Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, 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.’ Then 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.
He walks on water! It’s become the standard cry of the sports fans to their hero, especially the scorer of the outstanding try or the taker of the apparently impossible catch. He seems to be divinely inspired. He walks on water!
That’s what the disciples in the boat on a stormy sea also think. They believe that this water-walking Jesus is a ghost. But they do not cry out in adulation and amazement. They cry out in fear. We cannot blame them – ghost stories and apparitions hold their eerie fascination in every generation. And it is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
So Jesus has to say to them the words which the gospels record him as saying more than any other – Don’t be afraid! It is fascinating how often Jesus is called upon not so much to inspire his disciples, but to calm them down! He has few opportunities to get beyond first base. Indeed, Mark comments – with the benefit of hindsight that the disciples did not have – that the reason they were afraid was because they had not understood the significance of the feeding of the five thousand!
So, have we understood it? Do we grasp that the supernatural and strange events of the world are as much in the hands of God as the ordinary? Or are we still afraid?
Many years ago we holidayed on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It is probably the most devoutly Christian part of these islands. Church attendance remained high and sabbath activity (other than attending a place of worship) remained rare. We stayed with a lovely local family. The lady of the house cooked tasty local meals and the children and grandchildren came to compare notes between their Gaelic and our Welsh, and compare experiences of educating children in our own languages.
The man of the house would join us each evening and regale us with local folklore. It rapidly became clear that alongside the dour Presbyterianism of the island lived also a belief in second sight, ghosts, apparitions and all kinds of fear-inducing events. We were surprised. It was not quite what we had expected in such a Christian place. But perhaps it illustrates the problem that those first disciples also had – being close to Jesus can make it difficult to understand what is really happening and to distinguish between the hope and new life which he offers and the fearsome interventions of less welcome visitors.
when strange things happen,
help me not to be afraid,
but to know that you can overcome
all our screams and terrors –
because you walk on water.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is a member of Parkminster URC in Cardiff and Policy Officer of Cytun – Churches Together in Wales.