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. 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.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Part of my problem with biblical literalists is that I think they often fail to see the forest for the trees. They get hung up in trying to prove ( in the case of believers) or disprove (in the case of nonbelievers) Biblical stories, as if that were the most important thing about them. John, the writer of the fourth gospel, was very clear about the purpose of the miracle stories he chose to include in his telling of the Jesus story: miraculous events were important not because they were miraculous, but because they were “signs” attesting to who Jesus was and what the kingdom of God that he proclaimed means.
The message- or “sign”, as John might phrase it- is more important than the medium in today’s gospel reading. I think it’s also helpful to consider the context, which follows roughly the same sequence in Matthew, Mark, and John: Jesus learns of Herod’s execution of his cousin John the Baptist.. He tries to withdraw for a little alone time to process his thoughts and feelings about this horrific event, but is prevented from doing so by throngs of people wanting free healthcare. He spends the day helping them to the full extent of his powers, and when evening falls, his disciples urge him to quit for the day and send the crowds away so he can catch a break. Instead, he feels the need to provide not only free healthcare but free food, and multiplies loaves and fishes in order to feed the hungry crowds. Jesus tries again to withdraw and be by himself, but again his prayer time is interrupted, this time by his own disciples. They attempt to follow his instructions to go home and allow him some private time on the mountaintop, but get into trouble when a sudden storm arises over the Galilee. Jesus rescues his frightened disciples by walking across the stormy seas and calming the waters. Interestingly, John omits Peter’s near-drowning in his version of the the walking-on-water story.
If we try to understand these stories as “signs”, as John calls them, what are the signs telling us? First of all, Jesus cared about people- “he had compassion for them” and put their needs above his own. As Paul put it, “he, being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave born in human likeness, and made himself obedient to death, even death on a cross”. Jesus healed sick people without asking them if they had done all the right things to keep themselves healthy. He fed hungry people without asking them why they weren’t working to earn their daily bread. And he rescued his frightened disciples from the stormy sea, including boastful, impetuous Peter, whose own impulsivity led him into trouble more than once.
Secondly, these stories tell me that God is able to do what we think may be impossible, although he generally prefers to work through people to work his wonders. As a science fiction fan, I don’t find this at all beyond the range of my imagination. I really do not have the problem with the miracles of Jesus in the way that some of my friends do; just because I can’t understand how something might have happened doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Rather, it demonstrates my incomplete understanding of an observed or reported event. If someone living two thousand years ago were suddenly time-transported to my house today and watched me illuminate a dark room with the flick of a light switch, what might they think? Arthur C Clarke, who was not a theist, observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Maybe Jesus had an understanding of and control over reality that we haven’t figured out yet.
As the leaders of the US and North Korea engage in increasingly escalating rhetoric this week, as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and others engage in violence on the streets of Charlotte, NC today, as who know what will happen tomorrow, I can’t think of a better message to share with a frightening and frightened world than today’s gospel passage. Just as Jesus walked through the storm on the sea of Galilee, he walks toward our storm-tossed world today. I often find myself thinking like the frightened disciples, huddled in the bottom of the boat, hoping and praying that the storm will abate before I and all those I love are destroyed. Sometimes I find myself behaving like Peter, impulsively jumping overboard, trying and failing to vanquish the oncoming storm on my own. What I ought to be doing is trying to think like Jesus. Where are there needs, and how can I help?