Do Not be Afraid
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, August 13th, 2017
Well, another week, another miracle. Today we have heard a very familiar story, one which has passed into folklore and idiomatic speech. The miracle of Jesus walking on the water.
And what do we make of it? Last week we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain-top. It was an example of what academic theology calls a ‘theophany’, that is to say, the appearance of a deity to human beings. It defies, of course, all rational explanation and is to our minds a deeply strange episode. But just when you thought it couldn’t really get any less rational, any less strange, it does: for the story of the miracle of Jesus walking on the water seems to me to be perhaps one of the biggest litmus-test stories of what is within our bounds of believability and seems to us unbelievable.
For some reason, as I have got older and, perhaps, hopefully, wiser, I have become gradually more and more comfortable with these strange stories, these supernatural events we read about in the Bible. Not only have I become more comfortable with them, I have begun actively to consider it important that I am accepting of them.
Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-eight, and I’d been an ordained minister only a couple of years, I would have written these stories off as myths, things that didn’t happen, but were meant to be read allegorically, stories of events that didn’t actually relate historical events but were important as metaphors, illustrations. I was firmly convinced in my own mind that events that did not conform to the laws of science could not possibly have happened. Such is the supreme confidence of youth. As Oscar Wilde once commented, as only Oscar Wilde could, “I’m not young enough to know it all”.
Fast forward ten years to when I was thirty-eight. My views had matured somewhat. They weren’t Chateau Lafite 1869, but neither were they two-buck chuck. It was around this time that I became aware of the words of St. Augustine of Hippo, which I have often quoted in my sermons, that “miracles are not contrary to nature, they are only contrary to what we know about nature”. Just as I had come to realize that I didn’t know it all, I had come to realize that none of us do, and that we, collectively, as a society, are probably only just barely scratching the outer surface of the sum total of knowledge. Indeed, I had started to realize that knowledge is infinite and that we will always be a very, very long way from enlightenment in the short time we are mortals here on this tiny planet, orbiting what is, in cosmological terms, a very small and insignificant star which is one of at least 100 billion stars. That’s 1 with twenty-four zeros after it. And that is only based on what we know about the universe beyond this earth which, let us remind ourselves, we have only been visiting for the last sixty years, and into which we have only delved such an infinitesimally small distance that it is astonishing to think that we can be so confident that we know so much about how the universe works, let alone pass judgement on the mind of the maker who has brought it all into being. In short, my thirty-eight-year self has begun to appreciate that not only is the universe so very, very large and the task of learning about it so monumentally huge, but has also started to realize that I, we, are so very, very small, and that the creative entity that has put together all of this existence and everything beyond it, from nothing – ex nihilo is the phrase used in philosophy – is so awe-inspiring that all I can do is feel the profoundest sense of wonder that it could possibly have come into being.
And so, in my own journey, spanning many years, I have become more and more comfortable with the notion that with God, anything and everything is possible. And here I stand today, my forty-eight-year self, at ease with what I now believe to be an historical event which defies all rational explanation, and which is at odds with what we know – for now at least – to be the laws of physics, at least those of Newton and Einstein but not forgetting that we are only just starting to dip our toes into quantum physics, and being at ease with the fact that even if Jesus’ walking on the water never, ever could be explained rationally, it wouldn’t bother me, because it’s God’s world, and Jesus is God and, ultimately, the story is much bigger than the interaction between Jesus and water molecules.
You see, the thing is, all we ever really remember about this story is that Jesus walked on the water. A miracle, to be sure. Actually we heard three miracles in the story just now. Jesus walking on the water, Peter walking on the water, and Jesus stilling the storm. We forget that Peter walked on the water, but he did. Again, it defies rational explanation. But rather than worrying too much about that, I would want to encourage you, as I have over the last twenty years encouraged myself, to not worry about how on earth something like that could possibly have happened but think instead about why something like that happened.
If we spend too much time fixating on how something happened, it can divert us from thinking why it happened. And why this event, like any of Jesus’ miracles happened is because God will go to any lengths to show his love for us. All of Jesus’ miracles are unambiguously good. They are all, in every possible way, about bringing to people the fullness of life which God has intended for each one of us since before the beginning of the world. Healing people of their physical infirmities, releasing them the corrosive presence of evil which been imprisoning their minds in fear, feeding the hungry, embracing those who society has ostracized. All of these miracles, these deeds, have restored to these people something of the fullness of life that God wants for them.
What God wants for us is that we are able to live life to the full, living life as it should be lived, and I think that, deep down, we have a pretty good idea of how our lives really ought to be lived. Each of us are comprised of body, mind and spirit and a full life is where each of these is perfectly integrated with the others. As I was saying a few months ago, I truly find it baffling that as a society we spend so much time and effort on our bodily health and our mental health, but almost no time and effort at all on our spiritual health. And until we start to take notice of this deficiency and earnestly try and put it right we will never be a truly healthy society. As individuals, we will never be as fully alive as we could be in our bodies and minds if we neglect our spirits.
The most important thing we can do to address our spiritual health is to know that we are made in the image of God, and that he loves us, and wants more than anything to be with us. God extends his hand to us all the time, but because God’s love is a perfect love, it is not possessive, and we have the free choice of whether or not to reach out our hand to God’s outstretched hand. But know that God’s hand is always outstretched to you.
Until a couple of days ago, all the artistic depictions I’d ever seen of the walking on the water story were kind of from a third-party view of the disciples looking terrified in a boat on a stormy sea and Jesus as a kind of glowing figure hovering above the water’s surface. And then I found another picture entirely. I have no idea who painted it, but I think it is utterly brilliant, and it’s pictured here. It captures the scene from Peter’s point of view when he has sunk beneath the surface. He can see the churning storm but he also can see Jesus, extending a hand of love to pull him into safety. His hand is dipping beneath the surface so that Peter can grab a hold of it and know that he is safe. He doesn’t have to, but he wants to, because he knows and trusts that loving presence, and he hears Jesus saying to him, ‘Do not be afraid’, which is, incidentally, one of the most often-written phrases in the Bible. “Do not be afraid.” That picture communicates more than this sermon ever could that God always extends a loving, saving hand to us when we are sinking beneath the waves.
I am reading a book right now by the English novelist, Susan Howatch. A lot of her novels are about theology and psychology entwined in cracking good prose and exciting plot-lines. A couple of days ago I read one of the characters saying that in our earthly lives we are either perishing or we are being saved. And it really put me in mind of today’s gospel reading. We are either sinking beneath the waves, or we are being pulled from the waves. God’s saving hand is always extended to us if we want to take it. Wanting to reach for it is our choice, and we can always, always grab a hold of it.
This is one reason why I am so profoundly grateful that we host AA meetings at this church as one of our major ministries. The Twelve-Step program is one of an honest self-searching that realizes that the body and the mind need to be integrated with the spirit for a person to become more like the person God wants them to be. In short, it is a process of reaching out to grab the outstretched hand of God and be brought home.
But the journey home is a long one. The process of being pulled from the waves, from the deep will be long and arduous in itself and, indeed, we will never fully escape pain and suffering in this earthly life. Being rescued from drowning and being able to live life in all its fullness is a lifetime’s process, and one which will only fully culminate in the life beyond this one when finally we are embraced into God’s loving arms, and that journey home is at last accomplished.