‘The Power at Work Within Us’
A sermon for Trinity 9 given by Roberta Berke on 29th July 2018
Jesus said, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ [John 6.20]
Who’s afraid of spiders? Spiders startle me. If a spider were to suddenly dangle down in front of me right now, I’d jump and shriek. Some people have such an extreme fear of spiders that they suffer overwhelming anxiety. They panic, even if they only see a web that hints that a spider might be nearby. London Zoo runs a course for people who are terrified of spiders, for those who suffer from extreme arachnophobia. People who complete this course are able to hold, and even to stroke, a huge, hairy, Mexican red-knee spider. They now realise that the spider is not the monster they imagined. They discover strength within themselves to overcome their fears. We all have fears. Some people are frightened of heights, others of confined spaces, or of dogs, or of flying. Some fears are irrational, others fears are very real. There is one real fear we all have: dying. Dying is the one event none of us can avoid and which all of us fear.
In today’s gospel story, the disciples were afraid of dying. A fierce storm threatened to swamp their boat. They were in the middle of the lake, far from the shore. The disciples’ fear was realistic, it was not a neurotic, irrational fear. These disciples were professional fishermen, not weekend sailors. They knew many people had drowned in storms on that same lake. ‘It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.’ [John 6.17] The disciples had to contend with darkness, as well as struggling to row against the storm. In that darkness they had no way of knowing how close they were to the shore, or even where the shore was. In John’s gospel, darkness is often an antagonist to light, an opponent to goodness. John’s Prologue states, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’ [John 1.5]. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night [John 3.2], symbolising his furtiveness and his lack of enlightenment. At the Last Supper, when Judas leaves to betray Jesus, then ‘it was night.’[John 13.30]
That night on the lake, the disciples feared they would die in the storm. Then, through the darkness, the disciples ‘saw Jesus, walking on the lake and coming near the boat.’ Yet Jesus’ appearance didn’t reassure them. On the contrary, ‘they were terrified’. Mark and Matthew’s versions of this event give the reason for their fear: ‘They thought they had seen a ghost.’ [Matthew 14.26; Mark 6.49] The word translated as ‘ghost’ means not only the spirit of a dead person, but also a phantom, an illusion, a mirage. The disciples were frightened by Jesus’ sudden, uncanny appearance. And they were even more frightened by his supernatural power to walk over these turbulent waters. Jesus led them to recognise both his human person and his divine powers. ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ [John 6.20]
Recognising Jesus was often surprisingly hard for the disciples. After the resurrection, when Mary met Jesus by his tomb, at first she thought he was the gardener. [John 20.14] The disciples at Emmaus spent hours talking with Jesus, but they didn’t recognise him until the moment when he broke bread with them. [Luke 24.31] After the resurrection, when the disciples were once again fishing on the lake of Tiberius, they saw Jesus standing on the shore, but ‘they didn’t know it was Jesus.’ [John 21.4]
Recognising Jesus’ divine power was also hard for the disciples. They were frightened by Jesus’ power to walk over these murderous waves. Notice that Jesus came to them. He didn’t stand on the shore shouting advice and reassurance. He walked right across the turbulent waters to reach his disciples. Jesus’ power over the waters reminds us of how of God’s Spirit breathed on the dark waters at Creation. [Genesis 1.2] God brings order out of chaos. God brings light out of darkness. God’s power over the waters is often praised in the Bible. ‘The Lord makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.’ [Isaiah 43.16] When Jesus says, ‘It is I’ his words remind us of God’s revelation to Moses of his sacred name: ‘I am who I am.’ [Exodus 3.14]
Because Jesus has divine power, his reassurance to his disciples is based on eternal truth. Jesus didn’t tell them there was no danger; he did not deny their very justified fear and their very real terror. When angels appear to humans their first words are often, ‘Do not be afraid.’ God’s power to cast out fear comes from recognition of his power and his love. ‘Love casts out fear.’ [I John 4.18]
The disciples sometimes found it hard to recognise Jesus. They found it hard to recognise Jesus’ power and Jesus’ love. We also find it hard to recognise God’s power and God’s love. In times of danger and darkness, waves of fear, swells of doubt, can overwhelm us. God can seem far away, absent, or even non-existent. Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus that he was ‘an ambassador in chains.’ [Ephesians 6.20] Paul knew danger and fear many times, especially from angry mobs, who were as fierce as wild beasts. Yet despite fear and danger, Paul persisted with his mission, because he found ‘strength within his inner being with power through the Holy Spirit.’ [Ephesians 3.16] Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus that they ‘may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit.’ It is through the Holy Spirit that Christ comes to dwell within us. When the disciples recognised Jesus’ power and his love, they willingly took him into their boat and they reached the shore. Jesus reassures us: ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ [John 6.20]
When we recognise that we are ‘rooted and grounded’ in God’s love, we accept Christ dwelling within us. ‘The power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.’ [Ephesians 3.20]
Our ultimate fear is of dying. We fear that we, like a fragile little boat, will sink and vanish under death’s dark waves. Yet Christ dwells within us. We take Christ into our boat and we reach the shore. Christ promised, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ [Matthew 28.20] AMEN.
London Zoo’s friendly spider program for spider phobics:
Copyright © by Roberta Berke 2018. All rights reserved.