Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Whether fact or fiction, it makes a fine Feddersen’s Fable. Mark Twain’s wife accompanied him on a visit to the Holy Land. They were staying in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful, moonlit night and the weather was perfect. Twain had a romantic notion and took his wife for a boat ride. They walked down to the pier, and asked a man in a rowboat how much he would charge to row them out on the gently rolling water for awhile. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes and white Texas hat. The oarsman, thinking him a wealthy Texan, said, “I guess about 25 dollars.” Mark Twain thanked him, and as he walked away with his wife on his arm, he was heard to exclaim: “Now I know why Jesus walked!”
Glendon Harris wrote: “Humor is one way we have of dealing with miracles. But the danger of this is that we can laugh away the underlying truth that was the original intent of the story. We chuck the message with the chuckle. A similar mistake is in trying to explain away or give some interpretation to the miracle. In either case, belief is more often hindered than helped.”
This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus and then Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee. Unlike some stories of the mighty acts of God, this one does not lend itself to any kind of scientific explanation or other interpretation. I tend to think that any attempt to write it off or explain it away comes from the fact that it affronts scientific intelligence. Of course, a lot of things insult our present scientific intelligence — the flight of a bumblebee is hardly the least of these. In days gone by scientific intelligence was also insulted by those who believed the world was round, that man could fly, that pictures could be transmitted through the air right into our living rooms, and that machines could compute.
To this very day, everyone knows that a 5-year-old kid could not even write a concerto, let alone produce one that would forever after be considered a classic and a masterpiece. The fact that Mozart already did it almost 240 years ago has not changed that knowledge for most people simply because they are unaware of it. Many scientifically impossible things are no longer seen as impossible for the simple reason that somebody came along and did them. People who can see in their minds’ eyes what others cannot even imagine, who believe what others already know to be false are often called daydreamers and fools. History, on the other hand, calls many of them inventors. Two of the world’s best-known daydreamers are Disney and Spielberg. Three of the greatest fools are DaVinci, Edison and Einstein. Someone has pointed out that 20 years ago Hollywood could not have produced Spielberg’s special effects at all, but 20 years from now some of them will be facts, not just effects!
If we are not going to simply throw up our hands in unbelief, and throw out the integrity of the Biblical authors by thinking that they deliberately lied, then we ought to ask ourselves why Matthew and the others included this story about Jesus walking on the water. Many other portions of the Gospel accounts reveal clearly that Jesus refused to be cast into the role of magician or wonder-worker. He would not perform for the amusement of the devil, the crowds, or even a command performance before King Herod. More than once He complained: “All you want is signs and wonders.” St. Mark offers a thought that the disciples were dumfounded because they did not understand the meaning of the miracle of the loaves. He implies that the feeding of the thousands should have given them some insight into the fact that they were in some pretty fast company! They should not have been surprised to see Jesus walking along on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a terrible storm. What was their reaction? Was it surprise? Matthew says they were terrified. Since, as we all know, it is scientifically impossible for a person to walk on water, they assumed they were seeing a ghost!
What foolish and simple people, we say; didn’t their mothers ever tell them: “There are no such things as ghosts”? We scientific moderns would never think He was a ghost. What would we think? I’ll tell you something I probably would not think — I would not think about getting out of the boat! That was Peter’s idea: “Lord, if it is You, bid me come to You on the water.” Jesus told him to come, and he did. Then Matthew records a strange sentence: “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid.” Excuse me, but can you see the wind? I suppose if you can see a ghost, phantom or apparition, you can see the wind, but that is not what Matthew meant. If you have ever been out in the middle of a lake when a strong wind came up, then you can honestly say that you saw the wind. I have seen it; it’s frightening. When the waves get bigger than I am, I don’t particularly want to be in the boat — let alone get out on the water!
When Jesus fed the thousands, He demonstrated His authority over the normal stuff of life in order to convince His disciples to put aside their worries and anxieties and place their hope in Him. In this lesson, He puts much greater fears to rest. In chronological order, the disciples are afraid of the storm, a supposed apparition coming toward them, and finally the wind and waves. To all of this, Jesus says, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
I have written before that guilt and worry are opposite sides of the same coin. They are the same emotion, divided only by the direction we are looking. People look back and feel guilt, or they look ahead and worry. If the forward vision is intense, we can call the emotion fear. The only difference between worry and fear is the intensity of the feeling. This trinity of emotion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. Jesus confronts all three aspects of it and demonstrates how faith in Him relieves all of it. One of the surest things that you can count on in this life is that you cannot live a rich, good, meaningful and joyful life in the present if you are stretched out emotionally between the past and the future.
Jesus’ stroll across the water was not a flash-in-the-pan display of the spectacular. I believe that, quite the opposite, it was a demonstration of the simple fact that we can trust Him in any circumstances whatsoever. When the disciples and crowd were hungry, He essentially said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” When the Twelve were being tossed about in a boat with waves crashing in on them, He said, “Don’t sweat the big stuff either!” He came and His actions say that, even in what theologians call His state of humiliation — His human form — the disciples could count on Him. Too many people waste time debating how He came to the boat. Amazed as they might have been, the most important thing to the disciples was that He came!
He didn’t have to go out there on the lake. The disciples would have survived without Him. Let us not kid ourselves — He could have seen to it. He didn’t have to be in the storm to quiet it. He didn’t have to be in the boat to save His friends. He chose to face the wind and the waves and to go out and get in their boat with them. Without Him, however, the night would have been spent in terror and despair. His love and compassion sent Him to His friends.
He did not have to come to this world’s boat at all — let alone get in it with all the risks that entailed. His love and compassion sent Him to us, His friends. The most humbling thing that happens in this story is that when Peter became afraid of the wind and started to sink, Jesus reached out His hand, took His disciple back to the boat and said, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” I said that a humbling thing “happens,” not “happened.” I was not talking about Peter, but about me. If Peter is a man of little faith, I’m a man of teeny-tiny faith — I don’t think I’d have gotten out of the boat in the first place! I’d have been back there huddled with the rest of them in fear.
If it happened today, with my faith ahead of theirs at that time — already grounded in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection — would I get out of the boat? I can’t say for sure, but I like to think so. I believe that God has called me and all of you to walk out on the troubled waters of this world bringing His love, compassion and peace to others. He was stretched out on that cross with one hand forgiving our past and the other guaranteeing our future. We have no reason to be stretched out between guilt and fear ever again. The wind and the waves still come, but we are not alone — not now, not even in death, not ever!