A sermon shared at Suttons Bay Congregational Church, June 2022
Scripture: John 6:16-21, 41-48, 59-60, 66
In the early years of the twentieth century, a snowstorm struck St. Louis, Missouri and gave birth to a tradition. The World’s Fair was coming to town and the laborers who were working on the preparations decided to take a break. Each of them grabbed a folding chair, collapsed it, hopped on top, and began sledding down the hill behind the recently built art museum.
I suspect that those men resorted to such antics pursuant to the unwavering scientific principle that no adult male who has ever existed has actually grown up. But, as Jesus tells us, childlike simplicity has its own virtues. And, ever since that unexpectedly snowy day in St. Louis, families have celebrated winter there by sledding down the slope that that they know fondly, if unimaginatively, as “Art Hill.”
Art Hill offers a lovely 430-foot run to the walls of the great basin at the bottom. Part of the tradition of sledding there is to wipe out and fall off of your sled, putting you in the path of the other sleds sailing down the hill in your direction. Most lawyers probably would not endorse the activity.
But I was five years old and not yet a lawyer and at that tender age what I wanted more than anything in the universe was to sled down Art Hill. I badgered my parents with the relentless energies that only a child can bring to a forbidden undertaking. My parents staunchly resisted, especially my mother, a nurse who had spent enough time in emergency rooms to know why this was a bad idea.
Finally, after several weeks filled with unpredicted snow and predictable complaining, my parents relented. Yes, fine. I could sled down Art Hill. We’d do it this coming Saturday. Now, would I at long last shut up and eat my tuna noodle casserole?
Art Hill isn’t alarmingly steep but I was physically on the small side and when I found myself standing at the top, bundled in one of those coats that your parents force you to wear that make you look like the Michelin man, watching all the bigger kids and adults crash into each other, noting the splayed bodies scattered all over the landscape, I had second thoughts. Indeed, I had agenbite of inwit.
Agenbite of inwit is a glorious Middle English phrase that James Joyce revived in his novel, Ulysses. In essence, it means that you’ve been bitten by the inner voice that tells you you’ve done something wrong. It conveys a sense of deep remorse and that’s precisely where I found myself. Looking down Art Hill, I saw the stark reality: I had wanted to sled; I was about to die.
As the fact that I am standing here before you suggests, I survived my first run down Art Hill and many runs thereafter. But I remember this experience so clearly because it marked my first encounter with a sensation I would have many times later in life and with which I daresay we are all familiar: The very thing that I said I wanted scared me when I got it.
As a child, my grandfather occasionally read to me from Aesop’s Fables and the moral of one of the most famous among them says: “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!” I suppose that in the course of my sixty-four years on planet earth I have lived out most of the morals of Aesop’s Fables, and not always in a good way. But this was the first time that I’d personally become the leading player in a cautionary bedtime story.
Every morning of my life I read from the Bible. I’ve done it for decades and it sometimes happens that I come across a passage or a story where (to be candid) a certain tedium sets in. I’ve read it dozens and dozens of times before, I’ve preached about it on multiple occasions, and I’m convinced that I’ve held it upside down and shaken it until every last thing fell out. Nothing to see here; move along, please.
Very few things achieve the 100% success rate in my life but I’m here to tell you that whenever this thought occurs to me I am wrong 100% of the time. So, when I recently arrived at this familiar passage from John I paused only momentarily, confident that I’d extracted whatever nectar dwelt in this particular flower. And my record of error remains unblemished because I was wrong yet again.
As I paused briefly during my latest reading of this text, the detail that caught my eye was the reaction of the disciples when they saw Jesus walking on the water: They were frightened. But what interested me about it this time is that I saw something I’d never noticed before about this detail: John doesn’t tell us why they were frightened—or, at least, he doesn’t tell us explicitly.
The reason I find this so fascinating is that, in this subtle regard, John’s rendition of the story differs from the two other gospels that include it. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that the disciples were alarmed because they thought Jesus was a ghost. John says nothing of the sort. He just says they were frightened.
This is particularly intriguing because, as you all know, John was the last written of the gospels. The author presumably would have known the versions of this story presented in the earlier ones. And he therefore would have been familiar with their explanation for why the disciples were alarmed by what they saw. But John didn’t include it.
In my view, whenever John’s gospel differs from the earlier, synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) it should grab our attention. True, John wrote at a time more distant from the events he’s describing and, in that sense, may be a less reliable historical narrator. But John is a brilliant interpreter of what those events mean in a theological sense.
We have to be cautious here. Differences between John’s gospel and the other gospels may have resulted from all sorts of things—transcription errors, editorial oversights, corrupt texts, and so on. Differences therefore do not necessarily give us any insight into what John intended to convey.
But I like to approach the text with the attitude that what I read in John’s gospel is what he meant to say to us. So, when differences between his gospel and the others appear, I take notice. I wonder if John might be trying to tell us something.
All of these considerations lead me to this question: If the disciples weren’t frightened because they thought Jesus was a ghost, then why were they frightened? I think that in this chapter John answers that question. But he does it so subtly that you could easily miss the message if you’re not looking very carefully. Let’s unravel the mystery, shall we?
In order to understand the answer that John gives us, we need to do two things. First, we need to remember that among the gospel writers John has the most fully developed and elaborately expressed theology. Consider: Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy, Mark begins his with a story about John the Baptist, and Luke begins his with the tale of Zechariah and Elizabeth. In contrast, John begins his with this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That first passage is also telling because in many ways the theological questions that most deeply interested John are questions of divine identity, especially this question: Who was Jesus?
The second thing we need to do to understand the answer John gives us is to focus on what happens next in the narrative. In short, the text presents us with a series of vignettes in which John reaffirms the messianic identity of Jesus and his centrality to the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
The disciples ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” and Jesus says: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” The disciples ask Jesus to share the bread of life, as Moses did with the Israelites, and Jesus answers: “I am the bread of life.” The disciples want to know God’s will and Jesus tells them: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.”
These repeated affirmations of the divinity of Jesus have a dark side, particularly in this sixth chapter of John, because so many of the people in Jesus’s orbit refused to accept them. And, John tells us that the skeptics included not just the dominant religious authorities but even Jesus’s own followers. John says: “when many of his disciples heard it, they said ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” And then John adds: “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
Okay, reasonable people can differ about John’s message in this chapter, but here’s my theory. I think that the sixth chapter of John suggests that the sight of Jesus walking on the waters didn’t frighten the disciples because they thought he was a ghost. It frightened them because it undeniably confirmed what they had come to suspect—that Jesus was the Son of God. And with that eye-opening reality came awesome consequences and responsibilities, too awesome for some of them to bear.
I think it helps to understand the point if you perform a simple thought experiment. Imagine that you have a counselor and advisor who you respect greatly, but who is of course just another human being. You often follow their guidance, but sometimes not, and although they’re a wise person they’re still just a person and nothing more.
But now imagine that this person claimed to be not just fully human but also fully divine. And imagine that you saw something—clearly, unmistakably, and with your own two eyes—that proved the claim true. Now, all of a sudden, you find yourself in presence of someone who is not simply a good person, but who is a direct manifestation on earth of the great, ineffable, and triune “I am.”
How would you react? Would you say: “Oh, wow, that’s interesting. What are we having for lunch?” Or would you be amazed, dumfounded, perplexed, even—perhaps—a bit frightened?
When Paul tells us we are called to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” I think he is talking about the same psychological and moral reality. If we truly believe—truly believe—that we stand in a personal relationship with the very Son of the Living God, and that we are called to do his will and his will alone, then we find ourselves in an existential place that is like no other. And, understandably, that can scare us a little.
I think that’s the point of the story of Jesus walking on the water as we find it in the gospel of John. A debate was raging throughout the region about who Jesus was. And, in that moment, the disciples saw something that they could not unsee. It had earth shattering implications. It turned their world upside down. It frightened them. Maybe, on those occasions when we get close enough to Jesus that we see things we cannot unsee, it frightens us as well.
In my work at the university, I sometimes hear super-intelligent people described as being “scary smart.” Maybe we can adopt and adapt that language for our own uses here. After all, what does Jesus call us to be if not scary compassionate? Scary inclusive? Scary welcoming? Scary neighborly? Scary merciful?
It is the path, Jesus tells us, to a life that is scary wonderful. Scary redeemed. Scary resurrected.
Not because we won’t know suffering and struggles. But because we can know grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than anything with which we can test it. Grace that is greater than all our failings. Grace that is greater than all our fears.
To be clear, God doesn’t call us to be scary irresponsible. Scary reckless. Scary irrational. Scary indifferent to the facts. God doesn’t need to call us to be those things. That’s not where God wants us. And, besides, we manage to get there all on our own.
Knowing that we stand in relationship with the very Son of the Living God may scare us a little but ours is not a faith of fear. It is, indeed, just the opposite. If yours is a God of fear, Father Gregory Boyle writes, then you’ve got the “wrong God.” Boyle goes on to quote Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth century theologian and mystic, who said: “It is a lie, any talk of God that doesn’t comfort you.”
Alarm, fright, anxiety—these may be starting points at certain moments in our connection with God, but God does not leave us there. The good shepherd leads us on, indeed picks us up if need be, and goes with us. His rod and his staff, they comfort us. And we need fear no evil.
That first sled ride on Art Hill went just fine, despite my initial agenbite of inwit. Indeed, I had a grand old time, squealing and laughing as I careened down toward the bottom. You see, after my dad put me on the sled, I watched as he clumsily figured out how to get that big old frame of his on top of it with me and wrapped me in his arms.
That was when I knew he was who I thought he was.
And, all the way down the hill, I could not unsee it.
And the people said: Amen.