St Barnabas, 19th Sept 2010
At first glance, this passage is the simplest account of the storm on the lake of Galilee. John gives us none of the details that the other gospel writers tell us, for example, in Matthew’s gospel we have the story of Peter walking on the water, and in both Matthew and Mark’s accounts, a word from Jesus stills the wind and the waves. So John has given us only the bare bones of the event.
Yet John is one of the most careful writers. Each story, each word is carefully chosen. It can’t be that he has nothing to say about the story, for Luke omits it altogether, and John could simply have done the same. So it is as if this passage is merely an aside and not John’s main thought as he writes. So where is his focus, and why does he include this story anyway?
The clue is that John tells us when these events took place. In verse four, he says simply that the Jewish Passover feast was near. For his earliest readers, that would immediately have put them in mind of the events of the Exodus, because the repetition of the feast of Passover year by year was designed specifically to remind people of their salvation story. So with the Exodus in mind, Jesus’ words about being the bread of life later in this chapter, building on the miracle of the five loaves and two small fish (that we read about last week), would have several familiar associations, not least reminding John’s readers about the manna from heaven that had been provided for the people of God throughout their journey in the desert.
And sandwiched between the story of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ description of himself as the bread of life is this brief account of the storm on the lake.
So what purpose does John have for including this episode here?
I think there are probably three reasons. First is the association of the Exodus with water and the crossing of the Red Sea. In the Exodus account, the escaping Israelites are trapped alongside the river with the entire Egyptian army bearing down on them, when God parts the water so they can walk through on dry land … I think you can probably see the parallel here … the man Jesus didn’t need the water to part for him to cross – he simply walked across the top!
Which I think leads us to the second and main reason John includes a simple version of this story. John is leading up to a series of declarations from Jesus known as the ‘I am’ sayings, starting with ‘I am the bread of life’ later in this chapter. In the context of the Exodus, ‘I am’ was the name by which God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush … so when Jesus began to use the term of himself, it was a clear claim to divinity – something most would assume to be blasphemy, after all, Jesus was only a man, wasn’t he? But those who knew him, who had seen his miracles, experienced his power would perhaps have a more open mind about the possibility that Jesus might, just might, be someone special …
Throughout his ministry, Jesus told the people stories, we call them parables, stories with a meaning. He did this so that those who were open to God would grasp new truths, see things from a different perspective, while those who were set in their ways and closed to God would hear them simply as stories often with a sense of humour. But to his disciples, Jesus always spoke plainly – he was forthright even blunt about the future and his coming death and while they didn’t always understand at the time, when Jesus defeated sin and rose from the dead they remembered and understood.
When Jesus walked on the raging water … only the disciples saw. The crowd had long gone, it was late, Matthew tells us it was after 3am … perhaps the light was just beginning to dawn for a new day … the disciples are straining to row against the wind and the waves – they have been rowing for maybe 6 hours and have only covered three or three and a half miles (I looked it up – apparently 3 miles an hour is a fairly average rowing speed) – when Jesus comes to them on the water.
So once again, Jesus has shared with his disciples the bigger picture … Jesus’ power and control over nature was far greater than simply producing food, or healing someone lame from birth. He controlled the elements – to the people of Israel at that time, the sea was an untameable power. There was huge superstition about the sea, they were afraid of it. And Jesus came to them, simply walking on the water. Do you get a sense of that power, and why the disciples were afraid when they saw him?!
The third reason that John included the story was to create a search and ask a question … verse 25, When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” which then leads into Jesus’ revelation of himself as the ‘bread of life’ which we’ll be looking at next week.
When we read the gospels we read them as factual accounts of Jesus’ life – which they are. We know there are differences between them, but we know too that the writers were individuals and had different experiences and different memories of everything they saw and heard. What we don’t often realise is how deliberately they wrote and edited their individual accounts … but we can see here just how careful John was to construct his gospel … he leads us carefully from one episode to another, creating a thread we can follow until we reach the conclusion – a bit like preaching really, or at least that’s the theory!
So it’s helpful as we read to be aware of the wider context as John leads us through Jesus’ life story, building up the tension and stacking up the evidence for his purpose. He makes no mystery of his purpose, he tells us quite plainly in chapter 20, these (things) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
So where does that leave us as we read today’s short story? First of all, we can learn a simple truth from the story itself, from John’s straightforward version of this story with none of the detail of the other gospel accounts to distract us … that Jesus has total power over creation … that he is neither limited nor inhibited by our expectations … that when Jesus claims to have the power of God, he does!
Secondly, from the story in the context of the chapter, John wants us to be aware of God’s purposes throughout history – his intention to call people to worship him, to save them and for them to live life as he intended … elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus says, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John is concerned that we understand the nature of the life of faith – that it is both full and fulfilling – after all, it’s a life lived in relationship with that same Jesus – the one with the power over the wind and the waves!
And finally, John wants us to search and to question … he wants us to ask ourselves, ‘Who is this Jesus?’ and to search the Bible for answers. John isn’t content with simply telling us about Jesus, he wants to introduce us to Jesus, and to create in us a hunger for more.
All of you reading this are in some kind of relationship with Jesus – distant or close, new or familiar – but how many of us can say that we are living life to the full in him? With this simple story, John is challenging our complacency … challenging us to enlarge our vision of the Jesus we claim to follow. Saying in effect, don’t be content, be hungry for more.
So spend a moment now in prayer – ask yourself whether you have settled for the relationship you have … or do you want a closer relationship with Jesus? Ask God to show you what you can do or change to achieve that … it might be something simple like spending more time with him in prayer or reading the Bible, it might be an act of service, or even a total change of lifestyle. Ask him to create that hunger in you … and see how Jesus in all his power can transform your life and your future!