It is always good to be here, to have the honor of speaking to you and presiding at this altar, and today somehow I feel that especially. It seems a moment to reflect that it’s been a challenging, choppy time for Incarnation this past nine months or so, often painful and/or confusing for many of you, I know.
All of life is transition, but this last year it has been especially so, and we humans find change and transition and uncertainty stressful even though they are, fact, the norm. And the change and transition and uncertainty have been especially pointed here over the last year, with more to come, so that perhaps we might relate more strongly than usual to the disciples in the storm-tossed boat.
A boat, in fact, has been a symbol for the church from very early on, and the Gospel story today certainly resonates with that. And while we know—or let’s hope we do!—that the church is not the building, in a beautiful building like this it can be helpful to look up and see the shipwright construction—this church, like so many, built more-or-less like an upside down boat.
The church isn’t the building, it’s the people. Fair enough, but only I think if we remember to say at the same time, the church is Jesus. And if you are in a boat that’s upside down, it’s a good idea to have Jesus along.
It’s not too clear what John’s Gospel wants us to understand about this, the disciples in the boat without Jesus. In Mark and Matthew’s versions of the story, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus himself has the disciples get into the boat, and then he goes up the mountain to pray. But John tells it differently. Here, Jesus escapes, takes refuge up the mountain and into solitude when the crowd wants to grab him and coercively declare him king. The disciples, eventually, are left alone, and when it gets dark, they get into the boat to head home. What about Jesus? John leaves a kind of pregnant silence here as to what is going on, but I think it’s possible that John wants us to see the disciples here as abandoning Jesus, failing to wait for him, assuming perhaps that that he has come to no good end in the wilds.
Also, John makes a point of setting the whole story at Passover-time. That should trigger a double cross-reference in our minds. John is saying, when you listen to this story think back on the one hand to Moses and the Israelites coming out of Egypt, crossing through the Red Sea, being led through the wilderness by God, who feeds them with manna on the way to the land of promise. And on the other hand, think ahead to another Passover soon to come, in Jerusalem, when Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples, giving them the Eucharist of his Body and Blood, then is betrayed, abandoned, condemned and crucified, and then, on the third day, risen from the dead, appears to the initially frightened disciples.
So the disciples in the boat are a lot like the same group later, afraid in the upper room. In both cases, Jesus comes to them, not a ghost, but the full, living, bodily Jesus, and he comes not in anger or recrimination, as they might fear, but in peace. This is not a ghost story. In ghost stories, Hamlet for example, when ghosts show up they are generally unhappy, usually with unfinished business, a score they want to settle. With Jesus, it’s the opposite. In the upper room, he says “Peace be with you.” Coming to the storm-tossed boat, he says “I AM—fear not!” Jesus’s words here, ego eimi in Greek, can mean “it is I” or “it’s me,” but they have a deeper resonance. Literally, it’s “I AM,” an echo of “I AM WHO I AM” who appears to Moses in the burning bush, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Exodus, the God of Passover. Peace be with you. Fear not. I AM. I AM with you.
We as church, as Christian community, will continue to have challenging, troubling anxious times—times, I think John is telling us, when we so to speak leave Jesus behind, giving in to our anxieties and setting out, as it were, on our own (though we are never really on our own). We all fall short in our discipleship, as individuals and as communities, failing to really be with Jesus where he is, failing to wait for him, seeking safety on our own terms. Without quite noticing it, we try to carry on as the church, but without Jesus. And things get stormy.
And, the Gospel tells us today, Jesus is continually coming to us, not as an angry ghost but as a forgiving friend and Savior, breathing reconciliation and peace: “I AM—fear not! Peace be with you.” And we continually need to take him into the boat, day by day, week by week, moment by moment.
In Ephesians today, Paul offers a prayer for his fellow believers, that is, for us. If you look at it and ponder it closely, it’s a pretty mind-blowing prayer.
It’s a prayer, you could say, about taking Jesus into the boat, a prayer inviting us to reflect on what it really means that Jesus has chosen to be with us, has chosen to be in us,
Jesus who is continually coming towards us across the stormy waters, no matter how we’ve failed or forgotten him, Jesus who continues to offer us a reconciliation and peace that will not just calm our fears but blow our minds and will take us on an open-hearted journey further and deeper into the love and delight of God, further into the open heart of God’s love for us and for the whole world, further, says Paul, into all the fullness of God.
I find the NRSV translation a bit bland, so here’s my attempt at a fairly literal translation of Paul’s prayer:
That God may give you (all of you), according to the abundance of his glory,
power to become strong through his Spirit in the inner person,
that Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts,
you who have been rooted and made secure in love,
in order that you, along with all the holy ones, may have the ability to take in
the spaciousness and span, the heights and deeps,
to know the beyond-knowledge love of Christ,
in order that you may be filled toward all the fullness of God.
In other words, Paul is praying that God will blow our minds and fill our hearts overwhelmingly, that we may know what is beyond knowing and expressing, that God would give us (if you’ll pardon the expression) an orgasm of the heart and mind, through the experience of the love of Jesus Christ, a continuing slow-burn explosion of love and insight that will reverberate in us now and forever and open us deeper and wider to participate more and more completely in God’s own life and love, to give us more and more insight beyond what words can express into how the love of Christ fills everything that is and beckons everything that is deeper and deeper, fuller and fuller into the life of God.
When we find ourselves thinking of St Paul as some kind of sanctimonious prude, we’d do well to read and ponder this passage.
I believe we do know this, this beyond-knowledge love, or at least we’ve had a taste, a taste we mustn’t forget. If you’ve been coming back here, to this place of encounter, whether here in this space or somewhere else, this place of hearing Christ’s Word, and taking in his Body and Blood, if you are here… again… I believe it’s because you have tasted this infinite life, have glimpsed and felt and known this beyond-knowledge love.
It’s not always easy, though praise God for the moments when it is. Sometimes it just seems to get harder from day to day. Sometimes we panic. Sometimes we may think Jesus is just a strange, perhaps inspiring person from the past, not the living “I AM” of the living God. But whatever is going on with us, whatever our doubts, whatever our fears, whatever our hurts, let’s stay in the boat, and again and again we’ll find that Jesus comes to us across the choppy waters, saying “I AM—fear not!” And again we will take him into the boat with us, and with him we will reach the land we’re headed for.