A key word for Mark is Suddenly, sometimes translated Immediately. As we have been in chapter 6 since 26 August, we can lose some of the flow. After facing hostility in his home town, Jesus has sent out his disciples to spread the word. They have returned full of enthusiastic reports just as Jesus receives news of the death of his cousin John. Jesus takes them for a period of quiet recuperation, but the crowd follows, at least 5000 men and others, and Jesus has miraculously fed them, starting with only five small loaves and two fish.
There is no breathing space for the disciples. Suddenly Jesus is hurrying them into the boat and sending them back across a short space of lake. While they are working hard rowing, Jesus sends the crowd away. This may have been quite a task, because John tells us they were so excited that they wanted to make Jesus king, and he had to dissuade them. After they were gone, Jesus retreats back up the hill to find a quiet place to pray. He had been looking for space before, and it seems that now he really needed to recharge batteries, to connect with his Father.
The disciples, meanwhile, are still rowing; it seems that they are out there all night until it was almost dawn. There is a stiff head wind and they are struggling to make progress in the choppy water. As they are experienced sailors, there is no suggestion that they are greatly concerned or afraid. What does alarm them, though, is that they see a figure walking towards them on the surface of the water, looking like he is going to stroll by them. They all see him. They think it is a ghost. They are terrified and they are shouting out in fear. Suddenly ( that word again) Jesus speaks to them. He reassures them that it is him, climbs into the boat, and the rough waves calm down completely. They are amazed. They don’t understand it. Mark tells us that they have learned nothing from the loaves and fishes incident, and that their hearts are hardened. Feeding over 5000 people was a miracle. Walking on the water was a miracle. Bringing calm to the sea seems to have astounded them. They have seen all these things but they do not know what to make of them.
It is interesting that Mark does not relate the part where Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Jesus; it is thought by many that Mark’s gospel relies heavily on Peter’s eyewitness accounts, and that he did not want to relate an incident that appeared to show him as boasting. Also Matthew tells us that the disciples bow down and confess their belief that Jesus is the Son of God. We have seen before that a major theme for Mark is the “Messianic Secret”. You might remember from the parable of the sower that one result of the preaching of the gospel would be the hardening of the hearts of the hearers. We are midway through a story, and Mark is making the point that we are all on a journey of discovery. No one, not even the disciples, can reason their way to the truth about Jesus; it must come as a revelation from God. They have been with Jesus, have heard the preaching, witnessed and taken part in miracles of healing and deliverance, and yet do not yet fully understand. In the next scene we see, multitudes gather to bring their sick to Jesus; they know he is special, but they do not understand how special. This process will climax on the mount of transfiguration, and we are only two weeks away from that now!
In the meantime, we share with the disciples this process of encountering God and growing in him. We see that God allows us to learn over a period, encountering new truths to put alongside things we have known for some time but are now experiencing a new, deeper ways. The Christian life is founded on the regular repetition of stories and concepts. We relive the last supper and the death and coming back to life of Jesus almost every week.
This is why renewal programmes such as Alpha (and there are many others) are so vital. In maths we might say that we do not need to learn our tables. In reading we might say that there is no need to teach us the alphabet. I challenge us all, though, to look at any part of the Christian gospel where we can say that we have ticked the box and know all that we need to know. I confess that I have so much more to learn about who Jesus really is, as I seek to live a life in union with him. The natural condition of our hearts tends towards hardness; that is why we consistently ask for grace to be open for all that he has for us, open for all that he would teach us, open to follow him wherever he leads us.
We may often feel that we are toiling along through life, that the seas are choppy and we that we are making no headway. We may sometimes feel that when the Spirit moves, when the temptation comes to open our lives to encounter more of Jesus, that it is a scary prospect that takes us out of our comfort zone. We may have a spiritual problem, but the cure (Jesus) seems more alarming than the condition that needs to be dealt with (our hardness of heart and slowness to believe).
The good news is that Jesus has not finished with us yet. We are his work in progress. You cannot make a garden overnight. There are some recipes you cannot hurry. We do not all grow at the same pace or in the same way. As we walk with Jesus and travel in the boat with him, so we are learning to trust him in every situation. We are being transfigured as we expose ourselves to the light of his glory, full of grace and truth.
1. What does it add to your picture of Jesus that Mark frequently describes his actions with the word translated as Suddenly (or possibly Immediately).
2. What part of the story most relates to our situation today: do we feel that we are being made to get into the boat, or that we are rowing hard but getting nowhere, or that we are seeing Jesus walking towards us and it scares us?