It's a miracle...
By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Jul 29 2018
Here’s a miracle that makes me wonder – “WHY?” What’s the point? Making water into wine – I get that. Feeding thousands from a bag lunch – okay. Healing the sick –sight to the blind – raising the dead?!?!?! – I Totally understand the significance. As miracles – as symbols – all of these make sense.
But walking on water?
For those who treasure the Scriptural record – for people of faith – it is not news that Jesus meets us in the midst of trials. That Jesus defies our expectations and appears when we least expect him: also not news.
That God allows Jesus to defy the laws of nature for no particular reason is either big news or fake news, and there are strong opinions for each of these conclusions.
Miracles in Scripture usually spring from a real need, or are offered for an expressed purpose. This story seems to have neither.
There has been a miracle or two leading up to this episode. In John’s telling, the crowds have been fed and they are so impressed, they try to take Jesus by force and make him king. That is an extreme reaction to an excellent (but unexpected) meal. (No one has ever threatened to make me their king after eating at my house – maybe I need to ‘up my game’…) This tense interaction leads Jesus (in John’s account) to isolate himself for a while – until the coast is clear – and the disciples find themselves briefly alone.
Their response suggests to me that they too were among the crowds clamouring for Jesus to be their king. Jesus’ self-directed retreat leaves the people disgruntled – the disciples too, who head straight for the boat, and row off into the gathering dark. The author of the fourth gospel offers us this information as background for this miracle moment.
The wind comes up – of course. The going gets tough, as you would expect on a dark lake, with frustrated fellows at the oars. And then, when they are just far enough from shore to be really uncomfortable, they see him. Jesus - strolling across the wave tops; not a care in the world.
Terrified – that’s how the gospel describes them – and who could blame them? The wind is up; their spirits are down. They’re making no progress and suddenly Jesus overtakes them. Without a vessel of his own and with no particular destination in mind, Jesus calls out and says (ridiculously…) “Don’t be afraid.” Then, everything happens at once. They are comforted – accompanied – and safely arrived - immediately.
In Mark’s gospel, we see the word ‘immediately’ so often, we stop appreciating the real sense of it. When John’s gospel says something happened ‘immediately’, which it does only twice, we ought to pay attention.
Jesus’ appearance cuts through the chatter, the anxiety, all the detail of the scene, and brings the thing to a reasonably satisfactory conclusion - just as you’d expect. But why? If this was just about putting fear to rest, there were plenty of chances to do that. If it’s about ‘teaching a lesson’ - about Jesus’ real purpose, take the disciples off with you, Jesus - tell them, straight up, what it is you’re all about. But that does not seem to be how Jesus works.
The gospels lay out a pattern of wonder and glory - miracles and insights that we treasure. We have the benefit of history and tradition, which help us find ‘meaning’. We can laugh at the stubborn (ignorance) of the disciples, who can’t seem to appreciate the truth about Jesus…but what they knew (as the story unfolds) was that Jesus is asking (and doing) the impossible. Jesus doesn’t ‘explain himself’ except in parables and by pointing people to the reality of God which waits just at the edge of our awareness. With each miracle, imagine that Jesus has pulled back a curtain and offered us a peek at the ceaseless work of God for the redemption of Creation…water into wine; food for the multitudes; sight for the blind; wholeness for the broken; and yes, the laws of nature set aside, if only briefly.
If miracles like this one have ‘a point’, then that is it. They are what Jesus uses to bring the enlightenment Paul prays for: “…that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth…” It is Paul who first stands outside of Jesus story and tries to put the pieces together for us. From persecutor to promoter of the cause, Paul knows only two miracles for certain; Christ’s resurrection and Paul’s own miraculous transformation. These are enough for Paul to recognize the presence of God, and to pray that we might have the same experience.
But our own experience seems to waver between two polar opposites. Miracles are viewed with either devotion or suspicion. We argue about the impossibility; we get hung up in the operating principles, or we reduce them to object lessons. Some insist that if you can’t “take it on faith” that Jesus did these things, then you don’t know what faith is. But the purpose of miracles is to remind us of the continual work of God. When the crowds are hungry and there’s not enough food, we have lost sight of the work of God. When the waves are against us and the wind howls and moans and we can’t get where we want to go, we’ve lost touch with God’s guiding spirit.
The “immediately” of John’s gospel suggests that God was still at work - constantly at work - even when it seemed like God was absent. The miracle of a safe and timely arrival - not to mention Jesus’ alarming presence in the middle of the lake - becomes a miracle when the disciples finally notice; because they suddenly have the “power to comprehend the height, breadth, depth and length” of God’s influence - God’s care - God’s presence in this crazy, mixed-up reality of ours.
We have access to more information than we need about the world and our place in it. We have centuries of experience of trying to explain life's mysteries, and still there are miracles all around us. Most of the time we are too busy, or too sophisticated to see. So every once in a while God throws us a curve. Every so often - for no apparent reason - beauty is revealed, or the impossible appears before us and demands to be recognized. Miracle is the word we use to describe those moments. Miracles are the garments God wears to meet us.