Sunday, August 13th, 2017
The Rev. Anne C. Fowler
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Romans 10:15
Last week I talked about miracles, and people seemed to find that helpful. I recounted what one of my college religion professors had said, that when the Gospels recount a miracle: – the Transfiguration that we heard about last week, or most important of all, the Resurrection – when such a miraculous story is told, it’s describing something so extraordinary that it can only be expressed in “supernatural “ terms. Something happened, something extraordinary and unprecedented…
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea
So, I thought I’d dealt with miracles last week! But now we have the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter trying and failing to do the same. What are we to make of this? To take from this?
In biblical literature, the sea is often represented as the abode of demonic forces hostile God. In the Apocalypse, the final reign of God will mean that the sea no longer exists. Jesus’ walking on the water may have served as evidence of Jesus’ cosmic power subduing the forces of nature.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The story is a kind of epiphany, and appearance of Christ not unlike a resurrection appearance. On a dark night of fear and helplessness Jesus comes to his disciples. They think they see a ghost, until Jesus reassures them.
Then Peter asks for a sign. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter is the voice and heart of the disciples, is, as in the Transfiguration story, between fear and faith. He walks and he sinks, he trusts and he fears, he doubts and then believes. Everybody believes. When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Jesus’ followers have faith, but not enough, and so Jesus nourishes that little faith to the point of confession – truly, you are the Son of God.
You may have read or heard some of the attempts to explain walking on water scientifically. Here’s one : The Cornflour Effect. “They could have created a long, narrow trough and placed it just below the water surface.
While outside the trough, you’d have normal, semi-polluted water of the Galilee Sea, inside the trough, you’d have a mix of water and thixotropic (like cornflour) substance, which would allow a casual demonstrator to appear as if walking on water.
This would surely amaze the crowds, especially if performed in the evening hours when the subtle details of the performance are less obvious.” (http://www.dedoimedo.com/physics/cornflour.html)
Here’s another, entitled A Cold Hard Explanation for a Biblical Feat. “The scientists note that Galilee has warm, salty springs along the western shore, an area Jesus frequented. The water above the springs does not convect when it is cold. If air temperatures dipped below freezing, as sometimes happened then, surface ice could have formed thick enough to support human weight and inspire the biblical story.” (John Noble Wilford, NYT, 4.4.06)
When I was paddle boarding around our harbor in Georgetown the other day, yet another explanation occurred to me……
But really, the story is meant to convince the early Church that Jesus was the Son of God, that as his followers they have faith but not enough, and Jesus nourishes that little faith. The continuing presence in the believing community is experienced as judgement, but also as grace.
But beyond that exalted theological interpretation, what can we take from this story to help us in our daily lives of faith? And what about the wonderful concluding verse from today’s letter to the Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
I’d ask us to remember a time when someone asked or invited or dared us to do something we’d never done before. Maybe go on an Outward Bound adventure, or a whitewater-rafting trip. Maybe try to turn around a relationship that had gone awry, or make peace with an enemy. Anything that takes us out of our comfort zone.
I remember being at a retreat once at Adelynrood, that lovely, peaceful retreat house in Byfield Massachusetts. I can’t remember what we were challenged to do, exactly, but the task I set myself was to climb a tall tree, whose lowest limb was just within my reach and whose branches were far apart. My first try failed . I was disappointed in myself, as my chief athletic ability in childhood was tree climbing.
But the next day I went back and tried again, and this time I succeeded. I scrambled up to the lowest limb and then climbed higher and higher. I felt great! I felt exhilarated, as if I had conquered my timidity and physical limitations. Clearly that modest feat was important, as I remember it some35 years later!
So this is what I like to take from the story of Jesus, and Peter, walking on the water. No pain, no gain. Peter tried, he took the risk, he floundered, but the outcome was a renewed and deepened faith, a faith that would sustain and uphold him as he went on to become the rock on which our church was founded. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Alleluia, Alleluia! Amen.