Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
29th Jul 2018
Sermon for the 9th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
People have often felt secure in great numbers and in enclosed spaces. When you visit the Colosseum in Rome its stones speak to you of the terror that was once practised within its great pock-marked walls. As you walk into the amphitheatre it is as though you are walking into the jaws of a great lion. It is a place whose atmosphere eats you up. Beautiful it is not. Intimidating it certainly is. Like it or not, such great amphitheatres, or as we call them now stadiums, tell us something we already know about us – that we are tribal, and we have always needed places of ingathering; places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. But this kind of tribalism is often prey to the emotion of the moment and not to a deeper and more real sense of being together.
What a different scene is represented to us in the Gospel reading this morning, in which the disciples are together in a little boat in a storm and who see Jesus walking on the water and bringing calm. But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. The Gospel writer John understood what we must know to be the case – that in life there is no one place of absolute safety and certainty. The psychoanalyst Jung would often speak of what he called ‘life’s vicissitudes’, as though they were a natural and normal part of the experience of life. We might say that life is not all plain sailing. Things don’t always go smoothly for us. Sometimes we might feel ‘all at sea’. Sometimes life has and does take us into choppy waters. The Old Testament writers experienced these vicissitudes in many ways, and the psalmists in particular sent up their cries and their sighs. “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord” Psalm 130.1 The psalmist owns an experience of life in which such internal turmoil is deemed natural and inevitable and to be accepted not as a part of something abnormal but as a very predictable and understandable. Jesus recognises this too, and in so many of his encounters he greets us with the words “Peace be with you”.
John sets the figure of the boat amid the storm with finding faith in God amid the storms of life and not apart from them. The boat is a figure for our life together and our need for one another, and the Christ who walks upon the waters is the One who has come to communicate what we have called ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’. In the church we need to begin practising a strong and human understanding of one another which accepts that life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human; and come to a realisation in truer compassion of that which is understandable and forgivable. This must proceed out of inner peace which can only come through prayer and through deeper reflection.
The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity which cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of deep peace. Yesterday I met some ‘Mind the Gap’ Christians who seem so sure of who is a child of God and who isn’t, Theirs is a Christianity that expresses itself so literally that it denies us our freedom to be. The ‘gap’ for them is the one which exists between their kind of believers and their kind of unbelievers. Theirs is a Christianity which must exist as a fortress or super defended battleship, just like the selfish ego ready to defend its territory at variance from the common good all around it. The real gap is the one which exists between a Christianity of the heart and a Christianity of the will. It proceeds out of its own emotional insecurity rather than out of any genuine love for common humanity and its many foibles. The message of the gospel this morning is of the Christ who has come not to deny our own fears or to banish them for good but to recognise them and to meet them. To give peace and to offer understanding and forgiveness, and so to set us on our way.
In the little town of Olney in Buckinghamshire there is a Newton and Cowper Museum. And this is a museum dedicated to two hymn-writers who compiled the so-called ‘Olney Hymns’. But they were more than just that. Cowper was descibed by Coleridge as ‘our best modern poet’, and John Newton wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’. He had been a ship’s captain, and was heavily involved in the slave trade. During a storm, the sea was so bad that for the first time in his life he prayed. The storm as it were cracked open his old self and tore it out of him. Christ was revealed to him! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of it.
At the heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctance, vanity and stubbornness; at the heart of all our struggles and doubts and failures there lies God, the God who has made us and who even now seeks for us that reconciliation which is our soul’s true wellspring. The God who in Jesus brings always his strong peace. And so it was for Newton, and the crowning expression of his experience of God as a man born blind is given to us in the words of ‘Amazing Grace’.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And then the sobering words of his friend George Cowper which call for a simple trust in the God who makes things plain:
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
May the God who visited the disciples on the choppy waters of their existence also visit you, to give you that amazing grace which was first realised on the Sea of Galilee and which held the disciples together. For they like we, in and of God, find ourselves, all of us, in the same boat…
He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”. Receive my peace, passing all your understanding. May God’s deep peace inhabit your inmost being.