“Well Vicar”, he said, “We all know what your politics are”. He glanced down at my Newspaper ….. and I smiled and changed the subject because I simply couldn`t be bothered to tell him that whatever assumptions he was making, my choice of newspaper wouldn`t help, because I quite deliberately don`t buy the same newspaper every day. But on reflection, I found this little encounter quite amusing. It seems to matter to some people doesn`t it, that they can neatly categorise others; and the more simplified the label the better.
Left wing, right wing, liberal, conservative, high church, low church; such labelling is one of the means we use to gain some sense of order and tidiness to an otherwise chaotic world. It seems we`d rather not take note of the fact that such labelling is only ever a caricature and an approximation. We`ll ignore how judgemental it can be in favour of the convenience of avoiding having to really think or listen to a different view of the world… “That`s just typical of people like that, isn’t it?” we say. And we go our way with our view of the world conveniently unscathed.
To my mind, the most alarming example of this, is in the field of journalism…. or should I say, the lazy kind of journalism which makes up its mind what the story is and then gets the people to fit into it. Examples of that abound but reading our Gospel passage this morning I couldn`t help reflecting on how Christ found himself subject to this kind of, shall we call it `prejudice`.
The first thing that caught my eye is how Matthew tells us that Jesus `made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he dismissed the crowd` (Matthew 14.22). I just found it curious that he should `make` them get into the boat. So, I did a bit of digging around and what we discover is that this incident comes immediately after the feeding of the five thousand.
Unusually, St. John tells the story in exactly the same way but just before telling us about the incident in the boat he says that the people responded to the feeding miracle by wanting to make Jesus their King (John 6.15) and so he `withdraws to the mountain to pray`.
What I`m getting at is that John, in telling the same story adds this little detail about the peoples` false assumptions about Jesus. These are people who have clearly got the wrong end of the stick; these are people who have pigeon-holed and labelled Jesus. Based on the feeding miracle they have made unwarranted assumptions based own their own desires and aspirations…. Rather than on what he was trying to teach them.
Now, rather than have the disciples caught up in all of this Jesus sends them away and then goes off to pray. It`s not a hugely significant point but it is one of many examples of how Jesus refuses to accept the labels others give him. He resists categorisation; he won`t fit neatly into the boxes others have prepared for him. And rather than have his disciples caught up in this misplaced adulation; rather than have them led into false, diminished and easy assumptions about his identity and purpose, Jesus sends them off in the boat. But it`s this experience in the boat which invites them into an enlarged and more accurate understanding of him; and that`s we`re called to ponder this morning.
Now, let`s just pause for a moment and consider what it is we`re really looking at here. A few moments ago, I mentioned that Jesus is recorded as feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. I wonder what you think about that? Our Gospel reading this morning speaks of him walking on water. Again, how do you get your mind around that? Elsewhere we hear of Jesus turning water into wine; healing the blind and the lame and all the rest. When you put it all together it`s quite a list isn`t it?
It`s hardly surprising that some people will regard what we are saying about this man as frankly incredible if not preposterous. That`s why many of us, when we hear these stories, immediately think that what we need to do it try to work out “what really happened?”… We`ve been brought up to approach Bible passages like this. Our underlying assumption is that we can`t take them at face value… there must be what we call a `rational explanation`. (Which of course makes faith and anything to do with it automatically `irrational` doesn`t it?)
And if we find our brain hurts too much with all the effort we try another approach. We look for some sense that this passage is some kind of legend or myth … By which we mean `a carefully manipulated story meant to convey a deeper meaning` and this, of course, we call `spiritual` … by which we mean “having no basis in what we call the `real world`”.
I don`t wish to be irreverent but I can`t help thinking that in our heart of hearts some of us must regard Jesus as rather like that embarrassing uncle…. the one you keep having to apologise for?
When you look at some of these Gospel passages you can`t help thinking that what we call the Christian faith would be so much easier, tidier and convenient if we didn`t have to reckon with the things Jesus both did and said. I mean, there can`t be many of his sayings that we haven`t found some way of rationalising away. There can`t be many of the things he said and did that we haven`t cast doubt on whether he was either serious or accurately reported can there?
Of course, the tell-tale sign that this game is being played is when you hear the word `relevant` being used. Because what people usually mean when they ask us to be `relevant` is that we will present a Jesus who doesn`t do and say some of these outlandish things. What`s wanted is a Jesus who fits in with our expectations, assumptions and view of the world; and a Jesus who can be pigeon-holed into being concerned only with certain carefully prescribed aspects of living. Because by and large people don`t want the change and transformation which comes from associating ourselves with Jesus. In my limited experience people tend not to want change, they want endorsement; someone who will confirm them in what they already know and believe. That`s why we always read the same newspaper…..
Again, if they want him at all, people would rather have a Jesus who can be explained and described in terms we find acceptable, credible and agreeable. But this is not the Jesus we find in Scripture. He resists such categorisation. He will not stay contained within the frameworks we carefully establish for him… He is the Jesus that feeds people in their wilderness; the Jesus that walks on the water.
I wouldn`t like to think of myself as credulous or gullible. On the contrary, I like to regard myself as a fairly rational human being…. But I haven`t the foggiest notion how to explain; let alone explain away some of the quite amazing things the Gospels tell me about Jesus the Christ… But in my experience this isn`t the point.
And the reason I don`t have a problem with all of this amazing, miraculous stuff is because for example, when I read this story about the disciples being `all at sea…` and the Jesus who comes to them on the water… who comes to them in their place of turmoil; I not only know this to be true in my own experience but perhaps more importantly, I see these disciples move from attempts at rational explanation to worship.
“It`s a ghost!” they cried. Initially they tried to make sense of Jesus in the only terms they knew…. Even if it was rather daft. And what they learned is what we all need to learn. Essentially, you cannot explain Christ.. You can only worship him. The only category or label that will do him justice is the one they finally land on: “Truly, you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14.33). It`s only when you begin to see or understand Jesus in these terms that you`re remotely in the right place; because nothing less will do.
Like the disciples in the boat; the early Church left behind the false assumptions and labels that people used to describe or categorise Jesus. Like Peter in his half- faith they often felt themselves to be frightened, sinking and as we say, “All at sea”. But their experience of bafflement, surprise and wonder teaches us that this is how it must be when we are in his presence. Only this truly free (and not so say `inexplicable`) Jesus is worthy of our worship. Because THIS is the Jesus who hears our cry and says, “Take heart it is I; don`t be afraid”.
Because he is THIS Jesus… “Truly, the Son of God” we know that he means it. And that when we`re `all at sea` he can be trusted.