They saw Jesus walking on the sea

November 12, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from John 6:16-21.

When it was evening, his disciples went down to the sea, embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they began to be afraid. But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.

There is a good deal of debate among scholars about this story. Some say that it is properly translated as Jesus walked on the seashore, not the sea. It was the exact phrase that John used elsewhere in his gospel. Others say that it is the same story that Matthew tells without mention of Peter going overboard and beginning to sink beneath the waves when his fear overtakes him. All agree that “It is I” is literally translated as “I am.” Some interpret that to be the self-revelation of Jesus as God just as his Father revealed himself to Moses. Others believe that Jesus is simply reassuring his disciples not to fear; it’s just him.

This story immediately follows the one of feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. The disciples had gone down to the sea to cross to Capernaum while Jesus had stayed behind to pray alone. Barclay tells us that the sea is about four miles wide at this crossing. So, they were nearly at the shore after being tossed about by the wind and probably wondering when they would meet up with Jesus when suddenly they saw him and were frightened. Why would they be frightened? Did he appear to be a ghostly apparition or was he walking toward them across the choppy water?

John Shelby Spong believes that the writer of John’s gospel was a Jewish mystic. He writes in The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, “If one seeks to impose any kind of literalism on this book, one closes one’s eyes to its profound and yet affirming meaning. Mystical eyes can never be literal eyes, and this gospel is the product of mystical eyes — more specifically Jewish mystical eyes….We have failed to understand that these images were shaped by the sacred scriptures of the Jews and were then transformed by the members of the Johannine community into messianic expectations that found their fulfillment in Jesus….John is a Jewish writer, writing a Jewish book that transcends literalism at every point, and he draws his major images from Jewish mysticism, as he seeks to tell the story of Jesus’ life as one who transcends limits, breaks barriers and invites us all into a new place that he represents….It is about seeing Jesus as the doorway into a new consciousness, which is also a doorway into God.”

Given that perspective, how can I understand this story? No human being has ever walked on water and we believe that Jesus was fully human while on earth. It seems to me that John had Jesus walking on water to show that he did indeed transcend human limits. In Jesus was something new, something unknown in human history. He was the doorway to God. Of course, the disciples were frightened. Any time I am on the verge of going beyond what I know, what I am comfortable with, I am frightened. I want to know what I’m getting myself into, but that can’t be known really. The unexplored can’t be known; it has to be discovered. There is a great deal of risk in exploring the unknown, of coming upon real danger, threats to my being as I know it.

To assuage their fears, Jesus reveals himself. I am; I am the doorway to God. This was an existential moment for the disciples and they received this revelation; they wanted to take him into the boat. Immediately upon receiving this revelation, they reached shore. They were grounded in a new reality and life for them would never be the same. And so with me. As I am coming to the realization that God through Jesus wants me to enter a new consciousness. He wants me to transcend the limits I have imposed upon myself or constraints that others press upon me. He wants me to break the barriers as Jesus did over and over again, to accept and love and forgive over and over again. He invites me into a new place, His kingdom here and now on earth, not in heaven. That is the new consciousness that has been gradually dawning within me. To me that’s what this story is about, not about walking on water. That would be too easy and hard at the same time to believe.



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