“When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone. And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea, And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid. But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.” John 6:15-21
We continue our study of the Gospel of John. After Jesus miraculously fed the multitude he realized they wanted to force him to become their King and he left them went to a mountain alone. He must have left instructions for his disciples because that evening they gathered and walked over to the Sea of Galilee, boarded a ship, and sailed off to Capernaum without Jesus. They had rowed close to 30 furlong (which is about 3.75 miles out) which would place them in the middle of the sea (which is exactly what Mark and Matthew say) when the storm broke and their boat was lifted and dropped by the raging sea. Then they saw Jesus walking on the water in their direction, which sight did not comfort them at all until he audibly identified himself and told them not to be afraid. Jesus then boarded the ship and immediately (which looks like another miracle) they at Capernaum.
The miracle of Jesus walking on the sea of Galilee is different from other miracles the Beloved Disciple includes in his Gospel because it was a private miracle meant specifically for Jesus’ Apostles. There were others who knew that Jesus had not left with his disciples and the next day when they saw him in Capernaum they asked him how he got over the sea. Jesus simply ignored the question. Why is this important? This is important because the Beloved Disciple includes in his Gospel both private and public signs and miracles. A miracle is an event “that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human power can do,” but a miracle is also a sign. Both public miracles like the feeding of the five thousand and private miracles like Jesus walking on water were also a signs. What is a sign?
A sign both signifies and effects, brings about, what it signifies. Therefore the act of baptizing a child visibly signifies, represents, being buried with Christ in his death as well as being raised up with Christ in his resurrection. However baptism in the Name of the Blessed Trinity not only signifies, but it actually effects, creates the reality that it signifies. Not only does the priest baptize the child, but God Almighty acts and the sign becomes the reality: baptism is both a funeral and a new birth. Again, when the bridegroom places the wedding ring upon his bride’s finger saying, “With this ring I thee wed in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” that not only signifies holy matrimony, it effects, it makes the reality of holy matrimony.
The Beloved Disciple reports that Jesus took a handful of fish and bread, he blessed it and then he gave it to his disciples who delivered it to five thousand people. The action that Jesus takes with the food is the sign and the sign becomes the material reality. When Jesus instituted the Holy Communion he took the bread and the wine, he blessed it, and then he gave it to his Apostles and they delivered it to his disciples who were present. That night in which he was betrayed and handed over to ruthless men, he said the bread was his flesh and the wine was his blood. When a priest celebrates the Holy Communion he repeats both the words of Jesus and the actions of taking, blessing, and delivering the Body and Blood to the faithful. These are signs, yes, but they are not signs pointing in some other direction, they are signs manifesting the really real, the actuality of what they signify. The outward and visible sign, signifies an invisible, interior reality. Jesus left seven such effectual signs to his Church that we call the seven sacraments.
But not all signs were sacraments. There is another category of sign. Jesus performed many signs in his ministry that declared his identity to Israel as well as her hour of judgment. The Beloved Disciple selected seven public signs that declare Jesus’ identity as well as Israel’s judgment and he used these seven to structure the Fourth Gospel. The first sign was the turning the water into wine in Cana. The second sign was the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem. The third sign was the healing of the Nobleman’s son in Galilee. The fourth sign was the healing of the cripple man by the Pool of Bethesda right next to the Temple. The fifth sign was the feeding of the multitude in the countryside of Galilee. The sixth sign was the healing of the man born blind. And seventh sign was the raising of Lazarus from the dead. As you know the number seven is the number of perfection and fullness, because that number represents the finality of God’s creation of the universe. But there are some doctors of the Church who believe that the Beloved Disciple has added an eight sign, a final sign, the finality of finality, the Eight Day of the New Creation, which miracle and sign is the bodily resurrection of our crucified Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah.
Yes, there are more miracles in the Fourth Gospel, indeed wherever Jesus is miracles seem to burst out all over the place. The Beloved Disciple himself says so as he begins to put the finishing touches to his Gospel:
“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” John 20:30,31
Something else about the seven signs of the Fourth Gospel — though there is no hostility express toward Jesus at the Wedding in Cana, beginning with the cleansing of the Temple, he becomes the object of the enmity and hatred of the Masters of Israel. And their obsession with him waxes more and more till Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and they begin planning in earnest to murder both Jesus and Lazarus in order to put an end to the hemorrhaging of Jewish loyalty. Jesus first appears as a threat mainly to the ruling class in Jerusalem. Little did the Masters of Israel realize just how fickle the hoi polloi were as well. We soon learn after the feeding of the multitude is that the good country people of Galilee were just as steeped in unbelief as were the sophisticated, well-born ruling class in big city. The signs that John narrates were public signs of identity and judgment against a few elite families in Jerusalem, but Jesus brought judgement upon the good country people as well — Israel had covered herself with unbelief and shame.
But what did this walking on water miracle mean for Jesus’ inner circle of Apostles? As I said this is not a public miracle, but any miracle meant for the Apostles passes on the Church which they constitute by their ministry. Here are his dearest and most intimate friends who will become his Church, so intimate that St. Paul will call her the Bride of Christ. So whatever this miracle means for the Apostles so it means for us today. As I said it is clear that the Apostles were given instructions and they were where they were — in the middle of the sea — because they were followed Christ’s instructions. And it is evident that Jesus is the only one who could have given the instruction to set sail for Capernaum without him. Mark and Matthew also report this event and the disciples’ fear as the sea turned into a howling beast. And the Beloved Disciple, in agreement with the other Evangelists, reports that the sight of a man, at first they knew not who, walking upon the angry sea did not bring comfort but rather the very weirdness of it amped up their fear. But when Jesus spoke to them they reached out and welcomed their Master into the boat. John’s account not only reports the event, but, unlike the other Gospels, his account contains details that are completely unnecessary, they add nothing, except for the fact that it happened that way. John tells us that it was dark when they boarded the ship. And where the other Gospels merely report that the ship was “in the middle of the sea” when the storm broke out, John tells us that they had rowed out about 30 furlong. Such details serve no purpose except for the fact that old John, the Beloved Disciple, remembered exactly what had happened that day because it was so extraordinary and he though he was going to die. The main point that I want you to grasp is that the Fourth Gospel is written by the Beloved Disciple who as a young man was an eye witness to these events.
From mystical perspective we learn that Jesus is the Watchman who looks out for the well being of his Church. From her infancy the Church in Jerusalem had been associated with the Ark of Salvation by which God saved Noah and his family from the raging flood. And the earliest Church Fathers took the image of the Apostles in a boat to be an icon of the Church and this narrative of Jesus walking on the water was on of the most prominent icons of the Church. And as long as we understand that this is an account of a real event in the life of Jesus and his Apostles we can return to the narrative for other meanings as well. I say, “as long as” because I do not want you to think for a moment that when he was composing his Gospel that the Beloved Disciple meant this to be a story about the Church. Not at all. At that moment he meant to tell us what happened the day he saw with his own eyes Jesus walking on the water of a stormy sea and coming to their rescue. But upon reflection, by virtue of our being members of Christ’s body the Church, we may draw appropriate and sober mystical lessons from the event. This is an important principle to hold on to: when it is plainly the case that the Beloved Disciple is narrating what is meant to be historical then grasping the event comes first. But the Church, following the example of St. Paul who used the history of Hagar and Ishmael as examples of unbelief, may see more meaning in the event.
Finally, it is a lovely and warm image of Jesus’ most intimate and faithful Apostles nesting in the bosom of the storm tossed ship as he comes to their rescue. And that is certainly the truth. But there was a snake nesting in the infant Church. Fatal and deadly unbelief was not limited to the Rulers of Jerusalem and the good country people of Galilee, but in that bobbing and careening craft that held the whole future of the world in its bosom cowered the traitor, Judas Iscariot, hanging on for dear life.