Cutting to the quick – the very deepest meaning of this gospel parable is that in the many storms of life that batter us – be they death, betrayal, pain, loneliness, suffering of many different kinds, God, who can appear to be absent in all these things is actually there and can be called upon as Peter called upon Jesus when he started to sink.
Jesus here, who is symbolising the presence of God, who has ultimate dominion over the forces of darkness and chaos, is there to be called upon and the hand of God is stretched out to catch you and stop you from being drowned by the fierce waters we all find ourselves in from time to time that threaten to engulf us.
As you may or may not know water symbolises darkness and chaos and death in the Hebrew mind. In Genesis at the dawn of creation there were – the waters. And before creating the world, God’s Spirit hovered over the waters and in order to create God parted the waters to create the world. So the world existed between two great bodies of water – the upper waters held at bay by the dome of the sky – through which God occasionally let some water through to give rain and the lower waters which people could see like the sea and rivers and lakes. So you see, in the Hebrew mind the world existed between two threatening bodies of water kept at bay by God.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God is most often depicted as delivering through water. One has only to think of the great flood and Noah, or the Israelites being saved by God by the parting of the waters of the red sea, or entering the land of Israel by the parting of the river Jordan, John the Baptist delivering people from darkness through immersing people in water and raising them up again, from which we Christians derive our own symbolic use of water in baptism.
Parting the water or walking above the water, symbolises the presence and power of God to save, to heal, to love through and beyond the trials and torments that life throws at us – to bring us through those storms.
It is in those storms that the rubber hits the road. In those storms your faith can desert you completely and you start to sink like Peter did.
I have nearly sunk many times over the past years and you all will have as well. None of us can insulate ourselves from pain and loss. I have nearly sunk many times over the past nine months. Death throws a huge spanner in the works, and when you reach out and grab somebody and that person also dies you can very easily submerge, but something or someone keeps me and you going.
What would you call it? A life force, the human spirit, true grit, God’s helping hand? For me the big picture is that all those things have a source and that is God. And I suppose that is a kind of trust, which is my understanding of faith.
A trust that can wear pretty thin at times I admit, but a trust nonetheless, that in the midst of heartache, fear or pain or whatever else ails us there is a deeper reality that is within the pain itself but which also transcends it and has the innate capacity to take it and transform it and create something different, something good out of it.
I don’t believe in miracles, but you knew that anyway. But what I do believe in, what I trust in, is a much greater miracle than magic tricks like walking on water, whether it is Jesus or Peter – the greater miracles of life itself, of human consciousness and self awareness, of love and forgiveness, the miracle of compassion and reconciliation, the greater miracles of spiritual and emotional healing and the greatest miracle of good growing out of bad, of life growing out of death – true resurrection.
Another miracle is that God doesn’t often appear or intervene as a disembodied Ghost or a phantom voice (not ever in my experience) but almost always comes to us embodied in another human being or creature. Just as God reached out to Peter in the body of Jesus so God uses real people to reach out to others. Putting ourselves at his disposal in prayer and communion means basically that we are saying that he can use us, but actually who reaches out to whom, and who we choose to grab hold of is a deep mystery . The people God chooses to use is a constant surprise.
But because as Christians we choose to immerse ourself more deeply in the mystery of life and God then perhaps in doing so, we come to appreciate all the more that we will at certain times be the one calling out to another to save us but that we can also be the one holding out that steadying, saving hand. We put ourselves in God’s way. God using our hand to reach out and heal and save. Enfleshed love is all important. Love made real in another human being. That is what I mean when I talk about incarnation.
As Bishop John Pritchard asks in his most recent book. “How long can someone go on believing in a love that they don’t feel?”
At various times during our life we will be both the drowning person and the one holding out a steadying hand.
Acting as the helping hand – being used by God to reach out to another – we can bring God’s healing love into another person’s life, should that other person choose to reach out and grab hold.