When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. (Jn 6:15-17)
It was not very like the disciples of Jesus to do something on their own initiative. And when they did, they often got it wrong. Think of Peter cutting off the ear of a man in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Today we are told by Saint John that when evening came, the sun was setting, and everyone else was stoking the fire and enjoying supper, our friends the disciples decided to put to sea. Jesus has left them after the melee that was prompted by his feeding of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. He was not about to let the adoring crowd determine his fate (he knows how fickle a crowd is). So he slipped through the bushes and back up the hillside to a secret place, hidden even from his own followers.
What put it into their heads to get in the boat as night was falling? They wanted to get to Capernaum – perhaps they had already discussed with Jesus that this would be his next stop. Some of them were fishermen, and not unfamiliar, I suppose, with handling a boat during the darker hours of the day. Whatever their reasoning, they do not seem to be acting on instructions from Jesus; they are simply making it up as they go along.
And Saint John gives us now one of the most evocative phrases of all scripture, if you ask me: “It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”
Start with the dark. We all know that even in broad daylight or with the lights blaring we can be in the dark.
It’s dark if you are one of the millions of Americans who’s lost their jobs lately.
It’s dark if you are counting the months or the weeks or the days till your deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.
It’s dark if you’ve fallen off the wagon of your sobriety again.
It’s dark if you’ve run out of ways to shuffle your debt.
It’s dark when the sharp pain of a loved one’s death has turned into a dull throb that you fear will never go away.
It’s dark when the chemo doesn’t seem to be doing much good.
It’s dark when you haven’t spoken to a brother or a sister for years and your pride won’t let you break the silence.
It’s dark when you are honest about the things you’ve done wrong, and didn’t have to.
It’s dark when your mother or your father doesn’t recognize you any more.
It’s dark when you wake up in the morning and you can’t think of a reason or find the energy to get out of bed.
You could name other ways that it’s dark in the middle of the day, when despair eclipses hope, options have narrowed, you squint your eyes, but still see no light at the end of the tunnel. The dark is not a time of day, it’s a state of being. And sometimes it seems as though we must constantly adapt to the darkness, so much so that we seem to become adept at being nocturnal creatures, who can operate just fine in the dark.
Why did the disciples get into the boat when it was dark? They do not know where Jesus is. The crowd, who continue to look for Jesus the next day, is confused for a while, because they know that the disciples left without Jesus. Were the disciples forging on ahead, preparing the way for Jesus? Or were they making something of a get-away? Frightened by the power of his signs and his refusal to respond to the awe of the crowds, are they having second thoughts about following this man?
Are they frightened when they see Jesus on the water, at least in part, because he has found them out and caught them as they are making an escape from him? It was dark, after all, and they had thought they could get away with it. Have they decided that they prefer the darkness to the light?
Who knows? But we do know what it feels like to be in the boat in the dark without Jesus. We know what it feels like when the seas become rough because a strong wind is blowing, don’t we? We know that these are not just maritime conditions, but also states of being.
It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. We know too well what this feels like, too. And it doesn’t really matter whether we are running away of our own accord or if we have simply found ourselves in the boat in rough seas. What matters in the moment is that it is now dark and Jesus has not yet come to us.
Take note that it is not the weather that frightens the disciples – although it is getting rough. It is the appearance of Jesus in the midst of this plan of their own devising that terrifies them. Of course he should not be walking to them on the water, this is unsettling; but they might have been amazed and glad to see their teacher performing such a great sign.
Their fear is a signal (though they do not realize it at the time) that they are in the presence of the living God. “Fear not” is a colloquialism of the Bible for just this reason. But they do not know what their fear signifies. They were impressed, it has to be said, with the bread and the fish, but they do not know what it meant. Perhaps they had been hoping for some time on their own in Capernaum to talk it over among themselves, decide if they really want to follow this Jesus who resists the support of the very crowds he so excites.
It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. It was not the time of day, it was a state of being. And into that state of being, Jesus strides across the rough surface of the sea. “It is I,” he says, “do not be afraid.”
And Saint John gives us two more wonderful details.
First he tells us that eventually the disciples want to take Jesus in the boat with them. They are willing at last to incorporate Jesus into their plans, to take him with them where they were going. When Matthew and Mark tell this story, the whole point of it is that Jesus gets into the boat with them. It’s a great sermon, and easy one to preach! But here, in John’s gospel, Jesus never gets into the boat. All John tells us is that the disciples eventually decide they would have invited him in.
Second, John tells us, that once they have decided it will be OK to include Jesus in their nighttime excursion, they find themselves delivered immediately to where they were headed, their destination reached, their objective accomplished. Now Jesus can get on with his work.
Saint John knows that none of this is about the weather or the time of day; it is all about a state of being. And he knows that when it is dark, and the seas are rough, a strong wind blowing, many of us are not prepared to let Jesus into the boat, even if he should walk on the water to get to us.
We claim our faith in that moment when we decide we want to take Jesus into the boat with us – for now our state of being has changed, the plan we hatched on our own is turned over to Jesus, the time of day, and the conditions hardly matter, and we find that we have arrived at our destination.
Start with the dark. A thousand darknesses descend on our lives, cloaking our vision in shadows, regardless of the time of day. And we know so well what it feels like when it is dark and Jesus has not yet come to us.
What plans of our own devising are we in the midst of when we realize it is dark? Have we really meant to include Jesus in those plans? Are we going on ahead of him? Or are we really trying to make our escape from this man, who, while admittedly impressive with loaves and fishes, leaves us feeling uneasy. Are we wearing the nametag of a disciple uncomfortably, uncertainly, and do we think, maybe, if we could get away from him for a night and talk it over with one another, we might actually come up with another, easier plan? Or is it just easier for us to move about in the dark? Have we become so adept at it that it seems like the best time to make our move?
Earlier in his gospel, Saint John allows that some of us would just as soon allow the darkness to be our natural habitat. “Light has come into the world,” he writes, “and men loved darkness rather than light.”
It is now dark. We start in the dark. We have plans of our own that so often do not include Jesus, have not considered him and the claim he makes on our lives. And we believe that we can handle the boat even though it’s dark and a strong wind is blowing. And we may even be right about that – some of the time.
But Jesus does come to us, striding across the rough waters of our lives. If it is frightening, we should not be surprised – this is a signal that we are in the presence of the living God.
Maybe Jesus is going to get into the boat with us and calm the storm. It has been known to happen.
But maybe he is waiting for us to decide that we want him with us in the first place. And maybe that’s enough – the words of invitation need never be uttered. All that’s needed is wanting Jesus in the boat, choosing to have him with us, preferring the light to the darkness.
When we make that choice, we should not be surprised that our small goals are easily accomplished, as we arrive immediately at out destination. And we hear Jesus calling us to help him get on with his good work.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 July 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia