Walking on Water
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
10 August 2008, 10:30 (Trinity 12)
It’s holiday time and this weekend our news is full of the Olympic Games and the spectacular opening ceremony and hopes for medals and glory. By contrast to the Chinese setting, Russia and Georgia are on the brink of war and thousands of people are being killed, injured and made homeless. The contrast between the Olympic ideals of ‘one world, one dream’ and the crisis over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and its nightmare of death, violence and displacement is vivid. We human beings are such a mixture of nobility, creativity and compassion along with savagery, destruction and cruelty. We certainly have our limitations even if we refuse to recognise them.
At its best, the human spirit is always pressing to expand our human boundaries, by breaking records and discovering new information bringing about progress in knowledge, ideas and human self understanding. Yet whatever we achieve, there is always another barrier to breach and another record to beat. So is there any limit to what we can know, do and be? Will there be a time when we cannot run, jump, swim, throw, hurl any faster, longer, higher and so on?
Certainly, the margins of our records are measured in relatively small amounts as we reach a plateau of achievement and record breaking. It all goes to show that as human beings we are mortal and finite, and in the bigger picture in terms of the creation and our universe and beyond, we are really tiny and insignificant. As Psalm 103 so graphically puts it:
Our days are but as grass;
we flourish as a flower of the field:
For as soon as the wind goes over it, it is gone,
and its place shall know it no more.
Yes, our strength and lifespan is but fleeting and puny in the scale of the natural order.
And yet it is the Bible, the testimony of the presence of God through history, that challenges us to be reshaped, reformed, renewed and redeemed in the light of the present moment.
Whether it is in the idealism of the Olympic Games or in the barbarity of wars, neglect and oppression, God is the Lord of lords and the meaning and purpose of all human lives.
And so this morning in our gospel reading we are confronted with this miracle of Jesus, the carpenter’s son, walking on the Sea of Galilee. Do you believe it? Why is it recorded? Would it matter if the Christ couldn’t walk on water? These questions are framed by our God-given intelligence and they need a response in the context of the 21st century.
Many people struggle in the life of faith because of the miraculous element and because the Bible is not like any other literature. It is as if we can only operate our minds, our hearts and our souls in one mode: the one in which the rational dominates to the extent of obliterating the equally important and valid realm of mystery. Whether we like it or not, and Richard Dawkins take note, we live in the reality of the known and the unknown.
I will venture even further and press that to the knowable and the unknowable. Yes, we have limits and God knows this and honours this.
Remember how Thomas would not believe the report by the other apostles of Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the Upper Room? Jesus challenged Thomas twice over: to touch and so to believe on his terms but also to accept that even more blessed will be those who believe without the reassurance of physical sight and tangible proof. This is the truth of the miracle of God in Jesus. It took so long for Jesus’ disciples to venture out from the shore of certitude into the risk of the waters of the sea of faith.
And we are just the same. We want to be sure – even if we know, or some parts of us know, that human beings just can’t be sure in the way that we want to be! We so quickly revert to wanting everything to be just as we want it and demand it.
It is not only the recipe for disaster and disillusionment; it is also the worst thing that could happen to us: getting what I want or what we want! And so Jesus is walking not on the terra firma that is the dust and clay out of which we have come, but on the waters that represent, throughout the Bible, the chaos that exists as the Spirit of God hovers over it to bring about meaning and eternity.
Here is the Lord over the chaos that overwhelms our order and precedes everything that we can know. So the picture that our Gospel account paints this morning is not some spectacular news flash that Jesus is a wonder worker or perhaps some freak or even a charlatan.
Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee is not a piece of information to be assumed and filed into our sense of what the world is and might be. No. This is revelation - in and through human experience. God is truly amongst us, and is lovingly and ceaselessly speaking and acting within our lives.
Peter responds to this amazing truth – and wishes to be a part of it. He reaches out to the Jesus that he knows and loves by the means that he fears most and which separates him, and us, from faith: the stormy waters of death and destruction themselves.
And those waters are everywhere around us today just as of old. The gunfire and bombs in Georgia, the cries heard and unheard in Zimbabwe, Darfur, Tibet, Burma, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and indeed the whole wide world over. And we must not forget that the dramatic settings of the Olympic park in Beijing involved the demolition of hundreds, if not thousands, of homes in the ancient and picturesque city: the authorities rode roughshod over people’s lives. We are so easily seduced by the dramatic, the powerful, the glamorous, the respectable and the status quo.
These, in fact, are the great wind, the earthquake and the fire which passed by Elijah on the mountainside. But it was the in the paradox and contradiction of the sound of sheer silence that the Lord God spoke – and he does so today. God in Jesus lives and dies and is raised in the suffering and the agony of the meek, the silenced and the voiceless.
And he reigns, in eternity and in time, over the chaos that we so easily mistake as our world and the way that it has to be when we rule. I am sorry if this has not been a very sunny sermon for you but August is like that: it is only the few and the blessed who get the holidays and particularly the holidays in the sun. But the good news is that in the storms, the rain, and the frightening seas of life, God can meet us and walk over all that frightens and diminishes us. It is here in church, as the family gathered by Jesus this morning that we become fearless and eternal. Here is a lesson for those who discredit faith and hope and love and see this life as only a selfish race to grab the gold and glory that is ultimately worthless.
As T.S. Eliot wrote:
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads.
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance...
And the wind shall say: ‘Here were decent godless people.
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls’.
Can you keep the City that the Lord keeps not with you?
A thousand policemen directing the traffic
Cannot tell you why you come, or where you go.
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together,
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
T S Eliot – Choruses from the Rock
Yes, God in Jesus comes to us amidst the storms and doubts and terrors of this life; he walks through and over the waters of chaos and death, and he calls out to us:
Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.