13th August 2017, Ninth Sunday after Trinity, (Morning Prayer).
Main Passage: Matthew 14:v22-33
Also Romans 10:v5-15.
The story of Peter trying to walk on the water is one of the best stories in the gospels. In a very vivid and dramatic way it gets across a very important and basic message: we are only saved, indeed we can only live, through faith in Jesus.
The only problem, if we try to share this story with people outside the church: It involves a miracle.
“It would be wonderful if this was a true story!” somebody might say, “but how can that be? People can’t walk on water; science tells us that. People in the past may not have had problems with this, but that was because they didn’t have a proper scientific understanding of how the world works.”
This is a common reaction; I am sure you have heard it before. There are two ways of overcoming this objection which are also quite common but which are both, in my view, less than helpful. One is from the conservative side, and the other from the progressive side.
A conservative, fundamentalist Christian might say: “What is the problem? There is nothing to discuss here; Our Bible text clearly says that Jesus walked on water, and we should believe the literal truth of the Bible, every word of it”. Some people might even think it borders on the impious to start discussing questions like whether miracles can or did ever happen.
My main problem with this kind of approach – and this is based on my own experience as a writer and translator: The literal truth of which words?
The English text we use is only a translation of the original Greek. That is a language spoken two thousand years ago, and even the best scholars of New Testament Greek do not always know exactly what the Greek words mean. In addition, was Jesus talking Greek at all times?
The Bible itself does not say, but the people who have studied this question generally agree that he was probably usually talking the common language of the area, which was Aramaic.
Something I know as a translator is that a translation is never perfect. Indeed, every translator keeps in mind the ancient Italian expression: traduttore traditore, a translator is a betrayer: a text in one language cannot be identical with a text in another language, because the languages themselves are different.
So appeals to the literal meaning of the Biblical text make no sense, to put it mildly. Also, somebody who says: “You should believe this because the Bible says so” usually leaves out part of the argument. What is really mean usually is: You should believe me because the text is in the Bible and because I know the correct interpretation of this text. It is an appeal to authority – that of the Bible, sure, but also of the person interpreting it.
This authoritarian strain is still, unfortunately, very strong in the Christian church, and it is a great hindrance to drawing people in from the outside.
This is not helpful. From the other side comes a very different approach. Many clergymen actually agree with the secular majority and think that we have to take stories like the one of Jesus walking on the water as purely symbolic, and not tell people that Jesus actually walked on the water. Now, you might think – and this is actually my personal view – that whether in actual fact Jesus really walked on the water or not is not the most important question about the story.
The really important thing is how Peter, in his enthusiasm, can do an amazing thing at first, but then gets frightened, and then it is only his faith in Jesus that saves him. The problem is: where do you stop?
If you do not accept the truth of stories about Jesus walking on the water or calming the storm, then what about the important ones? What about the central miracle in the New Testament? What about the resurrection of our Lord?
This, of course, is a very ancient question. Remember what St Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians:
“how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:v12-14)
Many years ago, I had quite a debate about this with one of the Netherlands’ best known protestant ministers, the former incumbent of the Kloosterkerk in The Hague and as such the pastor of Queen Beatrix and her family, Carel ter Linden. He had actually written an article around Eastertime for the NRC, the famous newspaper, in which he argued that “modern Christians” of course could not believe in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Instead, he proposed some vague formula about Jesus coming to life spiritually in the hearts of his disciples or something like that.
This was too much for me, so I sent a letter to the newspaper which was published in the letters column, in which I said: Thank you, pastor Ter Linden, but I am a modern Christian and I believe fully in the actual, bodily resurrection of our Lord.
Well, other people joined the debate, Ter Linden sent in a response, and we had a fine time debating the issues. Pastor Ter Linden did not change his views, and neither did I, but he did confess that maybe he shouldn’t have presumed to state what a “modern Christian” should or should not believe.
So. How do we deal with miracles?
As I have said, I don’t think we should try to ram the story through people’s throat saying: The “Bible tells us so and that’s all there is to it”, and I don’t think we should capitulate to the secular culture around us and say: “Well, of course miracles can’t happen, so we must be satisfied with the symbolic meaning of it.”
These debates are often called the “conflict between science and religion”. Countless books have been written in the past century about this supposed conflict, but frankly, I’m not that interested, because I honestly cannot see how there could be a conflict.
God created the universe, He created me, He gave me a mind to study the universe, so how on earth could there be a conflict between what I can find out – through science – about how the world works, and what God tells me, through the Bible and the church, about the meaning and purpose of the world? Basically, that seems impossible to me.
Science tells us the universe developed out of a cosmic explosion that started from one point, approximately 13,6 billion years ago. I accept that but – I don’t know about you – to me such a statement is almost meaningless.
Our imagination cannot encompass it and, more important, such a statement doesn’t answer, no. it cannot answer the question we would like an answer to: why? To what purpose?
Science cannot deal with such questions. Faith – or philosophical speculation – can. As Christians, we can say: God created the world out of love for his creatures.
Science can tell us: A person cannot walk on water. That is perfectly true – unless our Creator, in this particular instance, intervened with the normal workings of the world.
C.S. Lewis points out something that sounds paradoxical: without a scientific understanding of the world you don’t even know what a miracle is. If you had no understanding of the regularities in the natural world, if you thought all events were happening at random, there would be nothing very remarkable about a man walking on water.
If you think about it carefully, the story only makes sense if the laws of nature, as science understands them, continue to work. Recall what happens to Peter: At first, in his enthusiasm, he walks on water, but then suddenly he realizes that what he is doing is completely impossible, and he sinks.
The laws of nature were working fine, before and during the event. The story is no threat to a proper understanding of science. In any case, what is so pernicious about the approach taken by people like Pastor Ter Linden is not that it’s important whether Jesus walked on the water or not. It is that, to say it cannot happen because science tells us so is misunderstanding science, and denying God’s power.
How can we keep talking about “Almighty God” if actually He is restricted by our understanding of science?
Brothers and sisters, this is not merely an intellectual, academic problem.
I think that, as Christians living in this world, we have a responsibility to develop a proper understanding of such basic questions, so that we can share them with other people. And with that, we come to another text we heard this morning, from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.
He is talking about those outside the faith, and asks:
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ (vv14-15).
This, my brothers and sisters, is not addressed to our priests. It is addressed to all of us.