Jesus on the Water
This week I took a 56-hour trip to Indiana and back to see my brother Todd in his first grad school theatre production, Anna in the Tropics. Before seeing his show on Friday night, we sat down for dinner, and he told my mother and me about different exercises he has to do in his classes. For example, in his movement class, he and his classmates have been working on physical expressions of emotions. They spent one class session practicing different types of crying – sobbing, wailing, keening. In another, they had to jump into imaginary boxes that represented 9 different emotions and instantly embody that particular emotion – surprise, disgust, anger, joy, and so on. In another class, they’ve been studying an acting method that involves trying to make your acting as “honest” as possible. And so the actors have to practice being as honest with each other as possible in class. This resulted in a classmate of Todd’s weeping while talking about her cat that died, Todd explaining, honestly, that he didn’t care about her cat that died, and the woman telling Todd, honestly, to get out of her sight! My mother, God bless her, soaks up every word Todd says about his experiences, but I can’t help but roll my eyes sometimes at the descriptions of these exercises. Still, they are all meant to help make an actor more honest and vulnerable on stage. Because the best actors stop being themselves, and start becoming, losing themselves into the roles they play. They have to be vulnerable and honest to do this, to let go enough to become someone else. And after seeing Todd’s first show, I found myself thinking that one of the actresses would have benefitted from some of the exercises that Todd was telling me about. She didn’t seem “honest” in the role to me – I never lost sight of the actress in the part she portrayed.
Today we read a story in Mark’s gospel that is probably at least somewhat familiar to you. This is a story that appears in variation in all of the gospels – Jesus either calming the storm after having fallen asleep in the boat with the disciples, or Jesus walking on the water and inviting Peter to walk on the water as well, or, in Mark, this combination of both events. Walking on water, calming the winds. In Mark’s gospel, this story appears right after the story we know as the feeding of the five thousand. We read that immediately after the meal is finished, Jesus gets his disciples into a boat and send them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he remains to dismiss the crowd, and to spend some time in prayer by himself.
After praying, Jesus looks out onto the lake and sees that the disciples are having a hard time navigating the windy weather. He begins to walk out onto the water towards them. Then, we get what I find to be the most confusing verse of the passage: “He intended to pass them by.” What? He sees them struggling, he’s going to the same place as they are, but he just plays to walk by them on the water to the other side? Isn’t that a bit strange? But, the disciples see Jesus, and they think it is a ghost walking towards them. I’m not sure if this is because the storm makes it hard to see Jesus, or they are so thrown by his walking on water that they assume he must be a ghost, or what. But they see him, and are not calmed by his presence, but terrified. Note, it isn’t the wind that causes them to cry out in fear – but the sight of Jesus walking on the water that fills them with terror.
Immediately, we read, Jesus speaks to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Those are words we hear frequently in the scriptures – upwards of 80 times, more than a dozen of which are spoken by Jesus. Do not be afraid. He gets into the boats with them, and the wind stops. Mark tells us that they are astounded, and, peculiarly, that they are astounded because they didn’t understand about the loaves, and their hearts are hardened. In other words, their reaction to Jesus walking on water and calming the wind is somehow related to what they thought was happening when Jesus fed the 5000 with a few loaves and fish. How can they possibly relate? Mark says that the disciples have hardened hearts – the same language that is used to describe the Pharaoh when he won’t let Moses leave Egypt with the Israelites despite all of the plagues that have been visited on the Egyptian people. After this, after the passage we read today, we only find out that the disciples and Jesus finish crossing the sea and that people recognize Jesus at once and come to him for healing.
I keep coming back to this phrase, “Jesus intended to pass them by.” None of the other gospels include it, only Mark, which makes me wonder if even the other gospel-writers weren’t sure what to make of it. And also missing from other accounts of this event – the connection with the feeding of the 5000. Mark is the only one who ties Jesus calming the storm with the disciples not understanding the miracle of feeding the crowds. This language of “passing by” occurs in a few other places in the scripture, most notably in relationship to Moses and Elijah, who throughout the New Testament are the two figures who represent the law and the prophets – all that Jesus comes to fulfill.
In Exodus 33, just as Moses is about to start the final stretch, leading the Israelites toward the promised land, after such a long journey in the wilderness, Moses asks, begs of God: Promise that you’ll go with us. That you’ll be with us. That we’re not sent out alone. And then Moses says, “Show me your glory, I pray.” That’s a pretty bold request, isn’t it? And God replies, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord.”” And while Moses is tucked into a cleft of a rock, God passes by him, and Moses is allowed to gaze on God’s back, God’s face being too much, too full of glory for a mortal to see.
In 1 Kings 19, we read about the prophet Elijah, who is being chased by those who would like to kill him for the prophecies, for the truths he’s been bold enough to speak. Elijah is ready to give up, and, after a time in the wilderness, he spends another night in a cave, when God tells him: Go and stand out on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by. The text says, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” And Elijah steps out to speak with God, and God tells Elijah what will come next, and who Elijah will pass his mantle to in order to continue his work.
These passages are known as theophanies. A theophany is one of those fancy church words that means a simple thing: A God-appearance, where the glory of God is revealed in a particular act or moment. You know the word epiphany – when something is revealed suddenly, when we have sudden clarity – a light bulb moment. A theophany is when God is suddenly revealed – when the presence of God in our midst is revealed. So when God passes by in the scriptures, it isn’t a sign that God is passing us by and moving on to something better, too busy to stop for us. No, in the scriptures, God passing by means God revealed. A theophany. In Jesus, we encounter the ultimate theophany – the ultimate revealing of God’s presence. In Jesus, we aren’t looking just at God’s back, or hearing God only in sheer silence, but encountering God face-to-face. God-with-us. Jesus passes by the disciples – first in the feeding of the five thousand, and then as he calms the storms – something the disciples would know only God could do – and still, even though God is revealed, they don’t get it – yet. They’ve been longing for the Messiah, for the Savior. But what the disciples miss – both in the feeding of the 5000 and in Jesus calming the storm – is the impact of what they’re seeing – a theophany – God revealed in Jesus – they are encountering God-with-us in the person of Jesus. Their savior has shown up, been revealed for who he is – God in the flesh! And how do they react? Jesus passes by the disciples – and they’re terrified! Not by the storm – but by the tugging in their hearts and minds that maybe Jesus is really more than this cool guy they’re hanging out with. And when they get beyond their fear, their next reaction is to harden their hearts against what they’re experiencing.
In two weeks, Advent begins, and we’ll start singing carols about longing, waiting, hoping for, expecting our Savior to come to us again in the birth of the Christ-child. Do we know what to do with the Christ-child when he arrives? Sure, maybe with the gentle baby who we can cuddle, but who doesn’t talk yet. But we long for Jesus, in theory, not just as a child, but as the grown Savior, Son of God and Son of Man, who comes and tries to hand us a cross to carry as we follow him. Jesus has arrived, will arrive, is arriving now. What do we do now that Jesus has shown up? Now that Jesus is revealed, what happens? Like the disciples, our responses to God’s appearances in our lives are often either full of fear or full of hardened hearts! Jesus tells us again and again to let go of fear. We can’t soak in the glory of God when we’re afraid. And we can’t soak in the glory of God when our hearts are hardened against transformation. In Advent, when we sing, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” we’ll ask for God to “From our fears and sins release us.”
I think of all of those goofy theatre exercises in Todd’s classes, and I think about being vulnerable. Sometimes being vulnerable is a frightening act. Someone might hurt us if we’re vulnerable, hurt us badly. Sometimes we harden ourselves, our hearts, instead of becoming more vulnerable. But when he’s on stage, for a little bit, Todd stops being Todd because he so completely relates to the character that he’s become. Todd has to keep practicing until it becomes second-nature to him, a way of life as an actor.
And so it is with us. We’re called to imitators of Christ. To follow him. To live as he lives and love as he loves. To empty ourselves to be filled with Christ. To let the light of Christ shine from within us. To be known as Christ-followers by our ways of love. We can’t embody Christ, be the body of Christ, if we can’t be vulnerable, if we can’t let go of ourselves enough to put on Christ. We’ve got to practice opening ourselves up, being ready for God when God shows up, ready for the Christ we long for. Where have you seen God revealed – and how did you react? How will you react? Don’t be afraid. Let your heart be softened. For the glory of the Lord is revealed in our midst. God is passing by. And we don’t want to miss it. Amen.