Walking on Sunshine
Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr David McLean preaches on Christ’s presence to and in His Church.
In today’s gospel reading we have one of the most famous miracle stories of the bible: the story of Jesus walking on water. Jesus’ disciples are in a boat, in a storm, and Jesus goes out to join them. Presumably, as the rest of us would have done (if brave enough), Jesus could have swum out to the boat, but instead Jesus chooses to get there by walking on the water.
Talk of water and boats are quite common in the bible. Something I only really appreciated once I became a chaplain in the Royal Navy. I soon learned it was useful to claim Jesus as the founder of Naval chaplaincy, even if only to annoy Army and Air Force colleagues.
It is not all good news though. There are lots of jokes during swimming tests and the like that there is an extra rule for chaplains: no walking on water. Every teller thinking they invented the joke.
There was more than constant repetition that worried me about the walking on water joke. It struck me that people don’t know very much about this miracle story apart from the image of Jesus walking on water. They don’t know the biblical context. They don’t know why Jesus walked on water in the first place. And they don’t know the reaction of the disciples.
Now that is a great shame, because the reaction of the disciples is perhaps the most significant aspect of the story. We always have to remember to keep the miraculous aspect of miracle stories in perspective. That the story contains a miracle, Jesus walking on water, should not blind us to what else is there.
Miracles in general can distract those ready to be distracted. Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus tells people not to believe on account of miracles, because any wandering magician is capable of miracles. Instead, Jesus calls on people to believe, because what they hear is true. In other words, they should believe on account of what they hear.
So it is a shame here that people can only remember Jesus walking on water. Jesus walking on water is no reason to believe anything. Any mediocre magician could convince people that he was walking on water, but that would not make us think that we were dealing with anything more than a clever magician.
Some understanding of what life at sea is like really does help appreciating the force of today’s story. Even a large ship, which is as steady as a tower block in harbour, can seem like a cork in a heavy sea. Human efforts again seem insignificant, and sailors again turn their attention toward their maker. No wonder that images of boats, sailors, and rough seas are popular in the bible.
The point of this particular miracle story is to bring solace to the church in a time when Jesus is no longer living among them. The Church is likened to a boat in a storm with no competent captain to steer the ship. The Church is in danger of being swamped or smashed on rocks.
For the disciples’ boat, in the rough sea, we are supposed to picture the Church after the death of Jesus: buffeted by huge waves. As the disciples in the boat are terrified at the sight of Jesus walking on the water, far from them, so the disciples of the Church after the death of Jesus are terrified that even though they can still see him, he is far from them.
In the gospel story Jesus tells the disciples in the boat to have faith. Despite his absence, he is still with them. So it is with the Church after his death. Jesus is still with us.
Jesus is with us when we act in justice towards our fellow human beings. Jesus is with us when people act in justice and peace towards us.
And above all else, Jesus is with us really and truly in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus is not outside or far from the Church, but is at its heart, leading us to the divine life, leading us to walk not on turbulent waters, but on sunshine streaming from his Sacred Heart.