1 Kings 19:9, 11-13
At the British Museum at the moment there’s an exhibition called “Treasures of Heaven”, saints, relics and devotion in mediaeval Europe. It’s an exhibition mainly of reliquaries, containers for relics, and many of them are superb examples. Gilded and jewelled shrines made to contain saint’s bones or objects associated with Jesus and Mary and so on.
A few weeks ago I gave a talk to another parish in our area about the cult of relics, as a preparation for their visit to the exhibition. What struck me was their response. Quite a lot of people wanted to know how you could be sure that a relic really was what it was said to be. How do you know that a particular bone really does come from St Hubert, or a particular splinter of wood from the Cross on which Jesus was crucified?
To ask that is to ask a very modern question of a pre-modern object. Living in the 21st Century we are, whether we like it or not, children of the enlightenment, heirs of the scientific revolution, thoroughly modern in our outlook and the questions we ask. Our approach to knowledge is based on evidence and proof, because it seems that that’s how most kinds of knowledge are handled in our world.
When mediaeval people approached a relic it was not proof, but belief, that invested the object with meaning. It was belief that made it a bridge between their own world and the heavenly world of Christ and the saints. This wasn’t pretence, but a different way of approaching reality than the one we are used to. Some of those mediaeval relics would indeed have met modern standards of proof, but some of them would not. But to judge them by modern standards as “fakes” is really to misread them, to misunderstand what the object was for.
A similar consideration applies when we read Bible stories. We need to remember that we are, unavoidably, modern people reading pre-modern texts. Stories of the miraculous can seem particularly problematic, such as the story we read today, of Jesus walking on the water, or the story we read last week of the feeding of the five thousand. How are we to interpret these stories?
For some, the first approach is to ask, what are the facts? Some Bible scholars in the 20th Century took a rather sceptical approach to stories like this. Commentaries were published suggesting that, when Jesus had fed the five thousand, what really happened was that the moral force of his teaching persuaded the people to take out and share the hidden stashes of food they’d brought along with them. Likewise when Jesus walked on water he was really walking on a hidden sandbank.
The problem with explanations like that is that they tend to rob the story of any significance. We’re no longer inhabiting the story and listening to what it’s got to say to us. We’ve become focussed on what the story is not focussed on: skepticism, evidence, proof.
Now, for what it’s worth, much contemporary Biblical scholarship is rather more robust and recognises the weakness of trying to explain away the miraculous. The stories of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water are told in all four Gospels. These represent four different early Christian communities – and one of them, Mark, is very early. It is almost inconceivable that there were not some extraordinary events behind these stories, events which were remembered and told in those communities, the first generation of disciples.
But equally we need to recognise that it is the telling of the stories in the community which gives them meaning. These stories are not meant to be simply a reporting of facts from the past. As with last week’s story of the feeding of the five thousand, the story of Jesus walking on the lake is told in a symbolic way. There are references to the Old Testament and to the situation of the early Christian community which wrote this story in its gospel. All of them are references full of meaning, uncovering hidden depths.
First, Jesus descends from on high and walks on the water in the dark. It is night. And this recalls the first creation story in Genesis, where we are told that in the darkness of primordial chaos the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters, bringing creation and life into being.
The crossing of the sea of Galilee also recall the story of the Exodus and the crossing of the red sea, and some of the psalms and the prophets in fact speak of God walking on the sea ahead of the Children of Israel, parting the waves for them.
Both of these Old Testament allusions say that it is God who walks on the sea, and the meaning is clear: Jesus is doing what God does. This meaning is brought out more clearly in the greeting Jesus gives to his disciples. Our translation this morning says, “Courage! It is I!”, but in the Greek he actually says “Do not be afraid! I am!”. Jesus uses the Divine name, the name of Yahweh, I Am Who I Am, to greet his disciples.
As with the feeding of the five thousand last week, the meaning is that God is in Jesus, feeding his people in the wilderness, walking on the sea, bringing about a new exodus, a new liberation for God’s people.
But the people in this week’s story are not the vast multitude fed with the loaves and fishes. They are the small, harried group of disciples, desperately trying to row to shore in their little insecure boat, battling through the night against wind and waves and seeming to make no progress.
Sometimes being a Christian can feel wonderfully comforting and reassuring. Like the multitude fed by Jesus in the wilderness, we are conscious of the great family of the Church throughout the world, that great communion and fellowship, celebrating the one Eucharist, knowing that we are fed by Jesus and have more than enough. At other times we may feel more like that little group in the boat. Alone, battling in the dark, making no headway against the storms.
The community in which Matthew’s Gospel was written may well have felt like that much of the time. There are a lot of references to persecution in Matthew, which suggests that this may have been something that community was familiar with. And perhaps it wasn’t a very big community. If so, this story of the little embattled group in the boat would have had a particular resonance for them. As it may, indeed, for us.
In the West we are unlikely to face real persecution for our faith. The worst we can expect is probably just to be ignored and marginalised as irrelevant, unlike our brothers and sisters in some parts of the world.
But we all from time to time know what it is like to feel that we’re struggling on in the dark and making no progress. We all know, like Peter, what it is like to feel that the waves are rising up around us.
The storms and waves that surround us might be those of anxiety or illness, grief or weariness. It matters not. However dark the night, however far out from shore we may seem to be, Jesus is with us. As with his people of old, he is God, our liberator, mighty to save. In whatever situation we are in, he says to us, “Do not be afraid! I am!”. His hand reaches out to save us. If, in faith, we keep our eyes on him, we will not sink beneath the waves.
The meaning of this story spans the years. Jesus is not past and gone, but living now; he is not trapped in expressions and understandings of the past; he is at work today and speaks to us today, in our modern world. We meet him, risen from the dead, in word and sacrament. This story is as meaningful and relevant to us as it was to our brothers and sisters who first heard it nearly two thousand years ago. As it must be, for it is a story of Jesus Christ, who is our God and our saviour, the same, yesterday, today, and for ever.
The Church teaches that the Bible is inspired by God. That doesn’t mean that it’s an infallible text dictated from on high, but it does mean that the Holy Spirit lives and breathes – inspires – through these texts. It does mean that there is something in the Bible that has the power to open us up to a living relationship with the risen Christ. So we can read a story like today’s, from a very different time and outlook, and find it still fresh, still new, speaking to us in our own context and turning our gaze to Jesus, who hand is stretched out to save whatever the storms of life may be for us.