Have you ever heard of William Walker? Walker was a diver, who was born in the 1800s. He was one of the first divers of the Royal Navy, training in 1887 at Portsmouth Dockyard. As one the nation's earliest divers, he had many exciting adventures. On one occasion, he was called to Wales, to rescue drowning miners from a pit collapse. He was one of the divers who worked on the Blackwall Tunnel, and he held the distinction of being the diving instructor for King George V. However, the achievement for which he is most famous was something rather more local to us.
Between 1906–1911, working in water up to a depth of 20, he shored up Winchester Cathedral, using more than 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks.
Winchester Cathedral, you see, had been built about 800 years before by the Normans. At the time, the land all around the Cathedral was essentially a peat bog. So, with their typically cunning engineering, the Normans built their cathedral on a giant raft. For 800 years, the Cathedral had essentially floated on top of the peat bog. But by the end of the 19th Century, with the peat bog drained away to create the town of Winchester, the cathedral had been in imminent danger of collapse as it sank slowly into the ground. William Walker was responsible for shoring up the walls by putting concrete underneath them. He worked six hours a day—in complete darkness, because the peat sediment suspended in the water was impenetrable to light.
It's a wonderful story, isn't it?...the story of a church floating on water for so many years. And yet, this is actually a very old image. Matthew's story of Jesus walking on the water, begins with a very similar metaphor. Water, for the Israelites, was a symbol of chaos, and challenge. It was over the waters that the Spirit of God had brooded, in Genesis, before God spoke and brought forth the land. It was through the dangerous waters that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Jonah and the Whales. Noah and the Flood...over and over again, the ocean is a symbol of chaos, difficulty and challenge.
So, to a first century reader of Matthew's gospel, the idea of Jesus sending all his disciples off in a boat would have been instantly recognised as another story of challenge on the ocean. The boat, in this story, can very easily be pictured as the church...containing, at that time, all the disciples of Jesus. In fact, Matthew goes still further, to make his point. Where our English translation describes the little boat as being battered by the waves, Matthew's original word, in Greek, was 'tortured'...the little boat was being 'tortured' by the waves, just as the church in Matthew's day was being tortured by the Authorities.
This then is Matthew's picture of the church. Jesus sends out his followers into a leaky tub, into an ocean of challenge, difficulty and chaos. This is not a church which rides above the difficulties of life, but a church which finds itself in the middle of everything life can throw. Buffeted, even tortured, by the world around it, church members look to the shore, desperate for a word of encouragement from Jesus, wondering why he is not in the boat with them.
Because, you see, the little boat on the Sea of Galilee has left Jesus behind on the shore, just as the church left Jesus behind in history. It seems impossible that Jesus could be with us...and yet, as the morning dawns, the disciples in the boat see Jesus...striding towards them, over the chaos of the sea. He calls to them, over the storm..."Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid".
But like us, Peter still wonders. Can this really be Jesus? He proposes a little test. "If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water". Jesus replies with a single word, "Come". Peter - the first disciple, the archetype for all disciples, steps out of the boat, walking towards Jesus on top of the water! He does what Jesus does. He copies him, and for a while, he succeeds. But as he looks at the storm all around him, he becomes frightened, and starts to sink.
Jesus reaches out his hand, and rescues Peter. He helps him into the boat, commenting sadly, that Peter is of little faith. "How could you doubt?" Jesus asks, sadly.
I wonder how many times you have heard this story. And I wonder how many times, like me, you have been told that this is a story about faith. Certainly all the preachers I heard as a youngster used to tell me that Peter's problem was his lack of faith. "If only Peter had had more faith...he could have overcome his fear, and conquered the act of walking on the water". And therefore, the message to us is often read as "If only we had more faith, we could conquer all our problems in spectacular ways".
But I wonder.
There is a problem, for me, with that interpretation. Can it really be that God wants us to believe that bad things happen to us because we don't have enough faith? Can it be that God wants us to feel guilty when we are sick, or when accidents happen, or when people persecute us...guilty that these things are happening because we don't have enough faith? I'm not sure I can believe that.
Faith is not about being able to walk on the water. Only God can do that. Faith is about believing, in the midst of the storm and the chaos of life, that Jesus is in the boat with us. In spite of all the evidence, faith is the act of believing that God is in the boat with us, sharing our pain, sharing in our weakness. God is made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered - tortured - by the waves.
Are your numbers falling? "It is I: do not be afraid"
Do you struggle to respond to all the challenges of your community, your building, the starving world? "It is I: do not be afraid"
Are you feeling ill or depressed? "It is I: do not be afraid".
Are you doubting the reality of God in your life? "It is I: do not be afraid"
Are you nearing the end of life? "It is I: do not be afraid"
This too is the message of the Cross. On the cross, all the chaos of the world was brought together in one sustained attack on the goodness of God. Christ, the one who mediates between God and Man, is overpowered by the chaos of humanity, and humanity punishes him, tortures him, and kills him. Jesus shares in the suffering of all human beings on the cross...and yet manages to overcome them. He walks on the water, above the chaos. He rises from the dead, above the chaos.
Peter's mistake in the boat was to fail to recognise the transforming power of God. Instead, he tried to do it himself. "Let me walk on the water" was his cry.
I remember my daughter, when she was very small, struggling with a jigsaw puzzle. I got frustrated at her lack of progress, and bent down to help her - and was astonished at her reply. "Do it myself!" she said.
Isn't that what we all do, from time to time, to God? In spite of all that God has taught us about how to live, we still try to 'do it myself'. We try to walk on the water, instead of letting Jesus come and sit beside us in the boat.
Jesus says to us: "Live simply. Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring"
We say "Do it myself!" and hoard possessions and cash in case of the coming storm.
Jesus says to us: "You are members of one body, fruit on the vine of the church"
We say "Do it myself" and decide that we don't need the hassle of coming to church.
Jesus says: "Blessed are the peacemakers - the children of God"
We say "Do it myself" and harbour our hatreds and our lack of forgiveness for decades
Peter's problem was that he didn't understand that Jesus comes to us through the chaos of life. Peter didn't have enough faith in the God who walks beside us on the road, or who comes to sit beside us in the boat. He wanted to get to Jesus, through the chaos - instead of letting Jesus come to him.
We yearn for instant answers, instant solutions. We want to walk on the water too! But Jesus wants to sit beside us in the boat...going through all the things of life....sharing them, and helping us to learn through them. There are two storm stories in the Gospel. In one of them, Jesus says to the waves, "Quiet, be still". In the other, Jesus strides above the storm, through the storm. You see, Jesus doesn't always still the storm...sometimes he uses the storm for greater purposes...
If I am poor, Jesus can show me how rich I truly am. If I am sick, Jesus can show me how well I really am. On the other hand, if I am rich, Jesus can show me my poverty. If I am healthy, Jesus can point me to where my sickness lays. In EVERY circumstance of life, there is something to learn, some new growth for our souls to embrace. Life - the storm, the ocean, - its the proving ground for our souls. It is here that Jesus prepares us for life which goes on for ever. It is here that he sits beside us in the boat.
So, let me ask you. What is Jesus teaching you today? As he sits beside you in the boat, in the middle of your own particular storm, what is he saying to you?
Can you hear him?
If you can't, then seek him out.
How? Well, here are some suggestions:
First, why not speak to another Christian - listen for the voice of Jesus through the voices of other believers. Chat with Christian friends over coffee in the Cafe. Seek out a priest, or a deacon, and share what's on your heart. Listen, together, to what God is saying.
Secondly - and here's a really radical thought...why not Read Jesus' Words! Try actually opening the Bible you keep on your shelf at home! Start with the Gospels, and work through the New Testament...leave the Old Testament until you've got some practice at hearing God's voice.
Thirdly - give yourself some space to think, and to pray. Switch off the TV or the radio from time to time. Spend time in quietness, mulling over the circumstances of your life....asking God to teach you what God wants to teach you...reflecting on all that is happening, and how God is growing your soul today.
Fourth - why not buy a book? We have a book-shop downstairs, full of interesting, challenging, encouraging books which will lead you to think more about what God is saying to you, each day.
And Finally - be diligent about meeting with the rest of us. Don't stop being together in church. We are in this boat together - and together we will hear Jesus calling over the waves: "It is I: do not be afraid".