Anyone who has ever helped a child learn to walk will know just how important eye contact can be.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian
Sunday, 9th August 2020 at 11.15 AM
Anyone who has ever helped a child learn to walk will know just how important eye contact can be. Surely, concentration on the matter in hand is important, but a bit of physical encouragement in those early steps is essential. In today’s Gospel, Peter’s journey of discipleship becomes a bit of an aquatic adventure – impetuous as ever, he leaps overboard, and strides on the water towards Jesus before his fears overtake him, and he cries out for help, sinking.
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, / Mercy I ask'd; mercy I found.
So runs a memorably moving line from the antiquary William Camden’s Epitaph for a man killed falling from his horse. But our Gospel story today is not only about mercy, being saved from the waters of death, temptation, fear, and so on, by the strong hand of Christ. Of course that is a central message, and one which we should take to heart. But the story is more layered than this, and offers all sorts of other theological images.
Jesus has just fed five thousand people; he sends the disciples (many of them fishermen) away in a boat whilst he heads up a mountain to pray alone. Once it is evening, he notices that the boat is beset by a storm and is far away from the land. In very early commentary on this passage, the boat is linked to the Church – the ark of salvation, buffeted around by the cares and violence of the world. Christ doesn’t come to them immediately, but ‘Early in the morning’, we are told, Jesus walks towards them across the waters. ‘Early in the morning’ as we will hear again later in Matthew’s Gospel when we are told about the resurrection. This is a deeply powerful moment.
An allegorical interpretation of this story just keeps giving. The boat is the Church, the waters a symbol of chaos un-masterable by humanity alone. Jesus Christ, the agent of creation strides over those waters, as the Holy Spirit brooded over the waters before the creation of light in the Book of Genesis. His presence in this scene symbolises a deep cosmic authority over the surrounding chaos. It also does something shocking to what we think of as the laws of nature. And yet, we have just seen those very laws stretched beyond reasonable limits as five thousand were fed with five loaves and two fish. In Jesus’s orbit, it all looks different because this is the dawning of a new world, not erasing the God-given matter and fabric of creation, but rather drawing out of that creation fathomless riches, and a new kind of peace. A meal which keeps giving. Waters which do not drown. Chaos mastered.
I want to think now about two facets of this story which in turn might prompt us to consider how to live in a way which takes this new world seriously as the fundamental truth and reality. So, the personal and the communal; Peter’s own stepping out in faith, and what happens in the boat.
The first person to walk on the water is Jesus. He comes to them armed with the most frequently uttered command in the whole of scripture, “Do not be afraid!” Peter, of course, interrogates the matter. But he needs to be encouraged, in fact he doesn’t leave the vessel until Jesus tells him, “Come!” The initiative is Christ’s, and that’s always a sound theological truth. For a short while, Peter too strides firmly across the waters, this ‘Pilot of the Galilean Lake’ as John Milton refers to him in Lycidas. But what sinks him is his fear. He becomes frightened, and so he sinks. Not the other way round! There is a call here to Christian confidence; not in our own individual agency or ability, but in the message we proclaim, and the partnership we share through our discipleship. Peter becomes fearful, ‘he noticed the strong wind’ – he panics, he flaps – and he sinks. What proportion of our lives are governed by different kinds of fear? I’m not arguing here for a foolhardy irresponsibility – well, not quite – but rather for the kind of freedom one occasionally senses in the lives of people who are at fully ease with themselves, warts and all, knowing themselves to be loved by God, and learning how that fundamental truth contextualises anything else life might throw at them. The waves may lap at our legs. But don’t panic. Keep your eyes on Jesus who summons us across the chaos of life, and stride on. As someone I was at theological college put it, in a rather remarkable song inspired by this scene, it will sometimes feel like a tightrope. She wrote, “With my arms outstretched, and my eyes on yours… walking the tightrope, walking the Cross.” As Peter knows, this figure is not a ghost, but Christ – one whose teaching re-shapes real human lives, re-shapes a world, gives birth to a new creation. The one who draws us towards him, with our eyes on his, is not a ghost or a spooky figure. This interaction is set within the real world, in our daily lives, as through prayer and action we are called to live in a way which is liberated by the Gospel. Peter cries, “Lord, save me!”, and Jesus reaches out, “immediately” as he always does. Jesus summoned him. Jesus saved him. Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, / Mercy I ask'd; mercy I found.
And so to our communal response, we should now consider the boat. Last year’s Venice biennale had a thoroughly jaw-dropping exhibit at its centre. The project Barca Nostra was focussed on the wrecked, rusted body of a ship, which recalled one of the most shocking moments in the refugee crisis of the last few years. On the night of April 18th 2015, in the sea between the Libyan coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa, this 90-ft boat collided with a vessel which had responded to its distress call, and sank. Between 700-1100 died, migrants seeking security, stability, a better life. Understandably, questions were raised as to whether it could be appropriate to display what was until recently a mass grave as a piece of art. Whilst the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel has said that the vessel is supposed to not only be “a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration,” the rawness of the image and our proximity to its tragedy perhaps risk being downplayed in an artistic context where there is no commentary or explanation. On the other hand, others argued, the best art always provokes, needles, moves us. Perhaps this relic of human tragedy might prompt us to consider our collective human responsibility. It is perhaps all very well focussing on typology and allegory, but how can we Christians forget the practical reality of the dangers of the water when, once again, this weekend we see reports of the vulnerable risking everything to cross the channel in flimsy dinghies and makeshift crafts? The image of Christ “Walking on water” in this context might prompt us to ask questions about the security of the most vulnerable, and to work for just policies which take human dignity seriously. The water is not just symbolically dangerous, it is actually dangerous, and the new creation – something of the inner workings of which we see in this story – demands that our conversion of life is public, corporate, societal change, as well as transformation which is deeply personal and individual.
And perhaps that brings us to a kind of conclusion. In today’s Gospel, the boat is an image of security, safety, especially when Jesus is on board with the disciples at the end. Without him, it is far from land and battered by the waves. The image of the Church as a boat is a venerable and helpful one. But think more hospital ship than safely upholstered luxury liner; a boat which is taking in water, and radically dependent on its Lord for blessing and peace. Thus, in his presence, we learn not to be afraid, and we learn how to share that message. We too are summoned to leave the boat, and master the chaos; we, too, have to learn to walk, helping one another – literally as well as metaphorically – not to sink beneath waves, physical, emotional, spiritual. That is the life of the Church.
We have to learn again and again how to be pilgrims in the life of the world, unafraid from the waters of baptism, with our eyes focussed on Jesus, and through the deep waters of death. “With my arms outstretched, and my eyes on yours… walking the tightrope, walking the cross.”