“I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!”
— Mary Oliver, from “Breakage”
Last Sunday we omitted Mark’s recounting of the feeding of the multitude from the gospel reading in the lectionary, and many of us wondered why. This week we pick up that story, yet we are given the version in the gospel of John, not Mark, and the author of John lays out the story in a very specific way. The first part is familiar: Jesus feeds a multitude even though there is only a little food at hand; yet when everyone has been satisfied, there are heaping amounts of food left over. The Gospel of John then makes an interesting claim: in response to the feeding, the crowd comes to believe that Jesus is “the prophet who has come into the world,” and they leap from prophet to emperor. Jesus is then said to realize that they are about to try to force him to become king, and withdraws away to the mountain by himself. As evening approaches, the disciples eventually get into the boat and set off across the sea toward Capernaum, toward home, after they have waited in vain for Jesus to join them. As the apostles propel themselves across the water, the sea gets increasingly rough, even as home beckons once they get beyond the storm. Finally, in the darkest part of the night, they see Jesus approaching them—by walking on water.
John’s account doesn’t include Matthew’s story of Peter impulsively hurling himself over the side to join Jesus’s perambulations. In Mark and John, the disciples resolutely stay glued in the boat as Jesus approaches them, walking on the waves as you or I would walk on a sidewalk, and yet they know they are three or four miles from shore. Matthew and Mark measure the distance travelled by the disciples’ boat by time: they claim that this miracle happens during the “fourth watch of the night,” which would be a time right before dawn, a time when the sages say it is darkest—you know: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” For three watches, the disciples had been struggling against the oars, against the wind and the sea, against their own repeated inability to understand and accept who exactly Jesus is.
They’re still trying to wrap their minds around this miraculous feeding of a crowd and now Jesus is treating water as if it is solid ground, even as it crashes against the boat. John’s gospel states that the Passover was near at this time, and now Jesus is passing over the water toward them. Passover is the time when it is remembered that the angel of death had swooped over Egypt, carrying off the firstborn of every household that had not splashed its doorposts with blood—a night that is also follows a meal. Now here’s Jesus passing over and through storms and crashing waves like an angel himself. It’s no wonder those who were sitting in a boat amongst turbulent waves became afraid—of the storm yes, but also of this Jesus who comes to them in his own way, untroubled by the storm that encloses them. The crowd has still betrayed their misunderstanding of Jesus, and probably now the disciples too fail to understand. They are so busy goggling at how Jesus approaches them that they don’t notice that they are very near to the shore.
The feeding of the multitude and Jesus’s path across the stormy seas are told as one story for a reason. On one side of the sea the multitude is fed and on the other side of the sea Jesus is revealed as one who transcends limits. In between is the sea filled with our confusion, our doubt, our insistence that we not be shaken too much in our understanding. We are hungry for God, yet cast adrift by our own inability to accept who Jesus really is. We want Jesus to feed us but not transform us. We insist that Jesus to come to us in ways we can understand.
Jesus comes to us and expects us to wrap our minds around the fact that he feeds those who follow him, worthy or unworthy, lovable and unlovable—all are invited to the table, and all are filled to overflowing like that cup that runneth over in Psalm 23. This radical feast may very well overwhelm us, in a world in which we have programmed ourselves to respond to artificial scarcity created by advertisers. This may scare us, in a world where we try to justify the deaths of people in jail cells or slums or war zones, who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. This may terrify us, in a world where we continue to misuse creation and each other in countless ways to erode the bonds among us, and then angrily denounce how lost and alone we feel in the world, and how cut off we are from this good earth which bears us in its arms even as we declare ourselves aloof from its embrace. This may cause us to believe there is not food enough. This may cause us to push away from the shore, to resolve to stay adrift in the storm we know rather than accept the Jesus whose love promises to change us once we accept who he really is, not who we want him to be. We sometimes seem to almost prefer the stormy sea.
We have no food to feed all these people, we tell Jesus, and yet Jesus insists we all sit together and eat. Jesus continues to respond to us: together, we are called to give them something to eat—together, not as “us” and “them.” We are called to understand that Jesus is not sent to us to be a bureaucrat, enforcer, or magistrate– but to be the one to lead us into a new understanding of how we ourselves are called to be. Even with the little we bring with us, abundance and well-being and peace and satisfaction—all those things which we can’t seem to generate for ourselves due to our own fears—come from allowing ourselves to be blessed and fed by Jesus and his radical gospel of love. But we have to stop trying to remake Jesus according to our ideas of justice, which divides people into winners and losers, and let him come to us without trying to force him into our boat, to travel as we do. Once we see Jesus as he is, we realize that the shore is right before us, and the waves no longer threaten.
Lord, it has been a hard path through the darkness and the storms these last many days. We continue to struggle against the storms within our hearts that drive us from You and leave us famished. May we always remember that, even when it is darkest, You are beside us, loving us. May we always remember that in You, there is more than enough- enough bread, enough mercy, enough grace—and let us allow ourselves to be filled. You are our bread and our cup, our peace and our path leading us home, beyond the edge of the sea.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: from Free all Images