sitting at the right hand of the Father.
And the moment in which he comes to his disciples here is one to which many of us can relate. As professional fishermen (many of them at any rate), they were experts on the water. Yet here, they are struggling at the thing which they are experienced in doing. Buffeted by the waves, straining on the oars, being driven by a wind that was against them. We can all have times when we fail (or seem to fail) at the things which should come easiest to us. It is in those times when we most need the confidence that Jesus will meet us – even if, like his disciples here, we don’t immediately recognise him. We may be like the man who lived by the river in this story from The West Wing, unable to see the hand and action of God at work:
We may not recognize Jesus but he calls out to us in the midst of the storm, “Take courage!”
And courage it is that we may well because he may then ask us, as he does Peter here, to do something seemingly impossible. It may not be that he asks us to physically walk on a lake but he may ask us to undertake an act of ministry where we’re uncertain that the metaphorical ground below us will support us. “Take courage!” He may ask us to cross to the other side of a metaphorical lake, to unfamiliar territory and people who are not like us and show them the love of God revealed in the grieving, exhausted, compassionate Jesus. “Take courage!” He may – he does – ask us to walk in the way of the cross, to put aside our self-importance, to hold loosely to the things of this world and our possessions, to live, spend ourselves and be prepared to die to see his Kingdom come in his world. “Take courage!”
Because, if Jesus is Lord over the physical world, if he is the one by whom all things were created and if he is the one who is the firstfruits of the transformed physical world to come, then we can at least begin to say with the Psalmist, “In God I trust and will not fear, what can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56.4)