Treading Water?

Text: Mark 6:45-56

We’ve been having a lot of boats in our readings lately. We’ve seen this particularly in the Gospels, as Jesus instructed the Disciples in Mark 3 to have a boat ready for Him in case the crowds started to crush Him. This week both our Old Testament and Gospel readings contain boats. In the reading from Genesis we hear God’s promise to Noah that He will never again destroy all flesh with a flood. As a sign of that promise He gave the rainbow. When God sees the rainbow, He will remember the promise He has made. This promise foreshadows the blood of the covenant. When God sees that we have been marked by the blood of Christ, He remembers His promise to pass over our sins and remember them no more.

In the Gospel reading, we have another boat. Today, Jesus instructs the disciples to return across the Sea of Galilee while He dismisses the crowd that He had just fed with the five loaves and two fish. As they were going across a wind arose, such that the disciples were making no headway. Then they saw Jesus walking upon the sea. Upon seeing Him, they thought He was a ghost; but when He enters the boat, the wind ceases and they make it to the other side.

In many ways the Church has used the ark or the boat as illustrations of the Church. For example, St. Peter says in 1 Peter 3 that Baptism corresponds to the Ark in that we are saved from the world through God’s action with water. The Church itself is compared to an Ark, in which we float upon the seas of the world until we reach the shores of heaven. One thing we note from our Gospel reading is that, without Jesus in the boat, it goes nowhere. It beats against the winds, but otherwise it just treads water. Without Jesus in the boat, the Church goes nowhere.

I.

In our text Jesus finally gets some alone time. This whole chapter of Mark has been filled with action. It began with Jesus’ rejection at the synagogue in Nazareth, His own hometown. Afterward He went about the surrounding villages teaching the Word of God. Then He sent out the Twelve with the authority to cast out unclean spirits and preach the forgiveness of sins. Through them Jesus healed many sick people. Before the Apostles returned we heard about the death of John the Baptist who proclaimed repentance to King Herod and lost his life for the sake of Christ. That was the ultimate fulfillment of John’s desires that he himself decrease that Christ may increase. Finally, now, Jesus gets a chance to rest.

He told the Disciples to go ahead of Him across the lake. This way He could remain behind to pray. Jesus, as fully man, required rest and He faced an uphill walk of resistance and rejection as His journey to the cross went on. But now we get a glimpse of the true shepherd He is. Jesus is tired, He needs rest, but there are still these 5,000 men and their families…You or I might slip out quietly and leave the crowd to fend for themselves. We’d pick up our mat, throw the trash, and leave. But Jesus, He dismisses them. He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, even to point of seeing them off. Only then was He able to pray. The Disciples were making their way across the Sea of Galilee, and He remained to be in communion with His Father.

II.

We hear in the text, “When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and He was alone on the land. And He saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.”[1] The Disciples, sent by Jesus, were in their boat out upon the sea, but by about the fourth watch of the night – so, between 3-6 a.m. – they weren’t going anywhere. If we can use the boat as an image of the Church, the Disciples were doing church without Jesus. And they weren’t going anywhere.

Sometimes people ask why we Lutherans worship the way we do, why we sing hymns and use the liturgy, why we have a set cycle of readings, instead of the pastor choosing whatever he feels like preaching on. The main reason why we have these things is that these things speak Jesus to us. In the hymns and liturgy we are drawn out from ourselves, and sometimes our own personal preferences, to speak the words of Christ and hear of His love towards us, especially in the highlight of the Divine Service, the Lord’s Supper.

Many churches do away with these things, and in some ways that is fine. To a degree, worship style is an area of Christian freedom, and Lutherans have long recognized that certain things may be changed for good order. But sometimes, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, and in this case we mean the Gospel. There are many churches that, like the Disciples in the reading, aren’t getting anywhere. As we move towards our Sunday School Workshop in a few weeks, I’m preparing to talk about the difference between the Law and the Gospel, which is a treasure of true Biblical teaching. Unfortunately, it’s become something associated mainly with Lutheranism, such that outside of Lutheranism, you’re much more likely now to get a sermon title like, “8 Steps to Be a Better Spouse,” which is actually not Gospel.

But Jesus, ever compassionate, saw that they were going nowhere and walked out upon the sea. Towards the end of the night, when the Disciples were all alone and going nowhere, Jesus appeared. They were terrified. Without Jesus they were treading water, going nowhere; but with Jesus there they are afraid. This not a pious fear such as when the Apostle John falls on his face before the Lamb, but they think that Jesus is a ghost. Though they should’ve known Jesus could walk on water, their hearts were hardened to the truth.

This is the same reaction that we get when show that, without Jesus, everything is just treading water. A church may have a fantastic youth group, the Bible studies may be packed to the gills, the offering plates may be overflowing, but without Jesus – it’s all treading water. What do we mean? Without Jesus’ perfect life and death for the forgiveness of all sins as the central and constant teaching of a church, everything else is going nowhere. Without Jesus beside us to forgive our sins and strengthen our faith, our lives go nowhere.

III.

Immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.”[2] In classical literature and Scripture, the sea is a place of chaos. It’s where the leviathan dwells; in Daniel and Revelation, it where the evil beasts come from. For Jesus to tread upon the water as if it were nothing, is to show that He is Lord over all things in heaven and on earth. As if that weren’t enough, Jesus gives the firm and comforting, “It is I.” Jesus identifies Himself clearly as the great I AM and then gets into the boat. But the Disciples hearts were hardened, because they didn’t understand about the miracle of the loaves.

Jesus gets into the boat with us too. Throughout our lives we find ourselves treading water. Maybe we’re between jobs, maybe the crop didn’t do so well that year, maybe all the medical procedures we’re dealing with make it feel like we just, “existing,” or barely getting by. Sometimes in church it feels that way, like we’re floating but going nowhere. It those spaces, where it looks to us like we’re going nowhere, Jesus gets in the boat. In fact He got in the boat by taking on our human nature. He humbled Himself to born of a virgin, submitting Himself to the Father’s will where we rebelled. Then He suffered the penalty of our sins on the cross. Jesus is in the boat with us.

He’s in the boat that we call “life,” but especially He’s in the ark of the Church. In the Church He daily and richly provides us His plentiful forgiveness. He sends His Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word to assure us that He is with us at all times and in all places. In the Supper of His own Body and Blood, He gives us something we can touch and feel and taste so that we know that He is here with us. Without these things, though, the boat goes nowhere. Without Christ’s Word and Sacrament as prominent features of the Church’s life, it goes nowhere.

We’ve heard a lot about boats in our readings lately, especially today in our Old Testament and Gospel readings. In the Gospel reading Jesus sent the Disciples ahead of Him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They found themselves not making headway. The winds picked up and they were just treading water. The Church is often illustrated as a boat or an ark. Just like with the Disciples, without Jesus, the boat goes nowhere. The Church goes nowhere. But Jesus sees us and comes out to us walking upon the raging waves of the world. He says to us, “Take heart; It is I. Do not be afraid.” He steps into the boat, and we make it to shore.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 6:47–48.

[2] Mk. 6:50–51.

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