Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. (Mark 6:45-56 ESV)
It wouldn’t be the wisest thing if we made an assessment or judgement about a person based on a single moment. We see a fellow bringing flowers home and the cynical among us think ‘What has he done wrong?’ while the more romantic among us might go ‘Oh how sweet’ but we don’t know much at all from a single observation. We need to know a little more – a few more observations perhaps – a context – to really understand what we’re seeing.
Now sometimes being observed once-off is critical when for example we go for a driving test or a teacher is observed during a visit from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools or the police have a speed gun on us as we drive past.
So we’re used to observations – doing them and being observed – and to understand what we’re seeing we’d like a context or a number of sightings but if necessary we can make judgements on the basis of one. So my question today in relation to the Gospel – Jesus walking on the water and Jesus healing the crowds – is ‘How do we see Jesus in the Gospels?’.
Are these scenes new to us – we’re ‘seeing’ them for the first time – I never knew Jesus did that! – or is this so familiar to us – yes, Jesus walks on water, yes Jesus heals because he’s God you know – that we don’t really see this event at all? We know the ending to Jesus’ life on earth, we know the disciples are thick – they so rarely ‘get it’ – that the story doesn’t speak to us more than superficial generalities. It doesn’t really apply to us because the few times – or the many! – we’ve been on a boat, Jesus hasn’t come walking to us and we wouldn’t expect him to – nor would we expect him to turn up and tell a storm to ‘shut up’ if we were caught in one. We hear the Gospel – nod – yes, Jesus is God – and move on with our daily lives.
Partly this has to do with all miracle stories which can be good – even exciting – to hear – unless we want one – help in a storm or healing. Then, if that is the case, miracle stories can almost mock our hard times, our pleas, our questions, and leave us wondering ‘What’s wrong?!’ or ‘What’s wrong with me?!’ when miracles don’t happen.
Or we allegorise the story – maybe for Sunday School – and say that the Gospel today says to us that Jesus can help us in the ‘storms of life’ and he brings about healing eventually or through doctors – which isn’t incorrect! – but it is certainly a ‘watering down’ of the miraculous.
There are many problems which plague humanity in relation to God – if people say he exists – and which show themselves in that people want God’s gifts, his blessings, his help rather than him. ‘Lord, protect ‘Lord, help me!’ ‘Lord, heal me!’ Such prayers can be prayed long before ‘Lord, I want to know you’. The genie is only good for three wishes.
The Gospel accounts are not menu options from God’s catalogue of deeds which we might ask for. The Gospel accounts are proclamations of God’s rescuer – the Messiah – the Saviour – and who he is and what he has done. So Mark begins his account not with Christmas but a declaration: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1) and then proceeds to give us the evidence to back up, support, defend, prove his proclamation. Skim his chapters and you will find story after story in which Jesus doesn’t fit the usual boxes or categories. The demons cry out – they know who Jesus is – but Jesus forbids them to speak. The crowds ask, ‘What is this? A new teaching and with authority!’. The teachers of the Law muttered ‘Who can forgive sins except God alone?’. Later other teachers will claim that Jesus is Beelzebub as the answer. His family will say, ‘He is out of his mind’. Jesus will claim an enigmatic title ‘Son of Man’ but then say that he is ‘Lord, even of the Sabbath’. After the stilling of the storm the disciples are terrified. ‘Who is this? Even the winds and waves obey him!’ In his hometown he is a cause of offense because the locals think they know him and some special he aint!
Then comes a key miracle – recorded in all 4 Gospels – a re-creation – a modern wilderness moment – hungry people and no food. The feeding of the 5,000 is powerful. Some scholars suggest that this is the loudest beat of the drum to get the people’s attention – who is this Jesus? ‘C’mon, make the leap!’ In John’s account the people try to make Jesus their king – they want the gifts – and Jesus says, ‘No’ and quickly gets rid of the disciples – across the lake you go – and he goes up the mountain to pray.
Then comes our reading today in Mark but let me keep giving you the context. Jesus will then take on the Pharisees about what is clean and unclean, perform more healings and then feed 4,000 and the disciples will still not get it! Jesus will be blunt (Mark 8:21) ‘Do you still not understand?’. Then another healing and then Jesus asks the famous question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:27). And Peter will confess, ‘you are the Christ’ which are good and correct words but still more understanding is needed and will come.
But back to our Gospel account …
Jesus has sent them on this journey and they’re really struggling. He walks to them. They all see him and freak – ‘ghost!!’. No one can satisfactorily answer why Jesus seemed to be going past them when earlier the verse says that he was coming to them in the dawn light. I think that the ‘passby’ reference is the disciples’ perception – Jesus was coming to help them – and their reaction shows that they have not understood the feeding of the 5,000. Job says that God stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea (Job 9:8). Mark says that the disciples were amazed as Jesus got into the boat but there were no light bulbs, no understanding, no kneeling in worship and no amazing truth that Jesus is God.
Have you ever wondered why family and friends seem to so stubbornly reject what, to you, is most obvious – that Jesus is God?
Don’t wonder! Don’t get perplexed! Don’t get angry or frustrated!
Thank God for his grace that you believe that Jesus is Lord and God and keep reading the Bible again and again to be reminded how hard it is for people to believe. What people want are the gifts and blessings. Yes, Jesus did heal – many times – but not always first – because he was clear that his mission was more than just physical healing – it was our salvation and life with God – yes, in this world and definitely in the next. Healings were very much pointers to life with God now and always.
Still today our family and friends who keep Jesus at arm’s length say that they might consider him if – can you see what is coming? – something special – a miracle perhaps – happens. They want the wish granted … but no one really believes in genies!
Mark will keep arguing his case – presenting Jesus and a Roman centurion will say at the foot of a cross having witnessed Jesus’ execution. ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39).
Similarly we can read this account and meet Jesus and see how he can be perplexing and yet present – and this miracle – indeed the whole Gospel – gives us permission almost to take the world on about Jesus. We tell the world the full story – all the observations – walking on water, healing, cross, empty tomb and we tell the world to be careful because Jesus does come to them but they can easily be like the disciples and not recognise him – ‘we didn’t expect Jesus to do that – die on the cross’. Today people might say, ‘we didn’t expect Jesus to come to us through water, bread and wine, through words spoken by family or friend or read in the Bible’.
And if the world wants a miracle, then tell them that Jesus is up for the challenge. Think about it … if they genuinely want to believe but say they can’t then there is already faith there! If they want their own miracle, point them to the empty tomb and challenge them as they wait for their own miracle to prove Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If they want their own miracle, ask them will that really be enough to believe or will they come up with another explanation? The mystery of faith is that we can be stubborn thick people – who push Jesus away – who keep Jesus on the peripheral – but that never stops Jesus coming to save us each and every day.
- Mark 6:45 - 56