Last Sunday, with the story of the feeding of the 5,000, we started a sort of Gospel mini-series. That story of Jesus providing food for the crowd was full of images of both the Last Supper and of the Eucharist; in fact, it was really about those things. The Gospel today -- the account of Jesus walking on the water -- and the Gospels for the next four Sundays (which are from John) -- are all commentaries on this feeding. They are all about the Last Supper and the Eucharist. They are all trying to help us to do something we just heard the disciples could not do -- they are all here so that we can understand about the loaves.
There are so many jokes about walking on the water that it is hard to take the whole thing seriously. But we need to do that, and a good first step is to remember, one more time, that Jesus didn't do miracles to show off. There was always context and meaning and purpose to them. Also, Mark chooses what he records with great care, and he includes events in his Gospel not just to talk about something that happened in the past, but also to make clear things that are true now.
Keep all that in mind while we look at the story again. Immediately after feeding the multitude, Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat, (by the way, boats are almost always symbols for the church; and there are always boat stories right after feeding stories). Anyway, he sends them off, dismisses the crowd, and goes off by himself to pray. Now Mark only mentions Jesus at prayer a few times, and these are always times of great crisis and important choices. John's Gospel says what this crisis was. The crowd of 5,000 that Jesus fed didn't understand about the loaves; so it wants to make Jesus king. They really liked the trick with the fish and the bread and they set out to draft Jesus as a sort of permanent supply officer. It would doubtless be a good job, and an easy life. After this time in prayer, Jesus deals with this temptation by leaving that place and setting out to join the disciples.
Then comes the miracle. It is just overflowing with biblical images having to do with the power of God. To understand Jesus walking on the water, you need to remember that God separated the waters of chaos to create the world, and that Moses separated the waters of the Red Sea to create the people of Israel, and that Joshua, and Elijah, separated the waters of the Jordan to possess and to renew the land of the promise. All of this ancient connection with the power of God and control over the sea is involved in this story. Jesus comes to his disciples by doing what God did at creation, by overcoming the power of the sea. By doing this, Jesus reveals in Himself the full authority and power of the Father.
The disciples, who were, as usual, straining against the wind, were terrified. They were sure Jesus was somewhere else -- off praying or being king or some such. They expected to be left alone in that boat. So they were surprised, and amazed, and utterly astounded. That's because they did not understand about the loaves.
And for all the spectacular, symbolic, and powerful stuff that went into the business of walking on the water, that walk is not the most important part of this story. There is something more amazing than that going on, something more powerful. The real heart of the story is not that Jesus walked on the water then -- it is that the loaves, and everything they mean, are with us now.
The crowd did not understand that, and they wanted Jesus as king.
The disciples did not understand that, and they were amazed.
As we gather, week after week, to celebrate the Eucharist, and as we are sent out, week after week to love and serve the Lord, we are called to understand about the loaves.
To understand about the loaves means that we begin to realize, first and always, that Jesus is with us, no matter how bad the storm, no matter how far from land our little boat may be, no matter how impossible the trip from where Jesus is to where we are may seem, he is with us.
To understand about the loaves also means that we begin to realize that everything Jesus gives us, every free lunch we pick up on a hillside, every benefit of life, every blessing of every sort, indeed, everything that God offers to us -- it is all a sign of the one great gift: The gift of God -- the gift of relationship with God. To seek just a gift, or to stop at any gift -- like that crowd that wanted Jesus to be a bread king -- to do this is to trade the best for the good -- and to lose sight of what is really important. To want what God gives us so much that we lose sight of God is to impoverish ourselves. All we have is intended to draw us to God.
At the same time, to understand about the loaves is to expect (like the disciples) to be sent off somewhere. It is to realize that the Lord will have us move away from the security of whatever table he sets for us -- and that he will call us to new directions, and to some task or another that will have us straining at the oars; in places where he himself seems absent. All feeding stories are connected to boat stories.
To understand about the loaves is to realize that what we do at this table has to do with the same power, the same majesty, the same love, the same presence that both the crowd on the mountain and the disciples in the boat knew and saw.
For here our Lord feeds us -- and the heart of that feeding is not the gift of bread -- but the gift of Christ himself, a gift that is never withdrawn, never lost, never left behind, never overpowered, and never conquered.
To understand about the loaves is to realize that whatever fears we may have can be met by the love we are given from our Lord; it is to realize that whatever powers are grinding us to a halt can and will be met by an ever greater power, and that whatever journey we are on will be ended safely.
To understand about the loaves is to know that whatever situation, dilemma, problem or storm we face, wherever we may be, Jesus is within easy walking distance, and he will make the trip-and we are not alone.
The disciples saw that Jesus was with them -- and they were very surprised, and they were frightened. We are called to expect the Lord to be with us, no matter what, and to take heart -- because we can understand about the loaves.