Following the busy-ness of meeting with thousands of people, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll meet them on the other side of the sea. He goes off by himself, whilst the disciples get into their boat. About twelve hours into the crossing, they are hit with a storm that is strong enough to make these fisherman afraid. Then, like a ghost, Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, revealing his divinity not only in action, but by his words. “It is I,” which in the original Greek reads literally as “I AM,” is the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush, as well as being evoked by Israel in times of fear in order to bring comfort (as in Isaiah chapter 43). Understanding what Jesus means by this, Peter attempts to leave the boat and walk directly with Jesus. Incredibly, he does this, until realising that he simply doesn’t understand what is underneath his feet, begins to fear once more, and so sink into the sea.
I know how this is supposed to go, I’ve seen the book by that bloke at Willow Creek Church: the disciples are cowards in the boat, Peter has the faith to step out and follow Jesus, etc., etc., ad nauseum. The problem is, I just don’t see this story in that way. It’s all just a bit too much a like a motivational talk you’d get at a business conference.
In ancient times, the sea was seen as a place of chaos and mystery, and boats were invented so that people could traverse the unknown. The problem was, and still is, that chaos has a habit of being surprising. The storm in this story functions in that way, as it pushes the boat to its limits, causing the disciples to become afraid.
Whilst we may be able to survey our oceans with greater understanding than could be done in the ancient world, life is no less chaotic now, than it was then. The created world, the political world, the economic world, our own social worlds of family, friends and workplaces, and even our psychological and biological worlds all move upon their own tectonic plates in ways that are sometimes difficult, even impossible, to predict.
Certainly we have had huge advancements in science, engineering, international relations, family and personal psychologists and social workers, all of which help us to navigate the physical and personal aspects of life. But like all things, these frameworks have their limits, and the unpredictability of life continues to rock the boat. One need only look at the last twelve months of news stories to see this in action.
Unsurprisingly, when our boat is rocked in such a way, we can become fearful, seeing that our way of life is neither eternal nor faultless. This fear can lead us in all sorts of directions: either negatively, making us chaotic and panic-stricken, or more positively, birthing a desire to want to improve the efficacy of the boat or our knowledge of the ‘unpredictable’. Whatever its impact, it is into this realisation of the finitude of ourselves and our knowledge that Jesus appears: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Why? Why, should we become unafraid just because Jesus is there? Just as he didn’t still the storm in the story, he doesn’t appear to be doing a great deal to make the world more predictable and safe for us in our own age.
My own feeling is that, to encounter Jesus as God, as the “I AM,” is to be invited to trust that whatever the storm may do to us – and at some point, it may well kill us – his presence with us cannot be altered by the storm. Unlike Peter, Jesus can look into the storm and be unafraid. When we look into the storm, we become aware of our own limitations, terrified of what we do not know and cannot control. When Jesus looks into the storm as the eternal I AM, he not only sees the limits of creation but also the limits and weakness of the storm, and is able to walk within it knowing that chaos is not eternal.
This is who S Matthew invites us to trust the one who comes to us in the midst of life’s storms. Christ stands amidst the chaos, taking our shouting and blaming, knowing our fear of the unpredictable, and inviting us to see his eternal stillness and peace as good news that there is life beyond chaos. Does it make loss any less painful or take the fear out of shock? No, I’m not so sure that it does, because those things are so wrapped-up with what it means to be human. This, though, doesn’t mean that chaos has the final word; far from it. The God who is revealed as the I AM, the eternal One, the Source and Goal of all life, who is outside of time’s constraints yet always present in the now, stands with such authority in the cacophony of the storm that only a few words are needed to convey that the life of God revealed in Christ, not only has the final word, but is the eternal word.