Proper 14(A): The Miracle that Fails to Comfort
By: Dr. Emily Kahm
I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the “miracle” stories of the New Testament. They seem to quickly turn into arenas for debate about literal and figurative truth, or how one can, in this “age of reason,” actually believe in fairytales simply because Jesus was the main character in some of them. I don’t know what the good Christian response is to those questions. I can’t even answer them for myself.
Just before this miracle story is the tale of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the 5,000. And ah, what an easier story to deal with! I have always liked the interpretation that part (or the whole of) the miracle wasn’t Jesus’ role as a caterer who broke the time-space continuum, but that his inspiration brought these crowds to share what they had, however meager, and that all of those contributions together were more than sufficient. I like this interpretation as a consumerist American who needs assurance that “enough” truly exists and that it’s far less than what we think it is. I like this interpretation as a single member in a broken but holy Church that can sometimes turn the stuttering, weak efforts of myself and others into far more than they should logically be. I can skirt the question of miracle entirely in that story and still find richness in it. Of course, I only talk about it at length because I’m avoiding addressing how and why Jesus walked on water.
I’m struck in this story by how pointless this miracle is. Jesus isn’t undertaking the noble cause of feeding the hungry; he simply notices that the boat he wants to be on is far from shore and, apparently, decides to hoof it out there. It’s a strangely casual use of his God-ness. When Peter, terrified but emboldened, asks if he can do it too, Jesus lets him try and then helps him when he falls, gently reprimanding his faith. It evokes for me the image of a parent trying to help their child ride a bike without training wheels.
But…why? Why does Jesus show off for the disciples who he has been impressing day after day with other parables and miracles? Why does Peter feel the need to get involved in this uncanny occurrence? What point and purpose does all this serve? I imagine many Christians would say that it’s another demonstration of how Jesus was Divine, not only human, and it is remembered and told to us to help us believe more fully. I imagine many others would offer “magic trick” style explanations (he was walking on submerged rocks, or ice, or really buoyant stingrays) and classify this as another Bible story where the non-scientific worldview of the writer attributed a cool but explainable event to divinity, and that it’s a nice story that we in the modern world need not worry about too much. I don’t like either of these responses, but I don’t have a replacement for them either.
There are plenty of easier, more ancillary messages to take away, after all; the importance of faith as demonstrated by Peter, the calming of fear when we realize that God is in our midst, even the humanness of Jesus when he needs some time alone after dealing with crowds all day. But maybe there’s something to the pointlessness of this miracle, the fact that God sometimes enters our world abruptly and magnificently even when we’re not expecting it or thinking that we need it, and that those moments of encounter can be as intimidating or fearful as the moments when we feel quite alone. We can’t always anticipate the form that God will take in our world, and sometimes that’s upsetting in its own right. And yet, I’ve always liked the title “God of All Surprises,” and that might mean being open to surprises that are shocking more than joyous.
Perhaps we can embrace the “apparently pointless,” as we often do when we come to prayer or meditation that feels stale, or even our work for justice that so frequently feels like it’s going nowhere. We have faith that there’s importance in our practices and works even when we don’t know where our efforts will end up. In much the same way, I don’t know why Jesus walked on water, but I can trust that the meaning is there, and might show itself when I very least expect it.
Emily Kahm, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her research involves sexuality education in Christian churches and young adulthood religiosity. She resides in Davenport, Iowa with her spouse, Chris, their dog Bosco, and their rabbits, Exodus and Calliope.