Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, 20 but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 14:22-27, Mark 6:45-51
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Third Sunday after Theophany, Eve of the Pre-Lenten Fast [Arachavorats Bahk]), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
The Disciples just witnessed and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. When the people saw this sign they proclaimed, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14)
At the time of Jesus, the paramount question was one of authority. For the Jews, the authority was Moses. But Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses. He is the prophet who Moses prophesied would come and to whom we should listen. We read the words of Moses from the Pentateuch,
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed.” (Deuteronomy 18:15)
John, in his Gospel, is retelling the story of Exodus, the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt (slavery), through the wilderness, across the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land (freedom). The story of the disciples on the boat crossing the Sea of Galilee, then, is a retelling of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14:15-31), an image of baptism, the point at which we are enlightened, placed on the path of knowing God.
Order From Chaos
The sea, according to ancient stories of the surrounding cultures (Egyptian and Mesopotamian), was associated with chaos and evil. This image is taken up in various portions of Scripture, including the creation account in Genesis in which the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters (chaos and disorder):
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
It conjures up images of a dark, chaotic, disordered abyss. It is God who spoke, and out of chaos brought order into being. And he hasn’t changed.
This image of dominion over the watery chaos continues throughout Scripture (see Psalm 74:12-16, 77:16-20, 89:8-11, 93:3-4, Isaiah 51:9-11). In these verses, there are references to God overcoming Rahab, which according to Jewish folklore is the name of a mythical chaos sea monster. Leviathan, another antagonist sea creature referenced in these scriptures, is also subdued by the God of Israel. In Job 9:8, translated from Krapar, God is referenced as walking on the sea as if it were the ground. All of this is an expression of God’s victory and authority over all things, over creation, over chaos and evil, over every storm that we will ever encounter. And Jesus, God in human flesh, not only walked the earth, but in today’s Gospel, he walks on the sea demonstrating that he is still, as in the beginning, Lord over all powers and forms of disorder.
Attributed to St. Basil Caesarea, listen to what we pray during the Blessing of Water service (Ջրօրհնէք) celebrated on the Feast of Theophany:
You made the heavens and the earth and the sea out of bodiless and formless chaotic darkness…And through his beneficence he gathered all and brought them to the River Jordan. And he saw the fearful dragon nestled in the waters, who wanted to swallow men… Thereupon your Only Begotten Son going into the waters, with his great power trampled him under his heels and destroyed the great beast.
This is why, in some Armenian icons of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus is stepping on the head of a dragon in the Jordan River (see Genesis 3:15). When Jesus was baptized, He redeemed the waters of baptism, bringing order from chaos. He has fought and conquered the evil of this world, and by virtue of our baptism in which we share in the death and resurrection of Christ, we are no longer dominated by sin, fear, the fear of death, or death itself (see Romans 6:5-11).
When Jesus walks on the water, all of the chaos of the world is under his feet (see Ephesians 1:22). As we sing in Badarak,
You the unchangeable One, became man and you were crucified, O Christ our God, and you trampled down death by death.
The boat on the stormy sea carrying the disciples of Jesus is an image of the Church moving through the turbulent waters of persecution, corruption, and danger, storms that attack from within and from without. Do we let our fear dominate us, responding to storms as if we are still enslaved by sin and fear? Or as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, do we yield ourselves to God as the baptized Body of Christ who has been brought from death to life? Our lives, our community is full of disorder, and yet how often in our lives and within our parish communities we insist on being the captain of our own boat, the lords of our own disorder. We keep Jesus from getting into the boat. We’re human, it’s expected. The challenge and tension of our faith is to consistently and in every area of our lives, with our whole heart, with our entire being, trust in the Lord as having absolute power and authority to order the chaos and fear that daily confronts us.
Fear and Faith
Don’t be afraid? Today, fear seems like our default state of being. Within an endless list of things to fear – war, economic downturns, political leadership, international or domestic terrorism, health insurance coverage, climbing debt, job loss, illness, relationship trouble, and of course, death and loss of loved ones – what does Christianity have to say, if anything? Who can calm our fear and give us true peace?
Picture the scene. Jesus lets his disciples get into a boat and head out on the Sea of Galilee. A few miles into their trip, it becomes dark and a severe storm ensues. It was as if the disciples were rowing in place. Water begins to pour into the boat, the darkness only alleviated for brief moments with flashes of lightning followed by rolling thunder. Unable to see where they’re going, their ability to navigate is removed. Their boat is taking a serious beating from the turbulent waves. Along with the chaotic water, fear washes over them, and when one person becomes afraid, it feeds the fear of the others. Fear building upon fear. No hope in sight. Then they see what they think is a ghost…
Doubt is typically considered the antithesis of faith, but what about fear? Think of it this way. If we are in a dark room, we can’t see where we are walking, we can’t see if there is something in front us, or even if we are in danger. We become afraid, similar to the disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee. When a light is turned on, fear is vanquished. Why? Because when the room is illuminated, we know what surrounds us. When we are enlightened or illuminated at baptism (loosavorootyoon), we are placed on the path of knowing God, and when we know God we see with our eyes of faith, we hear and know his voice when he says, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Note: this is why St. Gregory is named The Enlightener or Illuminator. He baptized the King, the King’s family, and others). Faith is the means by which we come to know Christ. Faith (Asdvadzkeedootyoon) is a knowledge so intimate that it results in unity with God, with the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7), with perfect love that casts out fear (I John 4:18).
Like the disciples, if we just witnessed Jesus feeding the 5,000, then why do we continue to fear? When our boats, personally and as a community, take a beating daily, whether from temptation, trials, or something unknown, we become afraid, and when in fear, we cling to the slightest sign of hope and life. Jesus offers his life and invites us to cling to him. When we continually look at the world with only our physical eyes, we do not see ourselves or the world how God sees it. We let the circumstances of the storm blur our vision of Christ walking on the water. We can’t always “see” Jesus, but that’s where faith takes over. We no longer see a ghost, but the Son of God walking over our worries and trials with authority.
Through living out our baptism, by fulfilling our baptismal vows, by living a life in Christ, loving as Jesus loves, we “know” he is there in the midst of our storm. How else would St. Paul chained in a prison cell begin to sing hymns of praise at midnight? (Acts 16:25) How else would Christian martyrs look forward to their death without fear? How else would the second century St. Sophia cling to her faith as her three daughters Pistis (Faith), Elpis (Hope), and Agape (Love), ages 12, 10, and 9, respectively, were tortured and martyred for their Christian faith? How else would Jonah (celebrated on the Friday of the Pre-Lenten Fast), after being thrown overboard into the chaotic, stormy waters, pray from the belly of a fish…
I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
from thy presence;
how shall I again look
upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord! (Jonah 2:1-9)
Like Jonah, St. Paul, and Sts. Sophia and her three daughters, we find solace and salvation in the words Jesus spoke to the disciples in the storm, which still resound today: “It is I; do not be afraid.”