TEXT: John 6:1-21
… Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee … A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. (John 6:1-2)
The Gospel According to Saint John is sometimes called “the Gospel of Signs” because of the great number of miracles—or “signs”—which it records. If you’ve read it, I’m sure you know what I mean. There’s the “water into wine” miracle at the wedding in Cana (2:1-11), which John calls “the first of [Jesus’] signs.” Then there’s the incident reported in chapter eleven, where Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44) … plus a whole lot more, many of which appear only in John’s gospel.
And then there’s chapter six. Did you read it? How many miracles are recorded in that passage?
The answer is three. That’s right—three!
Did you notice them all? Two of the miracles are obvious; the third not so much—which is why you might not have noticed it, unless you were paying close attention.
The first miracle is probably the most famous one—what we call “the feeding of the five thousand,” where Jesus feeds the multitude with just five loaves of bread and two fish. I’m sure you noticed that one. Certainly the crowd who ate the free lunch noticed. It caused quite a stir, so much so that they wanted to crown Jesus king on the spot.
The second miracle’s pretty famous, too: Jesus walks on the water. And not just on water; it was a stormy sea he walked upon. That one, as far as we can tell, the crowd did not know anything about. The only ones who saw it were the disciples, who were in the boat he was walking toward. John tells us: “They were terrified,”—which would be a normal human reaction, I should think.
However, there is a third miracle recorded here. Most people don’t even notice it—yet, I think it’s the most intriguing. Want to know what it is?
I promise I will tell you … but first let me tell you what it’s not.
Like I said before, you have to pay close attention to catch it—which, if you’re like me, can be a challenge! Especially when a Bible story sounds like I’ve heard it before, I tend to sort of “tune it out” and let my mind wander. If you’re like that, too, you may be thinking this is the story about how Jesus calmed the storm. It’s understandable you might think that, because all the familiar elements are there: Jesus, the disciples, in a boat, on the sea, in a storm. So naturally you assume Jesus is going to rebuke the wind and waves and calm the storm.
Except he doesn’t. That story’s in the other gospels, but it’s not in John. For all we know, the wind is still blowing and the whitecaps are still breaking when, at the end of John’s story, the disciples want to take Jesus into the boat. Listen to that part again, beginning at verse 19: “When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat …”
And then—now hear this, because this is miracle number three: “immediately,” it says, “immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”
Okay. So one minute the boat—together with its passengers, of course—one minute the boat’s in the middle of the raging sea. The next minute … Poof! They’re on shore! It’s kind of like, “beam me up, Scottie.” Except in this case it’s more like, “beam me over.” Is that cool, or what?
Don’t you wish you could do that? Think of all the travel time and expense you could save—not to mention fuel. Hey .. maybe we can meet those Kyoto standards, after all! Emissionless travel. Maybe Parliament could mandate this sort of thing. That might be good.
But, of course, this is not the sort of transportation we poor mortals are capable of, is it? This is divine transportation.
Take a look at Jesus. He not only defies gravity by walking on water, but he can also warp time and space. No wonder the disciples were terrified. Jesus had to calm them down by identifying himself: “It is I; do not be afraid.” Or, at least, that’s the usual English translation. However, when Jesus said, “It is I,” what he really said—being translated literally from the Greek (Ἐγώ εἰμί)—was, “I am.”
Do you understand the meaning of that phrase, “I am”? “I am” is nothing other than the very name of God. Remember? God appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush. And, when Moses asked God his name, he replied: “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
That’s the very name Jesus claims for himself over and over again in John’s gospel:
- “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35)
- “I am the Light of the World” (8:12)
- “I am the Door” (10:9)
- “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11,14)
- “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25)
- “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (14:6)
- “I am the Vine” (15:1, 5)
Here, Jesus, reveals himself as the great “I Am.” No wonder the disciples were terrified! And no wonder Jesus had to tell them not to be afraid. And no wonder, when the disciples took him into the boat with them in the midst of the stormy sea, immediately they found themselves at the safe harbour for which they were bound.
This is the Gospel, my friends. This is the great good news of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is it in a nutshell. God is with us in the boat. Even—and especially—in the midst of the stormy seas of life, God is with us. Jesus is in the same boat we’re in. So do not be afraid.
Sometimes, Jesus may indeed calm the storm. But sometimes he doesn’t. In today’s gospel lesson, he let the tempest rage. Instead of calming the storm, he came through it.
He joined his beloved disciples in the midst of the storm, and—in the end—he became their rescue from it.
Are there storms raging in your life? There certainly are in mine. It seems like there always are. That used to bother me a lot—but not so much, any more. I guess I’ve finally learned that Jesus always shows up in the midst of the hurricane—if only I will pay close enough attention to notice him.
Many people, it seems, are but fair-weather friends of God. You know what I mean? They’re good with God as long as God is good to them in the way they want God to be good to them—as long as it’s smooth sailing. But when the storm clouds gather, they’re off on their own—which, it seems to me, is the last place you’d want to be in a storm! But that’s what they do.
God, however, wants something better than that. God deserves something better than that. So, sometimes, God does not calm the storm. Sometimes, he may even stir it up!
He has been known to do that, after all—in order to accomplish his purposes. In the days of Noah, he stirred up one whopper of a storm to cleanse the earth of the pollution of sin. In the case of Jonah, God stirred up a storm to make that reluctant prophet go where he was supposed to go.
In your case—and in mine—God may very well stir up a storm or two or three. Why? For no other reason than to stir up greater faith in us—and make us more than just his fair-weather friends.
But listen—here’s something we can count on: should God stir up a storm in your life, he’s doing it for a reason. Rest assured that he will come to you through the storm, striding through the wind, walking on the waves. And, in the midst of the tempest, what you need to do is stay in the boat—because that is how he will get you to the safe harbour for which you are bound.
Matthew’s gospel reports another story like this one, where the disciples are in a boat on a stormy sea, and Jesus walks on the water. Except in Matthew’s story, Peter wants to walk on the water, too. So he steps out of the boat.
Unfortunately, this quickly turns into one of those “how long can you tread water?” moments. Answer: not long enough! For what happens is this: when Peter steps out of the boat, he hears the wind howling, and sees the waves churning—and he begins to sink.
Jesus has to grab him and get him back on board the boat where he belonged in the first place. That’s why I say we should stay in the boat. Walking on water’s not for us. And if we try it, it will be a step too far.
Now, the boat is a time-honoured symbol of the church. And a boat is a pretty good metaphor. Jesus puts us in the boat so that we won’t be alone when a storm comes up.
Jesus calls us aboard his ship—calls us into his church—because that is where we will be safest. And—even if he doesn’t calm the storm—if we’re within that community, aboard that boat, then we are where we need to be. We need to be where Jesus is.
He comes to us in our boat to get us to the safe harbour for which we’re headed. Thanks to Jesus, and to him alone, we will arrive at our destination—which is the kingdom of God, and heaven itself.
So don’t be one of God’s fair-weather friends. He is, after all, the one who—through the prophet Isaiah—said:
“I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe.
I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
Whoa! Did Isaiah just say that the Lord creates woe? Yes, he did! According to scripture, God does create woe, sometimes—but only to accomplish his good and gracious will, which is with us and for us. Jesus, the great “I Am,” our Lord—having weathered the storm of the cross—is now risen from the dead. And now he is with us in the boat, which is his church.
Jesus is with us here, and—as an old hymn says—“Jesus will not fail us.”
In thine arm I rest me; foes who would oppress me
cannot reach me here.
Though the earth be shaking, every heart be quaking,
God dispels our fear;
sin and hell in conflict fell
with their heaviest storms assail us:
Jesus will not fail us.*
And that, my friends—that—is why the good news is good news.
* Johann Franck, 1653; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1863.