The relationship between Jesus and his closest followers was forged around the large lake called the Sea of Galilee. Several of his disciples were fishermen who knew the lake well. Jesus taught on its shores and travelled on its waters with his fishermen friends. Their experience of Jesus led to the outburst of spiritual energy called the Resurrection. The magnetism of that energy, pulsating through the men and women who had known Jesus, and especially through Paul of Tarsus who had not known him, created the communities which became the Christian church. The gospel writers were each part of one of these communities. What they wrote emerged out of memories of what Jesus had said and done and reflection on all that had happened since his death.
Why do I mention all this? Because I am fascinated by two stories which appear in all four gospels – a rare occurrence in itself. In both stories the disciples are caught in a storm on the lake. In one Jesus is in the boat with his disciples. In the other (here in chapter 6) he comes to them walking on the water through the storm.
I have already posted a blog on September 30th about Mark’s stilling the storm story. (Matthew’s version is in chapter 8 verses 23-27 and Luke’s in chapter 8 verses 22-25). Now we come to Mark’s walking on the water story (paralleled in Matthew 14: 22-23 and John 6: 16-21. Luke doesn’t relate the story). We might ask, are these stories an accurate memory of something that actually happened or are they part memory, part reflection in the light of those vibrant new Christian communities within which the gospel writers lived and worked? Readers of this blog will know what my answer is!
Two things puzzle me about the walking on the water story. In Mark, Matthew and John (Luke doesn’t have the story, remember) the disciples think the figure approaching through the storm is a ghost. Secondly, only Mark ends his story with these words:
And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
What on earth have loaves got to do with it?! Matthew and John don’t mention them, but all three gospels place this story after the feeding of a large crowd with loaves and fish, so there’s a connection somewhere.
For clues to these puzzles let’s look first at some passages from the Psalms:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Psalm 107: 23-30
18:16 he drew me out of the mighty waters
69:1 Save me O God for the waters have come up to my neck
77:16 When the waters saw you O God they were afraid…. (and verse 19): your way was through the sea.
89:9 You rule the raging of the sea.
Clearly the gospel writers had these passages in mind as they wrote their stories.
My next clue lies in chapter 21 of John’s gospel. In this post-Resurrection story Peter and some other disciples have been fishing unsuccessfully all night. Jesus is waiting on the shore but they do not recognise him. (As if he was a ghost?) He tells them to try once more for some fish and – bingo! – a huge haul. John says, “It is the Lord!”. They come ashore with their catch and there is Jesus, waiting for them with an invitation to breakfast. “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it too them and did the same with the fish.” Remember the feeding of the feeding with loaves and fishes?
Surely here in all these stories we have recollections of the remarkable presence of Jesus, his utter stillness in the midst of a storm on the lake, his complete trust in the God he called ‘Abba’, his enjoyment of meals as profoundly social occasions from which no one was excluded. Whatever else the Resurrection may have been it was surely a process of reflecting on this real Presence of Jesus. So still, today, when things go wrong, when negotiating a large crowd in a busy city street, at meal times and ultimately facing mortality and death, a Presence arises within us if we are attentive and let it be so.