July 29, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Immediately [Jesus] made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd.”
Jesus again sends the Twelve. Earlier they were sent by Him: “He called the Twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits…. So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” All had gone as Jesus directed, as Jesus had authorized. These disciples had been empowered by Jesus and accomplished what He had sent them to do.
Now Jesus sends them again, but not with authority to exorcise and exhort. No, the task was different: “Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd.” The Twelve are sent to the shoreline with the command to sail across the Sea of Galilee. But the Gospel Writer tells us that they could not get to the other side: “And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and [Jesus] was alone on the land. And He saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.” The wind blew in the face of the disciples: no matter how hard they would row, no progress was being made. They were stuck in the position of not being able to meet their Lord’s command. The lake that had once brought them a living by catching fish now stood as an opponent that could bring them death.
So what could be done in this situation? What would bring relief to the Twelve? They could wait for the winds to change, hoping for what might never come before their boat became a transport to a watery grave. They could turn back and sail for the shore, an act that would directly contradict what their Lord had commanded them to do. Or the One who controlled the wind and wave could intercede for them. And that is what Jesus does: “And about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.”
But what does Jesus’ appearance bring to the disciples? It brings fear and fright: “He meant to pass by them, but when they saw Him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw Him and were terrified.” When Jesus strides across the waves toward the disciples’ boat, it is a supernatural act. It is a display of divine power and ability. No mere man is capable of such a work, but Jesus does it. And that encounter with the full divinity of Jesus brings terror to the Twelve. The confrontation between humanity’s weakness and God’s power, between the natural and the supernatural, terrifies the Twelve who see it. Their status as those who are inferior to the Godhead is made clear.
But terror is not what Jesus seeks to cause in His disciples. No, His presence is for their benefit, not their detriment. He walks on the waves to display His divinity in a way that the Twelve had not yet seen. They are to take from this that the Incarnate God is present to bring them aid. That happens when Jesus speaks to His disciples, declaring His identity as the One who brings courage: “But immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.” Through that act, Jesus’ identity is made known to the Twelve: He is the Lord of Creation, including the waters. He is the ἐγώ εἰμι, the Great I Am present in the world. He is there to put right what was wrong with His creation, to bring salvation by overcoming what humanity could not.
Yet, the Gospel Writer tells us: “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Jesus’ action brings some confusion to the Twelve. They witness what Jesus has done, but they do not fully comprehend it. They have seen Jesus’ divinity on display, but they have yet to fully realize why Jesus has done so. But that will be remedied as the Twelve continue to follow Jesus, as they observe all His actions and hear all His words that reveal His identity as the Redeemer of the cosmos bound by sin and chaos. The Twelve will come to know that Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and earth in His death and resurrection and that authority is what brings them deliverance. They will see that Jesus’ use of His divinity is done out of compassion for His creation. So they will understand about the loaves, about the healings, about the teaching of great truths, about the crucifixion and the empty tomb.
This is what you have come to know and understand from the apostles’ testimony of what the Lord Jesus has done. It is what you have come to experience as your attempts to fulfill the Lord’s commands have proven just as futile as the Twelve’s straining at the oars to cross the Sea of Galilee. You have the waves that oppose the completion of the Lord’s will. Our catechism reminds us: “the devil, the world, and our sinful nature do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come.” They would not have you be helped by the Lord at all. They would not have you be counted among His people. This is what you encounter when you go out from here to live your daily lives according to God’s commands.
What you face is similar to the Twelve. You have been called and baptized, made Jesus’ followers. You are fed by Jesus in this desolate place, just as He fed the Twelve and the other 5,000 men who were present on that Galilean hillside. Then you are sent out. Jesus says to you: “Follow My way of life. Be righteous as your Father in heaven is righteous. Love Me above all things. Give what you have to help those in need. Forgive your brother seventy times seven. Do good to all who oppose you.” And what is your desire? To do all these things that Jesus commanded. You go from here wanting to be just like your Lord, to complete every task that He has given to you.
You step out into the parking lot. You travel to your homes. Monday morning comes, and you have your jobs to go to or your familial duties to fulfill. The motivation is there to be faithful parents, faithful employees, faithful citizens. You say: “I will be just as Jesus wants me to be.” But then it happens. The first car cuts you off. The first cries from your children come. The supervisor criticizes you in front of the office staff. You get the fourth charity telephone call asking for contributions. The president or governor issues a policy that you hate. And you are angry, upset, raging. All the righteous acts that you wanted to do are left undone. The commandments go broken or unfulfilled. You strain at the oars, but founder in your boats.
But Jesus sees that you are “making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.” He sees what opposes you. He does not ignore your plight. No, He comes walking out to you, bringing His authority—the power “that breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.” He says to you: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus reassures you of His identity and His presence with you: “I have overcome these things for you. I forgive your failures. I have attained what you could never earn for yourself and I freely bestow it to you. Do not be hard-hearted, but know that I will give you far more abundantly than what you could ever ask for or imagine. That is why I came as the Great I Am and made My presence here in the earth. It was for your benefit, even now.”
You have Jesus present with you. He is here in the boat of the Church. He is here, not so that you can touch the fringe of His garments. No, Jesus is present, so that you can have Him wash you clean of all your guilt, speak His words of pardon, feed you with His meal that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. You have Him present in His statements that His Covenant has been made with you and that you will not be cut off. That is what grants courage. That is what relieves fear. That is what Jesus’ good and gracious will is for you. That’s what you understand and know from the miracle of the loaves and the walking on the water, even more so from the death of Jesus and His resurrection to life for you.
Through Jesus’ words and works, you know that “He who alone does great wonders, who by understanding made the heavens, who spread out the earth above the waters, who made the great lights” is not your enemy. No, He is your Savior. He is the One who works for you, not against you. His acts are just as real as the efforts of those who oppose His will. But His acts are greater. Because of this, the prayer for this morning comes to fulfillment for you: “strengthen our faith and give us courage to believe that in Your love You will rescue us from all adversities.” Hearing again what your Jesus has done, you say: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” For that steadfast love has been shown to you by the Great I Am who overcomes what opposes you and will bring you safely to the other side in life everlasting.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.