When the evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Mark 6:47-52
Imagine this: the disciples, after an exhilarating and exhausting day on the mountainside watching Jesus feed the five thousand, are set on a boat and told to row to shore, going ahead of Jesus because he wanted to pray alone. The wind rises on the sea of Galilee, and the plashing of the oars becomes more and more desperate. Desperate to get to shore, to rest after their long day, instead they find themselves battling a high wind, deep into the night.
Their limbs are sore, muscles aching from the strain, eyelids battered by the sting of salt and barely seeing into the gale. The water rises, spilling into the boat with each lash, and for all their fatigue they soldier on, because it would be death to stop. All night they row, and a fevered dawn seems to approach, and still the storm is relentless.
How often I feel this is a portrait of myself: so utterly overwhelmed, yet still battling forces that seem inhuman, inexhaustible. Times when it seems the only thing between me and ruin is the continued strain of my muscles, that heroic effort to keep my head above water, just for another second, another second, another second…
But then Jesus looks at the disciples and in his eyes the wind suddenly drops to a nothing, like a special effect in some low budget movie. All he sees are twelve struggling men, doing their very best on their own, constrained by time and their bodies, flailing at the task he had set them. And he walks out –
Picture this, Jesus, walking towards the boat from behind, as the disciples plow the sea with their oars. Jesus, swiftly overtaking them with nothing but his two feet. Jesus, appearing in the peripheral vision of the sweating disciples like some water-borne ghost, cutting through the wind with such ease. This is the very picture of human endeavor, the straining of the will, the mind, the body, against trials that He could just step over. Which his feet cut cleanly through, because his power is over and above the very fabric of the universe. And the fact that our solid, wind-and-big-wave problems, are just so little compared to his power, is still so astounding that, even right after a most spectacular miracle over the laws of nature, it still comes as a surprise.
Because Jesus is so fantastic, even after he has touched us we refuse to believe. Moments after he has helped us out of the greatest trials, comforted us with his huge compassion, fed us with bread pulled from thin air, we still can’t wrap our heads round him. We still bolt like frightened animals when he appears, more willing to believe in the solidity of the wind, the solidity of the waves, than in the solidity of his bright body, overtaking us with compassion. And Jesus is kind, knowing our poor hardened hearts so well, he tells us not to be afraid.
Afraid! Yes, we are afraid of Jesus, afraid that his salvation is more difficult to bear than the storm, which at least we know how to fight against. He does not come to rebuke them for their unbelief, but instead simply to get into their boat. And the sea snaps out of the storm and is calm. And the disciples are astonished.
No, we do not understand the loaves.
Postscript: There is also a poem version of this.