Tuesday, 28 July 2009

'And for my next trick': why Jesus walked on water

These are the notes from my sermon last Sunday on what, at first glance, is a perplexing miracle. The actual sermon was rather different and more 'vigorous', but this is surely more important than all the Church politics.

What is Christianity?

That might seem a bit of an easy question —especially in Church on a Sunday morning. But it isn’t so easy. I was listening to the radio very early this morning and there was a programme on about religion where the guest speaker pretty well rejected the version of Christianity I was brought up on, and which I believe today, for quite another version.

So what is Christianity?

Admiring Jesus
Most people would say it is “about believing in Jesus”. But even that apparently simple answer conceals a lot of problems.

One is what we mean by believing, but the biggest problem is what we mean by Jesus.

There’s a writer for the Guardian newspaper doing a series at the moment on a well-known introduction to Christianity called the Alpha Course. So far, he’s got up to week three out of ten, but his comments on week two are very interesting. Week two is about the historical evidence for Jesus, and this is what he said,
On balance, I think a man called Jesus probably did exist and he formed the basis for Christianity. But I also think that the teachings of the biblical character Jesus are much more interesting, so in some ways I am grateful that we are getting this out of the way in the second week. Surely his words are more important than his fact?
That, I think, is a very common view, especially if I may say so, amongst intellectuals. They’re not too interested in all the supernatural stuff, but they admire Jesus as a spiritual teacher —as a kind of Jewish Mahatma Ghandi.

Jesus’ ‘fact’
It sounds wonderful. The trouble is, it just doesn’t work. Last week, we were looking at Mark 6 and the feeding of the 5,000, and I’d just like to take you back to that passage to highlight something — reading from v 30:
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” 32So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. 35By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
Do you notice what is missing there? There is something missing that drives a coach and horses through the idea that Jesus’ teachings are what really matter. V 34 says, “So he began teaching them many things.” V 35 begins, “By this time it was late in the day ...”

Where is the teaching? If our Guardian writer is correct, and Jesus’ “words are more important than his fact”, surely this was a missed opportunity.

What Jesus taught
Actually I have a theory about this, which is that what Jesus was teaching them was basically the Old Testament. We have to remember, this was a culture largely without books. The Bible would have been something people heard read once a week, if that, in the Synagogue.

At the end of Luke’s gospel, after the resurrection, when Jesus was about to send the disciples out to preach about him again, it says this,
... beginning with Moses and all the Prophets [in other words, the Old Testament], he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
It would make sense if in these early days Jesus was laying the groundwork for this.

But notice also how Luke puts it: “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

Walking on water
If this is right, then many of the words of Jesus were about the Old Testament, pointing to himself. Our Guardian writer says, “Surely Jesus’ words are more important than his fact?” Jesus says no, my fact is precisely what matters. Who I am is the key issue.

And that is brought out in the bit of Mark we had read today, and it is very interesting, because frankly, it is a bit embarrassing. Jesus, we are told, sent the disciples back across Lake Galilee, while he went off to pray. Then in v 47 it all gets very awkward for Guardian readers, or for anyone trying to convert them:
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake.
Don’t try this at home. I think at this point you have just lost three quarters of a modern audience. It is ridiculous. People cannot walk on water. Worse than that, saying Jesus did walk on water is just going to put people off.

In fact, some years ago there was a fashion for trying to explain away these kind of things. I heard one famous Christian broadcaster suggest there was a sandbar and Jesus was walking on that, so it looked as though he was walking on water.

I’ve also heard it suggested that the miracle of feeding the 5,000 was really the miracle of persuading people to share their food.

Well, forget it. The miracle, if it was a miracle, was that Jesus walked on water. But why would he do that —and why would he make life so difficult for everyone who can’t believe he walked on water?

The glory of God
The answer goes back to Jesus said about the Old Testament —that it pointed to him. And the clue is the last bit of v 48, where Mark says, “[and] He was about to pass by them ...”.

The “and” is very important —it is all one action:
About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake and he was about to pass by them.
Very early on in the Old Testament, the man called Moses asked to see God’s glory —his true character. God told him that he couldn’t, it would be too much for him, but then he said this:
There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. (Ex 33:21-22)
Jesus ‘passing by’ the disciples in the boat, has echoes of God’s glory ‘passing by’ Moses. If this is right, then we must think of what Jesus was doing as showing his glory, just as Moses asked God to show him his glory.

But this might not be very convincing until we ask, “Why did Jesus choose to do this by walking on water?” And if we turn again to the Old Testament, we can see why. In Psalm 77, we read this:
Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. 16 The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. 17 The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. 18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. 19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
Remember, the Psalms were Israel’s songbook. And you can imagine how fishermen, like some of the disciples were, would have taken a special interest in Psalms about storms at sea.

Lines like verses 16, 17 and 18 might often have come to mind —and here they were straining at the oars because the wind was against them, when Jesus did what it says about God in v19:
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
It is so difficult, isn’t it? We want to have Jesus where we can manage him. We want him in a safe box where it is easy to believe in him. We want to be able to admire Jesus as a teacher, and kid ourselves that we follow his teaching.

But you can’t have the Jesus of the Bible and just admire him as a teacher. Or you can —but only if you accept that what he taught was that the Old Testament was about him, and that if you read the Old Testament and compare what it says with what he did, then there is something, or someone, completely amazing here.

Christianity is about believing in Jesus. But not a Jesus who came to teach us to be nice to one another. The Jesus of the Bible is a person who does things that are only done by the God of the Bible.

Believing in Jesus means believing and trusting in that. That, and only that, is what it means to be a Christian.

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  1. The view expressed in the Guardian is not new. Why does it continue to thrive?

    "Liberalism regards Jesus as example and guide: Christianity as a Savior: Liberalism makes Him an example for faith: Christianity, the object of faith." Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (Published 1923)

  2. Another good piece, John, which I suspect will find its way into numerous sermons. Just about all of Jesus' miracles, in fact, have an OT analogy, esp. in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha: healing the sick, raising the dead, multiplying food, even an axehead floating on water. Jesus surpasses his prophetic forebeas by the scale and intensity of his mighty acts.

    "The view expressed in the Guardian is not new. Why does it continue to thrive?"
    Fading cultural memory, I suspect. Ask your modern secularist to recount to you Jesus' "teaching", and her or she would be pretty thin on detail.

    Mark B.

  3. Good sermon! Thanks very much.

  4. We're preaching on John at the moment - and I'm beginning to find that the repetition of the message is fascinating. It's all about who He is, in opposition to what he does (John 4:48). John 5:18 is fascinating in this conetx - as it underlines that the threat to His life comes NOT from what He was doing but from who he said He is.

    The current church teaching shies away from that, and instead causes/seeks controversy over the content of His/Scripture's moral teaching - making that the 'big deal' instead.

    A bit more "this is who He is" and a lot less 'this is what He did/taught' would go a long way.

    I'm preaching on the same passage Sunday week (John 6:1-21) and due to holidays wrote the sermon yesterday - it is heartening to see that you agree(!) with me that it is about His identity, not about His actions.

  5. All this hangs by the slender thread that the words quoted from the Gospel of Luke are truly words of Jesus. What is much more likely is that Luke, seeing in Jesus the fruition of the Old Testament, wanted a story where this link was made. Hey, presto, the road to Emmaus. A proper understanding of the formation of the Gospels destroys this flam-flam sermon.

    Paul Lewis

  6. The Guardian view continues to thrive because people want (or think they want) something consisting of morality and help-you-out ideas without having to pay the price (as they would see it)of having to question, let alone reject, their materialist world-view/value system; their secularist comfort-zone is just too comfortable. Thus, the teaching, but not divinity/miracles, thinking is perennial - the oldest yet the latest thing, or however the song goes. It will always be with us, in some form (Ghandhi is supposed to have said "We have the Sermon on the mount, so now we don't need Jesus").

  7. Paul, you wrote, "All this hangs by the slender thread that the words quoted from the Gospel of Luke are truly words of Jesus."

    Surely all of Christianity hangs by a very similar thread?

    What else would you, personally, base sermons on?

  8. The witness of the apostles (which includes the Gospels), properly understood from context, and including all the apostles, through the ages, including, for example, Gene Robinson.


  9. Paul, as you will be well aware that is a departure from the Christian tradition.

    It also raises imponderable questions of coherence about who is an Apostle. If Gene R, why not Peter Akinola - or me come to that?

    Rather than try to work out an answer, let's stick to the original version - it's done fine so far.

  10. Actually, I think that Luke is least susceptible to the critique of creating what Paul Lewis calls "flim flam" - a propaganda work presenting Jesus as "fruition of the Old Testament."

    1) Luke himself comes right out and says that he's based his Gospel on interview and research (hey, like the Guardian chap!) using multiple sources. It's right out there in Luke's opening words. The argument that he's writing propaganda also "hangs on a slender thread," assuming that because certain points emerge in his Gospel, we somehow know, a priori , that Luke was writing propaganda to serve those particular points. How do we know that? This is a recurring "conspiracy theory" argument against the Gospels - "If you find a point while reading them, it must have been planted by the writer!" On balance, it seems more reasonable to assume that the fairly coherent testimony of the New Testament is more reliable than a centuries-later assertion that the Gospel writers, working in different times and places not connected by real-time communication, trumped up a story about Jesus.

    2) Luke, from what little we get about him in the NT, is pretty clearly in Paul's bunch, the group assuming Jewish "blindness" and shifting its missionary appeal to the Gentiles. This is perhaps reflected in Luke's presentation of Jesus' genealogy, which has the Pauline idea of Jesus the "New Adam," whose obedience can be salvation to any member of the disobedient human race. Thus OT references in Luke are less likely to be proof-texts for OT fulfillment and more likely to be what Luke actually gathered from the testimony of the witnesses and texts he consulted.

    3) In some ways, Luke might be sympathetic to the "words of Jesus" priority spoken by the Guardian writer! Most of the scholars, commentaries and footnotes make much of how Luke shows Jesus favoring the poor and marginalized. Luke is generally cited as the Gospel in which Jesus expresses countercultural affirmation of women. So Luke might well have ignored a bunch of miracles and stayed with the aspect of Jesus he found most compelling - unless Luke was what he says, a good researcher seeking the best evidence. And that evidence led him to include miracles and connexions with the OT that Luke himself might not have understood while recording them.

    Timothy Fountain
    Sioux Falls, South Dakota USA

  11. Tim, in fairness to Paul (and Luke!), he said my sermon was "flim-flam", not Luke's gospel. But I agree with what you say about Luke.

  12. a) It's hard to discuss anything seriously with someone who characterises redaction criticism as concluding that the gospel-writers 'trumped up a story about Jesus'.
    b) Modern scholarship shows Paul as repudiating not Judaism, per se, but the legalism of the Pharisees.
    c) The infancy narratives alone show the eagerness of Luke to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of OT faith.

    Sorry, Tim, but you're not making much headway here.


  13. Paul, let me just remind you that you're talking on a Christian blog, presumably as a Christian to Christians. You're posting semi-anonymously, which is not what I like to see (compare Timothy's 'disclosure').

    This is not the place to parade 'my theology is smarter than your theology', especially not anonymously, in engagement with brother believers.

    By all means present comments and ask questions, but please mind the 'tone'.

  14. You know, it is not very honourable of you to chastise me for a supposed lack of moderation of tone and then not to put up my reply which points out to lack of moderation in tone in the post to which I was replying. Is this partiality to views which you support appropriate to what you like to describe as 'a Christian blog'?

    Paul Lewis. Bootle.

  15. Sorry Paul, I don't know what you're referring to when you say "not put up my reply" - did you post one?

    BTW this is not what I like to describe as a Christian blog. It is a Christian blog. You see it's that sort of thing that winds people up.

    However, you're welcome to contribute,