Last time I was in this pulpit I pointed out that in Mark’s Gospel a great many things happen on a boat. Well, here we are again.
This time things are a little different though. There is a sense of urgency in this scene. Jesus has just miraculously fed many thousands, and rather than prolong this event, he forcefully dismisses his disciples. The verb here is a strong one: He did not just make them get into the boat but compelled them to do so.
And he is going away too; he is going up to the mountain alone to pray. In Mark’s gospel Jesus does this three times, always at pivotal moments, always alone, and always at night. It would seem that even the Son of God needs time, quiet, and solitude to be with his Father in heaven.
And as Jesus is near the Father, he is far from the disciples. Mark’s language stresses this sense of distance throughout the first part of today’s Gospel reading. They are together. He is alone. They are out on the sea. He is on the land.
And they are separated not only by space but also by time. The feeding of the many thousands took place in the late afternoon. Jesus took leave of his disciples in the evening, and now it is the fourth watch of the night, between 3 and 6 am. Hours have gone by.
The disciples have spent those hours at hard toiling, working the boat against a strong wind, so strong in fact that it seems like they are being blown well off course.
This time they are not in mortal danger, like before, when Jesus calmed the wind and the waves by his word, but they are struggling. Their energy is spent, they are in fact not making progress at all but are probably going backward, and their own strength and skill are not enough to get them where they are going.
Remember that very early on in Christian history theologians seized upon this image of being on a boat voyage as an excellent analogy for the life of the church. All of us I imagine then have had times of struggle in our lives much like the disciples are having now.
Time is passing, and they are about as far from the goal as you can get. How often do we feel just the same?
But even though they are far apart, Jesus sees that they are struggling, and he comes to his friends to help them.
As we saw last time there was a storm, Jesus can stop the wind and the waves any way he likes. We have seen him do it before. He can even save them from up on the mountaintop if he wanted or from the shore.
So why does he walk on the water? It seems likely that he wants to be close to them. He wants to come to them in the midst of their difficulty and put himself right there.
Then why is it that Mark tells us in verse 48 that Jesus “meant to pass by them”?
If he wants to come to them, and is willing to walk on water to do it, then why on earth would he pass by them?
I think the key is found in the double meaning that this phrase would have for Mark’s readers. To pass by someone turns out to be potentially very meaningful. We can see this from two places in the Hebrew Scriptures.
First, in Exodus 33, Moses asks God to see his glory. And God says that Moses will not be able to see his face, for no one he says can see God’s face and live. Instead, God tells Moses to stand in a cleft of the rock, and there in the cleft of the rock Moses can hide from God’s glory, and God says he will place his hand over Moses’s body and cover him until he has passed by. And as God passes by he proclaims his sacred and holy name: I AM, and as he does so he passes by Moses and reveals not his face but the back of his glory.
Second, in I Kings 19, Elijah too is speaking to God, and complaining of his troubles: Israel has abandoned the covenant, destroyed the Lord’s altars, and slain the prophets, and he feels alone and frightened. God also tells him to stand upon the rock of the mountain, and as Elijah is standing there the Lord passed by, and when he does there a terrible wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire, but the Lord is in none of these upheavals but instead speaks to Elijah in a still small voice to encourage him in his troubles.
So both Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, saw God pass by. And both of them by God’s power split the waters to walk upon dry land. Moses split the Red Sea to deliver the people from the Egyptian army, and as we heard today Elijah split the Jordan River so he and Elisha could cross over.
And now Jesus walks upon the water as if it were dry land. Like Moses and Elijah he crosses the sea to deliver and strengthen his companions and followers. And as God’s own self passed by them both so too does Jesus pass by his disciples.
I said that he wanted to be near them, and so he does. But I think he also wants to show them who he is.
All the agency is with him in this story. He sent them into the boat and into the storm, he dismissed the crowds, he removed himself to a great distance, and now he wants to be with the disciples and to show them and us something of himself in a new way.
The Book of Job tells us that it is God that treads upon the waves, and by God’s power Moses and Elijah crossed the waters. Now God himself incarnate as Jesus Christ is crossing the water, and passing by his people to be a revelation to them and an encouragement in their struggle.
For just as God called himself by his name—I AM—as he passed by Moses, so too does Jesus call himself I AM when he speaks to the frightened disciples. “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Take heart. Don’t be afraid. He said that last time too, but this time he adds something new.
The literal center of that message, the core of his exhortation to be unafraid, is the reason why we should not be afraid, why we must take heart in the face of struggle: Because it is I. In Greek what Jesus literally says is: I AM. It is I. The great I AM. I am none other than God, and I am here with you.
Remember how last time we talked about the calming of the storm the disciples were stunned then too, and they said to themselves “Who is this?” Well, this is the answer to that question: It is I, the Lord, the one who is.
Now in Greek these words could also be taken according to their surface meaning, which is just the way we have translated them here. Jesus could be saying something as simple as “Take heart. It’s me. Have no fear.” I AM and “It’s me” are said just the same way in Greek.
So what does Mark mean? Is Jesus claiming for himself the name of God? I think Mark wants us, his readers, to see that Jesus is God, to see that like God he too passes by those who would seek his face and hear his words, to see that he is the one who calls himself I AM. But I don’t think the disciples hear it this way.
Mark is ambiguous on this point because the situation is ambiguous. Jesus has tried to show them who he is, and they still do not get it. And their failure to get it has something to do with their failure to get the feeding of the thousands.
Early in this same chapter Jesus is shocked by the unbelief of his neighbors in Nazareth; he must be just as shocked now. The disciples have seen a miracle tonight, and it’s far from the first. Yet they still don’t see him for who he is. They have seen Jesus do amazing things, but they don’t know why he does what he does.
And this is surely frustrating for everyone. We have to have some patience with the disciples; Jesus certainly does. He doesn’t insist that they figure it all out right away, and he doesn’t ask us to do so either.
And I think in fairness what Jesus does is often confusing. Last time he slept through the storm, and the disciples rightly panicked and asked him to do something. This time they are in trouble again, and Jesus seems to parade past them and give them more of a fright than a help.
But Mark wants us to see that the Son of God is sent by his father to be close to us and come to our aid. He wants to be with us, he wants to be near us, he puts us at arm’s length only for a little while and only for an important reason. And the moment he steps into the boat, the moment he is with us again, the struggle is over. So it was for them, and so it can be for us as well. Amen.