In the Name...
A tourist in the Holy Land wanted to take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and was told that the fee was $50. "What!", the tourist said. "That's expensive." "Well," the boatman replied, "this is no ordinary sea. Jesus walked across it." "I'm sure he did," the tourist countered, "especially if the boat was 50 bucks."
The incident of the walking on the water has been the subject of lots of jokes to the point that "walking on water" has become proverbial for doing something impossible. And people whom we say do "walk on water" tend to enjoy the attention that doing the impossible brings. But, Jesus didn't perform his miracles to show off. There was always context and purpose to them. And the Gospel writers chose the events they recorded with great care, not just as things that happened in the past, but, as events which illustrate things that are happening now.
Keep that in mind as we look at the story again. Immediately after feeding the multitude, Jesus ships his disciples off in a boat, sends the people home, and goes off by himself to pray. Now whenever Jesus is mentioned as being in prayer it's always at a time of great crisis. The crisis this time was that the people had said they wanted to make Jesus their king.
Now, Jesus had heard this before. At the very outset of his ministry, he had to deal with three temptations Satan set before him, and one of these was to turn stones into bread. Satan's point was that human beings are so weak and fickle they'll follow anyone who feeds them, anyone who meets their material needs. And that's exactly what happens here. The people want to crown Jesus not because they believe he's the Son of God, or because they think he can give them eternal life. They want to follow him because he gave them a free lunch.
Can you imagine how troubled and sick at heart Jesus must have felt? Satan's words have come back to mock him. So Jesus prays; he prays for strength to resist the temptation, but, not the temptation to become king, the temptation to just walk away. Jesus prays for strength to continue his mission and not throw in the towel. To not agree with Satan that humanity is worthless. And so comes today's miracle.
The disciples were having a hard time in their boat. They were struggling against the wind, but, it's not like the incident we read about a few weeks ago. This isn't a violent storm threatening to swamp them. They weren't panicky or afraid. If anything, they're annoyed and frustrated, maybe even angry that they have to row the eight miles to the other side with a contrary headwind. Two strokes forward, one stroke back. No, the panic and the fear didn't set in until they saw Jesus and that’s a fascinating observation. In St. Mark’s version of this event, he says that Jesus was "passing by", and that is the key phrase. It doesn't mean that Jesus was in a hurry, it means he was God.
In the Old Testament, whenever we read that God "passes by" that is a sign that He is revealing His presence. When Abraham asks for a sign to seal the covenant, a blazing firepot "passes by" his altar. God "passes by" Moses on Mt. Sinai when He gives the Ten Commandments. His chariot "passes by" Elijah and Elisha. And the prophet Isaiah records the Lord saying that He will "pass by" Jerusalem and save it from its enemies.
This "passing by" is an idiom used to indicate God's personal presence. So, by using that idiom in the context of Jesus doing what he was doing, Mark is telling us that the presence of Jesus is the presence of God. The fact that he's walking on water is almost incidental.
Throughout the Bible, God uses control of water as a way of expressing divine power. In Exodus, Moses parts the Red Sea to rescue the people of Israel. The prophet Elijah parts the Jordan River as a symbol of renewing the nation and Elisha also parts the Jordan as proof that he has inherited Elijah's mantle.
But, Mark's point is that Jesus is more than just somebody who can make miracles with water. Jesus is greater than Moses, Elijah, and Elisha because Jesus "passes by.” And this phrase, which reveals who Jesus is, is supposed to also reveal what the feeding of the 5,000 was all about.
The feeding of the 5,000 wasn't just about a free lunch. It was a prefiguring of the Holy Eucharist. It was meant to teach about something Jesus was going to do. A few verses after the ones read in today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to reflect upon the feeding and he asks them to, and this is a great phrase, “understand about the loaves.” For, as we gather, week after week, to celebrate the Eucharist, and as we are sent out, week after week, after the Eucharist "to love and serve the Lord", we are called week after week to also "understand about the loaves.”
To "understand about the loaves" is to realize that what we do at this altar is to see and experience the same power, the same majesty, the same presence that Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha and the disciples saw and experienced. To "understand about the loaves" is to believe that the greatest gift of God is not perishable bread, but, the gift of Christ himself. To "understand about the loaves" is to realize that the Holy Eucharist is God "passing by" His people.
On the lake, Jesus was God Incarnate appearing as a human being. In this church, Jesus is God Incarnate under the appearance of bread and wine. He has miraculously multiplied himself for each one of us, and not only for us in this place, but, for everyone who ever has, or whoever will, receive Communion.
Have you ever wondered about the words in one of our historic consecration prayers where it says "humbly beseeching thee that we and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ"? Well, what "others" are going to be taking communion if they're not here now? The "others" are all the people at all the other Eucharists being celebrated around the world today and every day. "This" Holy Communion means "every" Holy Communion.
Millions are fed daily with the bread of his Body. As St. Paul said, "The bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ. We who are many are one body, for we are all partakers of the one bread." And, like the disciples, we may be surprised, even frightened, to realize who and what and where he is.
There are times in life when it seems that we're expected to feed multitudes and walk on water with the wind blowing in our faces. Well, the only way we'll ever be up to those challenges is if understand about the loaves; understand that Jesus has given us himself as spiritual food to strengthen us; understand that he has made a greater miracle than even Satan could taunt him with.
Make bread out of stones? Well, how about making God out of bread? That's more than a neat trick. That's a sacrament. That's God - "passing by.”
In the Name...