St Bride's: Sermons

Ice-skating Jesus

Matthew 14: 22-23

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22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.

23 And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.

24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.

25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.

26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.

27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.

29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.

30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.

31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

32 And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.

33 Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.

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On the 29th July 2006, the official BBC website included an item that amused me so much that I printed it out and kept it.  The headline reads: 'Did Jesus walk on water - or ice?', and the article reads as follows:

Jesus may not have walked on water as the Bible claims - but rather skated on ice formed through a freak cold spell, a scientific study has suggested.  Rare atmospheric and water conditions could have caused ice to form on the freshwater Sea of Galilee.  The research shows a period of cooler weather swept what is now northern Israel from 1,500 to 2.600 years ago.  Sub-zero temperatures could have caused the formation of ice thick enough to support the weight of a man.  The story of Jesus walking on water is recorded in three of the four Gospels but Professor Doron Nof, an oceanographer from Florida State University, insists that his research points to a scientific rather than miraculous explanation ... Partially submerged in water, the ice patches, known as 'springs ice', may not have been noticed by observers standing at a distance.  "Because of the size of the springs ice, a person standing or walking on it would appear to a distant observer to be walking on water," Professor Nof wrote in the report's conclusion.

Do you know, it never fails to amaze me that if you want to find an example of the most credulous, naïve Biblical literalism, very often the best place to start looking for it is amongst hard-nosed, atheist scientists who - ironically - think they are being incredibly rational and objective when they produce this kind of stuff.  Because their starting point is always the automatic, unthinking, and uncritical assumption that every story in the Bible must be absolutely and literally true in all its details - which they then proceed to try and explain away as some kind of unusual natural occurrence, in an attempt to prove that although it really did happen exactly as described in scripture, God didn't actually have anything to do with it.

And in doing this, such scientists not only reveal their naïve credulity, but also a stupendous level of ignorance about what kind of a book the Bible actually is, and what it is setting out to do.

Now I should stress at this point that I am not for a moment suggesting that the Bible is a work of fiction, nor that what it contains has no basis in history.  Rather, I want to underline the fact that the Bible is first and foremost a work of theology: it is the testimony of the people of God to the actions of the living God within their very midst: it is testimony to that lived experience, but told in such a way that story, and interpretation, and imagery, and symbolism are profoundly woven together in a way that gives it a significance that transcends both culture and time.  Is it true?  Yes, it is profoundly true - but emphatically not in the simplistic, literalistic sense that Professor Nof and his like naively assume.

The Gospel writers set out to give us an account of the life, and work, and ministry, and death, and resurrection of Christ that leaves us in absolutely no doubt as to who Jesus truly was, and why belief in his name mattered - and continues to matter to us today.  And they do this by reflecting on the living memory of that life, and work, and ministry, and death, and resurrection - and retelling that story in a way that made its overriding truth most compellingly apparent to their hearers.  And one of the ways in which they do that is by weaving into the story themes and motifs that would make immediate connections for their audiences, with the Hebrew Scriptures - our Old Testament.  The New Testament writers constantly draw upon its stories and imagery when telling the story of Christ, and do so in a way that sets those images ablaze with whole new dimensions of significance, and power, and meaning.

For example: there is a story in 2 Kings that tells how a man came to the prophet Elisha bringing him twenty barley loaves and fresh ears of grain.  Elisha instructs him to use that bread to feed the crowd of a hundred strong, who had gathered around him.  The man is incredulous that so little could feed so many - but Elisha assures him that not only will there be enough, but that there will be plenty left over, as indeed there is.  Does that story remind you of anything?

Because it should do - our gospel reading today begins with a reference to the miraculous feeding by Jesus of a crowd of five thousand people, with five loaves and two fishes - basically the same story, except with less food and far, far more people.  In effect, the Gospel writers are saying - 'you remember that amazing thing that Elisha once did? - well, I'm telling you, that was nothing ...'

Because the simple truth is that when they were around Jesus people were fed!  They were fed extravagantly and excessively; they were fed with far, far more than they could want or need, and with tons left over - because that is how the grace of God works.  And they were fed with something far, far more significant than food.  The story of the loaves and fishes has very little to do with the ability of Jesus to perform conjuring tricks with bread rolls, but has everything to do with his astonishing capacity to fill the lives of people whose lives are empty; who are starved of hope; who are lost; who are afraid.

And then think about the story of Jesus walking on the water.  Wow!  This guy certainly had extraordinary talent.  But if you think about it - actually - so what?  In what possible way does that bizarre event, taken literally, say anything remotely helpful or relevant to us here today? 

I shall tell you.  Firstly, at the level of story, this incident alerts us to the fact that this really was no ordinary man.  We are presented with a Christ who is fully human, as we are, and yet not bound by the normal rules that govern Creation - precisely because in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus we are given a window onto God, who is the ruler of Creation.  But there is something else important here, too.

The Sea of Galilee is a massive inland sea that is situated at the top of a geographical wind tunnel.  For this reason, it is notorious for the severe storms that can be whipped up in seconds.  Because it is enclosed on all sides, the waves driven against one shore bounce back to collide with those hurtling in, and if you are caught out in the open water, the results are terrifying.  I once travelled across the Sea of Galilee in rough weather, which was scary enough, but for the disciples who are in a storm-battered boat, far from land, it must have been absolutely terrifying.

And yet Jesus comes to them - and he does so in the most extraordinary and surprising of ways - in a way that defies all their expectations.  He does not leave them alone and afraid and abandoned.  He comes to them.  And what is his message to them?  The one phrase that, at moments of divine revelation, occurs more often than any other phrase in the whole of the New Testament: 'Do not be afraid.'  And when Peter, sinking into the waters reaches for the hand of Jesus and lets go of his fear - suddenly he finds that he, too, can do things that he had assumed were completely beyond his capabilities.  And

I am afraid, Professor Nof, that ice-skating simply does not enter into it.

The more years I spend in ministry the less surprised I find I am by my encounters with the miraculous: human situations that seem totally intractable, without hope of resolution, are suddenly transformed; people who really are 'all at sea' - lost, abandoned and afraid - suddenly find that Christ comes to them; bringing peace and calm and a sense of safety.

Perhaps the single most disabling of all human emotions is that of fear.  Fear not only has the power to engulf and overwhelm us; blind us to the true reality of a situation; distort our perspectives, and drive us to act in uncharacteristic ways - but it is also inherently destructive and life-denying. 

Which is why the message that Jesus brings to those who most need his love and grace - the most important message that Jesus brings to all of us in our hour of need is this:

"It is I.  Do not be afraid."

Amen

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