I have made a number of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, although my last visit was now more than twenty years ago. On each occasion I experienced what can only be described as a “home coming”. I suppose that this may have been because for most of my life the Bible and its study have been important to me.
Travellers around the Land will soon be aware of considerable variations in the countryside and landscape in this small country. To the north, in the Galilee region, there is water, and plenty of greenery. In other parts, particularly during the summer, the landscape is parched and dry. In some parts you pass through regions of true desert, particularly in the south-east and the approaches to Jericho, or to the Dead Sea.
The Gospel last week and this was set in the Galilee area. The name is applied not just to the Lake, or Sea of Galilee, but also to the countryside. The lake itself consists of a considerable body of water fed from the north by streams originating in Mt. Hermon. From the south, the water flows out into the River Jordan, which runs eventually into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has no outlet other than evaporation into the atmosphere. This, over many centuries has led to an increasing salt content which makes it impossible to sink in the water.
When you travel in parts of the Galilee region you are often aware of a high, flat topped, hill to the South. This is Mt. Tabor, almost certainly the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured, an event which the Church commemorates a week tomorrow.
As today’s pilgrims drive by coach down in the direction of the Lake, they pass a sign which states that you are about to pass below sea level that is the level of the Mediterranean. Here, though, the lake itself is still several hundred feet further down. On my first visit we were led by an elderly, and now long dead, Anglican priest. His custom at this point was to advise pilgrims to put on their breathing apparatus. Fr. Foizey would be delighted to know that perhaps twenty five years later his little joke could still raise a smile. May he rest in peace.
The Sea of Galilee was the setting for last week’s Gospel reading when we heard the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 in a lonely place on the far side of the lake. Jesus had gone by boat to this place with the intention of seeking a little solitude after a grueling and exhausting journey around the region.
There, he had been intercepted by a crowd of people who had followed him on land around the shores of the lake. Now, having spent the day with them and fed them, he told the disciples to return to the other side in the boat while he sent the people away. He then went up onto the hillside to pray alone.
As we heard in the Gospel, the disciples did as Jesus requested, leaving him alone, and we are led into the main narrative for this morning’s Gospel. Jesus has sent the crowds away and has spent time alone in prayer with his Father, receiving refreshment.
We then hear the central account for the Gospel. The weather, we are told, on the Lake of Galilee is very unpredictable even for those used to it. The boat was now out in the middle of the lake, but could be seen to be tossed about by the wind which was, as the Gospel tells us, contrary. There is no indication that the disciples were at all worried by what to many of them was a regular occurrence.
Then, in the fourth watch of the night Jesus came to them, walking on the water. Obviously this was not a natural event and the disciples call out in fear, thinking that this was a ghost.
Then Jesus responds with the words, “Be of good cheer. It is I. Do not be afraid.” The response of Peter was, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. Jesus gave the command, and Peter stepped out onto the water and began to walk towards Jesus – until, that is he realized what he was doing – which was clearly impossible – his faith failed him, and he began to sink. Peter cried out in fear to Jesus, who then reached out and caught his hand with the words, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And as they climbed into the boat the wind ceased. Then they all came up to Jesus and, as the account says, worshipped him saying, “Truly you are the Son Of God.”
There is a verse in the Letter to the Hebrews which says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” Peter walked on the water, but only for as long as he kept his eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus, the Lord through whom the power came to enable him to do this.
I have mentioned before that there was often a reason for recording such incidents in the Gospels. They often formed the basis of a catechesis, a teaching in the early church to illustrate some particular point.
Jesus Christ is the source of our faith. He is our inspiration, our strength. Through him we do indeed have the power to do what, in our own strength, is impossible. That goes for the relatively ordinary situations in life which, without the inspiration of Jesus, we might well avoid.
Also, according to our faith, by looking to Jesus, there are much greater things that we might do. Remember, on one occasion Jesus, speaking of faith told his disciples that if they had faith like a grain of mustard seed, which is a tiny thing, they could command a mountain to be uprooted and cast into the sea. May the Lord grant us true faith, as we look unto Jesus.