At once Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and set sail across towards Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. He took his leave of them and went off up the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and he was alone on the shore. He saw they were having to work hard at rowing, because the wind was against them; and he came to them, about the fourth watch of the night, walking on the sea. He intended to go past them, but they saw him walking on the sea and thought it was an apparition. They yelled out; all of them saw him, and they were scared stiff. At once he spoke to them. ‘Cheer up,’ he said, ‘it’s me. Don’t be afraid.’ He came up to them and got into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were overwhelmed with astonishment; they hadn’t understood about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened.
. . . So there we were on the boat, we didn’t know why he was in such a hurry that we should get away, and we didn’t know where he’d gone now or what he was expecting would happen next. It just seemed that there was quite a sense of excitement after that extraordinary business with the loaves – once people had got over their hunger they started to ask questions, they wanted to know how it had happened, and some were getting very enthusiastic . . . and then Jesus told us to leave at once. The last thing we saw was him heading up into the hills. Probably off to pray again, he’s always doing that, wish I knew what he said.
Anyway, we were back to the usual routine, on the boat, taking turns with the sails, though that didn’t last long because the wind swung round, unpredictable as ever with all those hills round the lake, and so it was back to the oars again. All right for those who’d always done it for a living, but for the rest of us it’s horribly hard work, and you take the skin off your fingers if you don’t grip the oar properly, which I never seem to be able to manage. And for most of the time it looks like you’re not getting anywhere; watching the landmarks on the shore, we didn’t seem to be moving much at all.
Then we realized: night was on the way. Darkness comes quick in the spring. Soon all we could see was a few fires by the shore, probably shepherds I suppose. And there we were, between the black sky and the black waters, nobody saying much now, everybody tired, almost forgetting the ridiculous things we’d just seen, taking turns with the oars, losing track of time but everybody longing for sleep, and . . . what was that? Did you see something? Yes, over there! It’s – no, it can’t be! It must be a ghost! We’re being followed! Perhaps we’re doomed – perhaps it’s an angel of death coming to drown us all . . .
And then the voice. So calm, so natural. Almost as though he was teasing us. Here are we, dropping the oars in fright, and there was he, as though he was out for an afternoon stroll, going to walk right by us. And then, ‘Cheer up, it’s me!’ Like, what’s the problem?
I wanted to say, ‘What d’you mean, “cheer up”? I’ve lived by this lake all my life and this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone walking on it. What’s going on? Perhaps we’re all mad, or perhaps the whole world has gone mad, or perhaps . . .’ But now he’s speaking again, and this time I sense that he’s looking straight at me, funny how he makes you feel like that.
‘Don’t be afraid. ’Well, why not, I thought. Anyone in my position . . . and then it happened. Like it sometimes does when he speaks to you. Like a cold drink on a hot day. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ He says that quite a lot, and it rings bells with things I’ve heard in synagogue. In the scriptures. Angels say it to people. God says it sometimes, too. Now he’s saying it.
It was all a bit too much. I simply couldn’t put it all together. The healings, the parties, those lawyers getting stroppy with him, then his cousin being killed, then that business with the loaves, and now this. Maybe we are all crazy. Maybe we’re all going to die if we follow him. But I’ve never known anybody like him and nor has anybody I know. And when we all went off to his cousin, down by the Jordan, John seemed pretty clear that Jesus was the one.
I’ll tell you what, though. I’d rather row across the lake in a storm when he tells me to than do what that jumped-up ‘king’ up the road would like us to do. I always had a picture in my mind of what the ideal king would look like, and though Jesus isn’t at all like that, Herod certainly isn’t and could never be. And in fact I have a sense that Jesus is trying to be a different sort of king . . . and it’s very appealing, his sort of kingdom, even though I still don’t see how it all works out.
Perhaps this is how it’s always going to be, for anyone who wants to follow Jesus, now or at any time. Perhaps what he wants from us is not that we should be able to explain it all but that we should just be clear we’re going to go on following him. I may not be the sharpest tool in the box (my father always used to say that, because he was a carpenter too, like Jesus’ father), but I reckon I’m in this for the long haul. I may not always understand it first time off, but I’ll still show up. Or my name’s not Thomas Didymus . . .
Surprise us, loving Lord, with your unexpected power and presence, and help us not to be afraid when you do new things in our lives.