Guest Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Graeme Garratt 

A disciple’s eye view of Jesus

‘They saw him walking on the sea.’ (Mk 6:49)

This weekend we have been reflecting on words of Psalm 24:1. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.’ This text, and others like it in the Bible, are becoming increasingly urgent as the stability of this planet—Earth, our home—becomes increasingly uncertain. The earth is the Lord’s, says the psalm. Not mine. Not ours. Except in the sense that we are given grace by its Creator to live here.

Yesterday in our seminar we tried to pay attention to the fact that God speaks to us, as God spoke to Moses, to Job, to Paul in and through the world of nature. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘look at the birds of the air’ and ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ They have things to tell us of God. We called the study, ‘a bird’s eye view of God.’ Tomorrow at the Cathedral bible study we will look at the amazing speech that God makes to Job from out of the whirlwind. A speech in which God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the creation, from the shining stars of the cosmos, to the strange life-style of the vulture. There is set out for us, a ‘god’s eye view of the world.’ And what a view it is! This morning I want to add to these meditations on the world as God’s loved creation with the story of Jesus walking on the waters of Lake Galilee. Call it ‘a disciple’s eye view of Jesus.’

Now in focussing on God in creation, I am not in any way depreciating the centrality of the revelation of God in scripture, preaching and prayer. Of course Christ comes to us in the human community; in worship together; in the intimacy of our own hearts. But we live in times when nature, the more-than-human-world, has become an urgent matter for every human being on the planet. The looming threats of climate change and other ecological challenges are bearing down sharply. And they bear down most heavily on people who are most vulnerable. This world, God’s creation, is now clamouring for our attention; crying out in many places against the weight of our growing human demand for more and more.

In these circumstances, it is worth remembering that in the Gospels most of the critical moments in Jesus ministry take place not in a sacred building—a synagogue or temple–but out in the world. Jesus was born in a stable in the company of all kinds of animals, not in a hospital surrounded by human beings. He was baptised in the river Jordan, not in a font like this. His most famous sermon was delivered on a mountain, not in a pulpit. And Jesus faced the greatest test of his mission in a time of anguished prayer, not in an oratory, but in an olive garden under the branches of the trees. He died outside the city on a bare hillside. He was buried in a rough cave in a cliff-side.

Jesus’ ministry—teaching, praying, healing, conversation—was largely conducted out in the broad horizon of God’s creation. There he called his followers. There he engaged with his opponents. There he spoke. There he lived. There he died. And in the gospel story we heard this morning, once again Jesus is found in the world of creation. This time, astonishingly, approaching his followers by walking toward them on the sea!

What does all this being-in-nature mean?

But before I get to that, have a look at this. This is a painting by Casper David Friedrich a great German Romantic landscape painter of the 19C. He called the painting ‘monk by the sea’. Here we have a massive seascape. A wide, untamed sandy beach.  Beyond that a dark sea, its black surface flecked with white-capped waves. The sky is huge. It dominates the upper three quarters of the canvas. The lower reaches are filled with dark mists that swirl and rise to this centre where they open out into a wash of bluish/grey that seems to point heavenward. Here on the shore stands a tiny figure. Close inspection reveals it to be a monk, dressed in traditional robes that reach to his feet. He stands looking out to these ‘mountainous atmospheres of sky and sea’ (Stevens).

Here is a religious person. Us, if you like.  But he has abandoned for the moment the safety of the cloister. The chapel is far away. He is in the wild world of the ocean. What does that mean for him? Is God more ‘real’ back there in the shelter of the monastery? Or does this untamed water-world speak a word of God as surely as the pages of the Bible on the lectern? Is this wind and mist a call to devotion as surely as the chapel bell?

One thing is clear: this world is huge beyond the scale of the church. Wind and water, air and land, light and dark, move in their own characteristic ways, and operate together in a powerful dynamic that swamps the monk completely.

Does he feel that back at the monastery he has a pretty good grasp on the truth and meaning of God? Perhaps he does. Be that as it may, here by the sea there can be no mistake. Books of theology, which may lie open on the desk in his cell, are absent from the foreshore. A voice from the pulpit cannot be heard above this wind. By the sea there can be none of the pride and presumption of one who might claim to define or determine the reality of God in human words. If there is a divine reality that meets us in the fearful beauties of the world—and it seems to me that the Bible clearly affirms there is—then we cannot just be its spectators; we must, like this monk, become its witnesses. Friedrich’s picture says to us: God is not God without this great, mysterious world all around us. Therefore the monastery (the church) cannot truly be a community of God without the wild sea and sand and sky, which is God’s creation. ‘We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God,’ says the theologian Jean-Louis Chrétien.[1]

Which brings us to the second picture. Ivan Aivazovsky’s [Ava-zovzky]painting of Jesus walking on water. Aivazovsky, another great 19C painter, this time Russian, has painted here Matthew’s version of the walking on water story, which has Peter getting out of the boat to go to Jesus across the sea.

There is a sharp contrast between the two images. In the first, Friedrich’s monk by the sea stands alone in the midst of the swirling elements of the world. We can speculate (as I have) that he is seeking God in this place. And that he discovers God in a new and untamed way. But that’s an interpretive guess. We can’t see it directly in the picture.

In Aivazovsky’s picture, as in the gospel story it portrays, there is no doubt. The disciples in the midst of a storm-tossed sea meet with God in the person of Christ. There he is beside them on the stormy water. They can’t believe it. They think they’re seeing a ghost. But Jesus speaks to them through the wind and waves. ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Notice it is not the disciples who take the initiative to search for God in the storm. Jesus comes to them. He searches them out. And meets with them in the midst of nature.

This is of real importance in our times. A good deal of modern commentary turns this story into a metaphor. The storm on the lake really stands for the uncertainties that toss us about in our spiritual life. The boat is really a figure of the church. Jesus comes to the church in its struggles and uncertainties and brings hope and peace. Now this isn’t wrong, of course. But it loses something of the immediacy of the text. In our times it is important to remember that God comes to us, God speaks to us, in the world of the creation. Nature is God’s dwelling place also; alongside the church; alongside our hearts. God meets us here, in God’s world.

And there is another aspect to this story. Jesus comes to the disciples walking on the water. ‘They saw him walking on the sea,’ the text says. Did he really do that, do you think? Walk on water? Many commentators find it incredible. They offer other explanations. Jesus was really walking on a sand-bar that the disciples had not seen in the dark. Or their boat was actually close to the shore and they just thought Jesus was walking on the waves.

We can understand the lure of such explanations. But the gospel story as it is reported in Matthew, John and Mark seems to be at pains to point out that the sailors were well out to sea. Mark has it that they had been rowing hard most of the night when Jesus approached them in the early hours of the morning. But whether or not we accept it as told, the theological implications of the story are clear. Jesus walking on water manifests the actions and authority of God, the Creator of nature.

In the book of Job, which we will study tomorrow, God’s explicitly challenges Job, ‘have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?’ (38:16). It’s a rhetorical question. Of course Job cannot walk in the recesses of the deep. No person can. But it is perfectly within God’s provenance. ‘The sea is his and he made it’, says Psalm 95. And this in turn echoes the Genesis story of creation. There we read: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ (1:1-2). Clearly, such biblical texts were in Aivazovsky’s mind in painting his picture. Christ walks on the recesses of the deep, as God does in the book of Job. And the light of God shines in the darkness from Jesus, as it did from the Spirit of God in the Genesis record.

This strange story of Jesus walking on water tells us that Jesus embodies the power and authority of God in the world. Not just in the human dimensions. Not just in the church, or the scriptures, or our hearts. But in the whole creation. Jesus comes to us in the more-than-human-world, in the storm, in the sea, in the wind, in the waves. And there, in the world, he speaks to us. ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’

‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.’ That is what psalm 24 says. That is what the book of Job says. That is what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. And that is what the story of Jesus walking on water says. It is important for us to know this. As it was important for Job. As it was important for those weary rowers on the Sea of Galilee. Particularly so in this time of ecological crisis. We humans need to remember that the Earth does not belong to us. It is God’s earth. And we are called to love and care for it, because God loves and cares for it. We need to discover, or re-discover, that Jesus meets us in the more-than-human-world; meets us in the wild and beautiful, the great and fearful, the threatened and groaning, world of creation. For creation is God’s dwelling place. We are a part of it. Not rulers over it.

[1] Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, p. 120.