Today is the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany and we are looking at the fifth sign in the gospel of John. These signs are miracles done by Jesus, but the point is not the miracle; the point is what the miracle reveals about Jesus. The first sign was Jesus changing water into wine. The second was Jesus healing a little boy without ever seeing him. The third sign was Jesus healing a paralyzed man by the pool of Bethesda, which Rev. Beth Long-Higgins shared about last week on the UCC’s Health and Human Service Sunday. The fourth sign was Jesus feeding more than 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two little fish, which we talked about two weeks ago. That story reminds us to anticipate abundance, to not waste what Jesus gives us, and to respond in trust. I remind you of this because the fifth sign happens right after the fourth sign. In your Bibles, there’s a nice little section break between the two, but we get the most out of the whole story when we read straight through. So let’s pick up in John chapter 6 verse 14. You’ve heard these first two verses before. The disciples have just finished picking up 12 basketfuls of leftover bread.
When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain. When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum.
It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.”
Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.John 6:14-21
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
I want to point out a few quick things to you in this story before we consider what it might mean for us today. The first is that Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels also contain a version of this story but it’s not quite the same. Luke doesn’t tell this story. In Matthew and Mark, this also happens right after Jesus feeds a massive crowd of people, but neither one of them bother to include the bit about Jesus withdrawing because the people wanted to make him king. In Matthew’s version, Peter gets out of the boat and takes a few steps on the water toward Jesus. Mark doesn’t include that. In Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus says the same thing to the disciples. He says, “I AM. Don’t be afraid.” Some of your Bibles might have him saying, “It is I.” Now that makes more sense grammatically, but it’s actually not what the original Greek says, and this is important. Jesus doesn’t say, “It is I.” He says, “I am.” And I very purposely asked Alan to use all capital letters when he made the slides because I wanted you to really get what Jesus is saying. The other place in the Bible you will see all capital letters is in the Old Testament when the proper name of God, which in Hebrew is YHWH, sometimes we say Yahweh. When that proper name is used in the Old Testament, the translators will usually write The Lord in small capitals. This is the name that God claims for Godself in the burning bush when Moses asks “What is your name?” God replies, “I am who I am.”
In this moment, as Jesus walks on the water through the storm toward his disciples after miraculously feeding thousands of people and then refusing to be their king, in this moment, Jesus is invoking the divine name. He then follows it up with one of the most common directions God ever gives to people: “Don’t be afraid.” I am; don’t be afraid.
Here’s where John’s story is different. If you are used to hearing this story, you may not have even noticed it. In John’s version of the story, Jesus does not calm this storm. He walks on the water. He invokes the divine name. He invites the disciples to be brave. But he does not calm the storm.
This morning as we approach the Communion table, as we consider what this story offers to us, I again want to invite you to let this be something more than just an intellectual exercise. The signs in the book of John are designed to draw us into a deeper relationship of trust with Jesus, to have an experience of Jesus. As I considered what kind of environment we could create here this morning that would allow space for us to experience God, you know what came to me? God reminded me that we are all in the same boat. One of the primary ways that we experience God, especially when we are gathered together in worship, we experience God through each other. Being together, gathered in this sacred space, in time that we have set apart for this purpose, we are with God because we are with one another. We are all in the same boat.
I remind you of this because it is so easy for us to become self-absorbed. It’s easy to think that my faith is just about me and Jesus. I get worried and resentful because I don’t feel like Jesus has climbed into my boat and calmed my storm. Friends, meeting God in one another reminds us that what happens to my boat isn’t the full story. We are in the same boat. We are all facing storms. Let me be clear, we have very privileged lives, I know that. But we are still facing storms. We are in the same boat.
We pretend that we aren’t. Especially at church, which just breaks my heart. If there is one place where you DON’T have to have it all together, it’s here. Please don’t try to pretend you’re perfect. Please don’t pretend everything is fine if it’s not. It’s not weakness to admit you’re in a storm. We’re in the same boat. In fact, before we come to the Communion table, I want us to be honest about where we are.
I wonder how many of us this morning are in a storm of physical illness. If you’re in a storm of physical illness would you raise your hand? Friends, it’s fine to look around. To be in community means to be here for one another. Friends online, I hope that you’ll chime in too.
How many of us are in a storm of mental illness? What about a storm of parenting? What about some conflict at school, or work, or your volunteer organization? What about a storm in your marriage or other significant relationship? How many are in a storm of disappointment this morning? How many are in a financial storm this morning? What about a life transition? What about a storm of loneliness?
Beloved, we are in the same boat. You are not alone. To be in Christian community is to face these storms together. And not just with each other. Because across the heaving waves in this storm comes walking Jesus Christ himself, the one who is human enough to feel our pain and divine enough to redeem our suffering. Jesus comes to us in the storm speaking the divine name, opening up all possibilities of existence and saying to us, “Don’t be afraid.” Remember the end of the story: even if Jesus doesn’t calm the storm, his presence in the boat gets us where we need to go. Even if Jesus doesn’t calm the storm, his presence in the boat gets us where we need to go.
The ritual of Communion is yet another way that we experience God. We don’t take Communion with our brain, but with our hands and our mouths. In John, Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, and his incarnation sanctifies our embodied experiences. We know him in the breaking of the bread. His real presence is really here with us, each of us and all of us, and the fact that we are together, both physically and virtually reminds us of that. This is one of the ways God is redeeming this season of life: we now understand better the sense of being together even if we aren’t physically together. Why then should we ever doubt that Christ is here with us?
For this reason, our ancestors have insisted for hundreds of years that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of sacred body — come from the north, south, east, and west to gather at Christ’s table.