Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
25th Jul 2021
Sermon for the 9th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
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 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 by nature communal; and we have always needed places of ingathering, and above all places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. And, to draw upon the image of the lion, we may speak of the roar of the crowd. The Colosseum was a place where the early Christians were thrown to the lions, to be mawled and devoured by them for the entertainment of the masses. The architectural shape of the modern stadium is built as a cradle. It envelopes and surrounds and yet it also excites and overwhelms.
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. 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. They own 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 in us, but as a very predictable and understandable part of what makes us human.
John sets up the idea of the boat and the storm as identifying with the fact of 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 tactful kind of understanding of one another which accepts that whether we know it or not, life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is a good paradox that it is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human; that is understandable and forgivable. The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity, which in us all, cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of peace. A Christianity disconnected, that is, from our true humanity. 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. In this story he gets into the boat with them and journeys with them and they get to their destiny together.
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 like Shakespeare’s King Lear. What remained and what was revealed was also revealed to the blind man who had received his sight. Christ was revealed! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of the storm. God was in the eye of the storm. He was at the heart of the storm which is also the place of its still centre.
At the deep heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctancies, vanities and stubbornnesses; 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 life and our soul’s true wellspring. 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:
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…for He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”.