Miracles – I don't know what to do with them.
In the first place, apart from being improbable in a world that we know to be governed quite nicely by the laws of physics, miracles always seem to distract us from the real intent of a biblical story. There are all kinds of compelling questions that can be raised about our text for this week. For example, why is it that Matthew alone includes the incident of Peter taking a faithful plunge into the storm-tossed waters of Galilee? Why this addendum to Mark's simpler narrative? Why do Luke and John exclude the event altogether? And what, pray tell, is "the fourth watch of the night"?
There is so much here that can keep us intellectually and spiritually occupied, but the unfortunate reality is that many, if not most of us, are drawn simply to the spectacular in this pericope, a momentary suspension of natural law by divine intervention that enables a man – a truly flesh and blood being, as solid as the next guy, lest we fall victim to docetism – to take a pre-dawn stroll across the Sea of Galilee. I have a hard time with this, and I will often shock and bewilder my more conservative students by telling them, frankly, that I cannot believe that this incident ever happened. Nevertheless, I still consider the story to be true.
It was John Dominic Crossan who first helped me to see that while a suspension of the laws of physics seems out of the question for most of us, we can still look for the miraculous in the grace-induced interruption of the laws of human nature, and this in events that occur almost daily in our experience. We all know of situations in which a person has set aside a concern for his or her individual needs in order to extend a hand of friendship and hospitality to an outsider. Given our natural tendency toward selfishness, is this anything short of a supernatural occurrence?
According to Crossan, there are two ways that we can talk about, say, the lepers to whom Jesus offers the gifts of both health and fellowship. On the one hand, we can believe precisely what the narrative tells us, that a person unclean in body (and, by implication, also in spirit) was made physically whole. At Jesus' touch, this man's festering wounds utterly disappeared. This would be a most fortunate subversion of the laws of nature, and an appealing hope for anyone who has suffered from a chronic illness. But it also defies what we have come to expect from the debilitating inertia of a disease like leprosy.
On the other hand, perhaps it was simply Jesus' forgiveness of the man's sins and the subsequent invitation to be welcomed back into the fold of Israel that constituted the real healing that took place in this story. Despite his disease, the leper could once again be a part of a community that would care for him and tend to his wounds. In contrast to our conventional understanding of the miraculous, this would represent instead a grace-induced interruption of the laws of human nature. Fear of the defiling presence of the other, so common among every last one of us, would have in this case been effectively dispelled. Reconciliation and wholeness – shalom – would have thus been restored, not so much in the body of an individual but in the life of a welcoming community of believers. (See John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography)
I hesitate to say it, but the latter approach is the only way I can now conceive of miracles (my apologies to Benny Hinn). The laws of nature seem pretty constant to me – in fact, every aspect of my perceived reality rests necessarily on this assumption. Human nature is the wild card, and thus the place where real change is likely to take place. It gets subverted and transformed all the time, and not always in such obvious or extraordinary ways. So when I approach a narrative like this one – Jesus walking on the water – I have to ask whether I am allowing myself to get too distracted by all the special effects. The most important question is: At what point in this story does the sinfulness that marks our day-to-day existence get so burnished by the grace of God that our true humanity is able to come fully to the surface?
It is reassuring that some of the early fathers tried to downplay the obvious spectacle of this passage and focus instead on a metaphorical reading of the text. The most common reference, it seems, is to the disciples' storm-tossed boat as a symbol of the earthly church. St. Augustine, for example, goes a little overboard (if you'll pardon the pun) with his nautical allusions, using his sermon on this passage as an occasion for both ecclesial endorsement and pastoral care.
Meanwhile, the boat carrying the disciples – that is, the church – is rocking and shaking amid the storms and temptation while the adverse wind rages on. That is to say, its enemy the devil strives to keep the wind from calming down. But greater is he who is persistent on our behalf, for amid the vicissitudes of our life he gives us confidence. …Therefore, stay inside the boat and call upon God. When all good advice fails and the rudder is useless and the spread of the sails presents more of a danger than an advantage… the only recourse left for the sailors is to cry out to God (Sermon 75.4, in Manlio Simonetti, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28 [Downer's Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2002] 11-12).
It's comforting to know that even the great North African bishop could preach a real clunker on occasion.
Other commentators – namely Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-367) and Chromatius (fl. 400) – regarded this passage as a kind of prophecy of imminent events. Their interest is drawn most notably to the inclusion of the curious phrase, "the fourth watch of the night," seeing in this a pre-figuration of the trials and tribulations yet to come before Christ's return in glory. Reading their words, I was struck by how they seemed to be at once both ancient and contemporary. There are not a few believers today who can still be taken in by their apocalyptic numerology:
…the Lord comes in the fourth watch. For the fourth time, then, he will return to a roving and shipwrecked church. …The first watch was that of the law, the second of the prophets, the third of the Lord's coming in the flesh and the fourth of his return in splendor. But he will find the church in distress and beleaguered by the spirit of the antichrist and by disturbances throughout the world. But the good Lord will then speak out and dispel their fear… of impending shipwreck through their faith in his coming (On Matthew 14.14, in Simonetti, op.cit., 12).
So, there you have it, the twin poles of scriptural interpretation when it comes to such a confounding text: it is either too trite or too apocalyptically tedious.
As I have pondered this pericope over the last week I have tried to keep several things in mind. First, though I am not especially taken by the way that either Augustine or Hilary has developed the idea, I think the metaphor of the disciples' boat as church is a compelling one, especially when we draw out some of its implications. I think it is true, picking up on Hilary's theme, that there are many today who are content to sit passively, even fearfully, in the bow or stern of the craft as they await the second coming, consoling themselves that they will at least be spared the tribulations of those left behind. Thankfully, there are a few among them who, like Peter, are willing to take a chance on something new and even dangerous.
Second, I have tried to hold forth the notion that, as John reminds us, the one traversing the Sea of Galilee in this narrative is indeed the very Son who was in the beginning with the Father, brooding over the face of the deep, calling forth order out of chaos. Though it is unlikely that either Matthew or Mark had such a high Christology, it is nevertheless certain that the early church soon came to understand Jesus as the one through whom the cosmos came into being. "He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). More than this, it is the Spirit of Christ who calls us to be faithful participants in the continuous acts of creation that move the church and the world ever closer to the Kingdom of God. It is no coincidence that the words Jesus utters to his disciples in this passage are vaguely reminiscent of the sacred name first spoken to Moses from the burning bush: "It is I."
And here, I think, is where the real miracle takes place, not with the messiah who steps intrepidly through the blustering chaos on his way toward his disciples, but in the man who alone is able to discern that the most fundamental calling of the church is not to sit fearfully by in the hope that the storm may eventually pass, but to take an initial leap of faith into the very waters that threaten us. Only here, amidst the foreboding depths, can we be about the task of co-creation. It is probably predictable that Peter, "the Rock," would soon sink into the abyss, but this is not the main point of the narrative. Even before his confession of Jesus as the messiah (Matt. 16:13-20), it is indeed this first step over the bow upon which the church is surely founded, and certainly not in the timid fretting over ghosts that has stifled so much of our ecclesial imagination, both in recent years and in ages past.
So an oft-overlooked truth of discipleship lies in this: Fishermen rush in where ordinary saints fear to tread. This is a miracle that has less to do with a divine suspension of the laws of physics than with a grace-induced interruption of the weaknesses of our human nature. It is possible to put our fears aside and to be about the work of the Kingdom. It was for this reason that Matthew provided his little addendum to Mark's original text. In other words, it is not enough to know that Jesus walked on water; we need also to take the first step in joining him.
Photos and Art
1. Patras, Christ Walks on Water, n.d.
2. Jesus Walks on Water, stained glass, n.d., Austin Avenue United Methodist Church, Waco, TX.
3. Andrea Vanelli, Saint Peter (c. 1390).