Out of the question

by
12 September 2014

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How can a Christian explain the occurrence of walking on water?

Nature miracles in the Gospels present a challenge. It is important to distinguish between attempts to explain the origin of the narrative (if that is ever possible) and a meaningful explanation of the story's significance. What happened historically is probably beyond our grasp. A reverent agnosticism can relegate factual details to a historical suspense account, to avoid making an a priori judgement about what may or may not have occurred.

The story (Mark 6.45-52, Matthew 14.22-33, and John 6.15-21) has often been given a natural explanation: that Jesus was seen walking or wading in the shallows. It is sometimes argued that recollection of some such ordinary incident was embellished in transmission to acquire miraculous character - a process that continued in St Matthew's retelling, and included St Peter's unsuccessful attempt to walk on water towards Jesus. Others explain the story as a mystical or paranormal experience; but many NT scholars take it to be a displaced post-resurrection appearance.

An ingenious and plausible (albeit still speculative) version of this theory is can be found in Patrick Madden's book Jesus' Walking on the Sea (1997): that the nucleus of the story can be found in John 21.1-8. A comparison with Mark 6.45-52 shows affinities: fishermen in a boat, on the lake at night, and a delayed recognition of Jesus at daybreak, when Jesus was revealed "by the sea of Tiberias". It could be significant that the Greek "epi tes thalasses" ("by the sea") is also used at Mark 6.49 to imply that Jesus walked on the sea, whereas, at John 21.1, it describes him standing by the seaside, which may point to a transformation of the story in traditions behind our Gospels.

The valuable task is to explore the real significance of the story, what it meant to the Evangelists and the early Christians who heard it, and, further, what it means in liturgical preaching today. At this level of explanation, it is an awesome revelation of Christ, ascribing to him the power and mastery of God as the Lord of winds and waves, like God of old in Psalm 77.19 or Job 9.8. When Jesus "intended to pass by them" (Mark 6.48), readers would be reminded how God's glory passed before Moses (Exodus 34.6) and Elijah (1 Kings 19.11).

Towering over all is the majestic affirmation - "I AM" - "Ego eimi" - "Take heart; it is I." This self-manifestation of the Living One who is ever present with his people in their distress is the divine disclosure that gives this story its numinous quality.

(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Monmouthshire 
 

Your questions

Why is there such emphasis on recruiting young church members? Why not focus on the 55-to-65s?

P. B.-C. 

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