What the story doesn’t tell us, but we nevertheless know to be true because we are men and they were too, is that they fought in the boat. Not fisticuffs, no, not like that, but there were voices raised to be sure, and words exchanged, salty ones, and comments made about the rowing ability of some, and an ongoing argument about the insanity of pressing ahead into the night when the wind was against them, the waves were high, they hadn’t even reached the midpoint of the lake, and for Christ’s sake why were they doing this?
Let’s just go back. Turn around and head for shore. Let the wind drive us back to Jesus, where we saw him last, waving us off from the beach at dusk.
It had all started so well. They had been heroes, every one of them, each taking a bit of the boy’s donated lunch from Jesus’ hands and watching it multiply over and over again in their own hands as they distributed it to the crowd. The sunny day paled in comparison to the glow of public recognition and appreciation in which they basked. The accolades and thank yous and gentle ribbing continued when later they were sent back into the crowd, fetching their fishing baskets from the boat first, waste bins for leftovers of bread and fish.
“Go on,” said Jesus as the sun was setting, “I’ll send the crowd away and catch up with you on the other side.”
And so they drifted off into the peachy dusk, their boat bobbing gently on a tranquil lake, voices from the diminishing crowd echoing faint across the water as they drew away, points of flickering flame appearing in the darkening shore behind and in the sky above, campfires, torches and stars.
What a day. What a great day.
Every now and again life grabs us and says “do this!” We may not have the benefit of a real flesh-and-blood Jesus giving us the specific instruction to “go to the other side”, but most of us will at times embark on a new venture, confident enough that, even in the absence of undeniable divine sanction, the stars in our private universe are at least sufficiently aligned toward good fortune that we should set out. We recognize a course for our lives and trust that it rests under the blessing of God. And for the most part we take these commitments on when we have reached a place of confidence, of feeling pretty good about ourselves.
We pop the question to our sweetheart, we sign the contract with our new employer, we make the move to a different city, we join in as an eager volunteer.
We are sent off from our old station in the glow of well wishes, in the calm of confidence and camaraderie, munching on the leftovers of our latest success.
And then one day, not long into our new commitment, we feel the faintest of breezes on our face, we notice the ripples on the surface of the water, and a distinct change of attitude among those with us in the boat. The honeymoon over, we are calmly eating our breakfast cereal, minding our own business, when our sweetheart, for no reason whatsoever, frowns and grumpily says, “I hate it when you do that.” And we have no idea what she is talking about. The boss calls us into the office and hands us a task that is decidedly not in our contract. Tourists no more, our new location isn’t living up to its billing; why did we ever leave? And that volunteer job that was going to change the world? Meh.
By the time Jesus came to the disciples in the middle of the night they were in genuine peril. Straining at the oars for hours they had made little headway. The experienced fishermen among them were handicapped by the dead weight and inexperience of the others, those new to the sea, the ones leaning over the gunwales retching their bread and fish dinners. There was a real threat of capsizing, of drowning all, fishermen too.
Who saw it first they don’t remember, but in the end they all saw it: a ghostly figure moving over the water in the distance, disappearing and reappearing as their boat thrashed violently up and down in the waves. Suddenly they were gripped by fear and by each other. From their youngest days they had heard the stories of those in the throes of death whose eyes were opened to the underworld, how as one passed from this life to the next spirits would become visible, the two worlds melding into one. Their fate was now confirmed; death was upon them.
That thing that seemed so right, so clear and simple way back when? It became difficult, complicated, fraught, didn’t it? And now the situation is completely out of hand; as far as you are concerned, it’s over. The journey is done, the boat will go under, and you will too.
The most remarkable phrase in the telling of this tale is one we skip right over: “Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass them by…”
From Jesus’ perspective, the circumstances surrounding the voyage were not themselves the voyage. He asked them to go to the other side and told them he would meet them there. They were all still working to that same end, wind, waves, emotions and attitudes aside. To their credit the boat was still facing the direction he’d sent it, and the men were still rowing.
Going back to find Jesus where they’d seen him last would have landed them on an empty beach.
There may not have been a single man of great faith in the boat, but there were twelve men of faithfulness.
Gentle reader, keep rowing.