Sermon 10 August 2008

The sermon that I preached yesterday is now available in video format on the preaching page. If I get around to it, I will try to put up an audio version which will be more suitable for dial-up users.

If you are having trouble hearing the audio on these clips, you probably need to download Adobe Flash Player again and let it install itself. Go to this page and follow the instructions.

Here is the text I was preaching from:

I’ve no idea whether any of you aspire to be the provost of this great Cathedral Church. When it happened to me, there was a moment just after my appointment was announced when i realised the significance of coming here. A light blue envelope landed gently on the mat. It was from the company which produces Who’s Who. It goes with the territory. If you are the provost of this place, you get an entry in Who’s Who.

I remember opening that envelope and realising that I was making one of the great transitions in life. No more would I be a rapscallion, a rebel and a rabble-rouser for the Lord. No! That was all behind me. Now, I realised, I had joined the Great and the Good. (At least, that is what I thought until I met you all).

Now, if you take your copy of Who’s Who down from its specially reinforced shelves, you can look me up. And you can look up what I list as my hobbies. Amongst them, you will find something that I list which gives me a straight run into the sermon theme for today.

Asked what my hobbies were, I said,

“Sinking other people’s yachts.”

Yes. There is often a superstition amongst sailors that having clergy on a boat brings bad weather and bad luck.

I know what it is to know fear on the water. I know what it is to sink a friend’s yacht. I know that it is no mere superstition.

This little Jesus and Peter story that is our Gospel reading this morning is often remembered but perhaps seldom understood.

The disciples had taken to the water and gone on ahead of Jesus leaving him on the shore to say his goodbyes to the crowd which he had been teaching.

And the little boat was caught in a storm on the loch.

How terrifying such a storm can be. I know that terror. And the disciples look out in the early morning light and see Jesus himself walking towards them upon the lake.

Can it be true?

Take heart, he says to their fears, it is I.
Do not be afraid. Do not worry. It is me.

And Peter leaps out of the boat, starts to walk towards Jesus but when his fears overtook him started to sink. He appeals to Jesus who reaches out his hand and all ends up safe and well.
This is the kind of story which people often misunderstand and they use them to proclaim their unbelief. Can it really be true that Jesus walked on water.

It is a familiar image – the Lord overcoming the forces of gravity and striding out over the water. Can it be true?

It is the kind of thing that people who wish to make mock of those with a religious faith will pick on. Can it be true? Of course not. People don’t walk on water. People cannot step out and wander across the open water of Galilee.

You can almost hear the mocking voices as soon as you have read the words.

People don’t walk on water.

Yet the truth about this passage tells us a great deal about one of the ways in which we read Scripture.

You see, the question is not whether this was true for Jesus. This is not about whether it was true that Jesus walked on the lake and whether Peter could with his help walk with him.
The point is not whether this was true for Jesus and Peter. The question is whether or not it is true for you?

For gospels were always meant to be read and listened to in that way. Is this true for you?
Is it true for you, whether you are ruffian, riff-raff, rabble-rouser or the who that really is who?
Have you ever felt as though you were in danger of sinking? Have you ever felt as though things were just getting too much? As though the storm would overtake you. Have you ever felt as though you might slip beneath the waves?

Whoever you are, the answer is likely to be yes. It is the human condition.
One of the questions to ask when hearing scripture read is not “was it true for Jesus?”, but “is it true for me?”

And when we start to ask that question, we can see so very easily that the hand that is held out over the stormy water is not just Jesus holding out his arm to prop up a flaky disciple who cannot keep his head above the water.

No it is much more that that. For it is God who holds out a hand to each of us.

This life is stormy and we all get into deep water.

And the miracle is not something about skipping over the water without wetting your sandals. The miracle is that God cares about each of us. And will look us in the eye. And will put out a hand, waiting, longing, hoping that we will grasp it.

“Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid”.

I do not believe that there is anyone who does not share the fears of Peter at some time or another. We all get out of our depth over something. Some of us lurch through muddy waters for years unable to find anything solid to grasp hold of.

The message of this little story is – if you want to know God, know that God is already reaching out towards you.

The message of this little story is – God cares about you as an individual whatever you get yourself into.

The message of this little story is – that it really may all be true.

It may be true that God can be known. It may be true that God cares. It may be true that God has a human face that we can know in Jesus Christ. It may be true that perplexing pieces of Scripture may be the simplest of messages. It may all be true.

It may all be true.

When you next hear something from the bible that you find hard to take or something that you don’t understand, ask yourself, is this true for me? For that is the test that Scripture has to pass if the Word of God is to come to us. And it is my belief that God speaks to us that way.
Eventually the boat was still. Peace broke out. The relief and wonder when a storm stops when you are in a boat is incredible. Awesome. I know it well.
In the peace, the disciples discover that they don’t just have a friend in the boat with them. They discover that God himself is known in the person of Jesus Christ.

When peace breaks out – God is there.

When the tempest ceases, as cease it must, even for you and for me – God is there.

When you find stillness at the end of a long day or a worrying night – God is there.

It is that tangible presence of God that the disciples knew in the boat and which they got to know better the longer they knew Jesus.

The more we reach out a hand to Christ, the more we will be embraced by God.
And we might be wet. We might be soggy. We might be pathetic. We might be covered in sticky mud.

But, that peace, that deep peace which transcends wind and wave will envelop us forever.


  1. All well and good, but I’d love to know whether you believe that Jesus did actually, physically walk on the water or not? Or to put it another way, is this Gospel passage wishful thinking or the record of an actual historical event.

  2. I don’t really think I can be clearer than in what I’ve already said, Peter.

    “You see, the question is not whether this was true for Jesus.”

    I don’t believe that the question raised by the passage is whether or not Jesus walked on the water physically. I can’t think what that would mean really.

    I know that what the passage teaches is true however. My own experience of God tells me that it is utterly true.

    I don’t think the passage is an attempt at wishful thinking and I don’t think it is an attempt to record an historical event. It is Gospel, after all. I do think it is an attempt to tell us something about knowing Jesus and it does so in a profoundly moving way.

  3. as you read the Gospel yesterday I started to understand it for the first time because I have experienced it now.You know when you read a book and understand it on one level and years later you read it again and you finally realise what it wasreally about because life and your life experiences inform you nowThe Bible is becoming a little like that for me now parts of it are suddenly crystal clear and yet others are waiting for me to unravel.
    I hope Peter you keep reading and listening to Kelvin’s sermons

  4. Wot – not footage from your right side?

  5. Stewart – I did not use the video from the other side because the audio to that camera was not good enough. The audio on the one I used was questionable enough, and I did not have the time to try to use the audio from one whilst cutting to the other and keeping mouth and noise in gear.

    This raises the question of whether it would be a good idea to use audio from the sound system straight into the camera. The problem with that is that I think it would not pick up congregational responses (ie the laughter track) which I think often add a certain something to the experience.

  6. I think my problem with your approach is this kelvin. It’s not that you’re incorrect that the personal application is crucial, the issue is on what basis that personal application can be made. If Jesus *didn’t* walk on the water, then I’m left wondering what makes this story different from one of Aesop’s fables?

    I’m perfectly happy to accept that some parts of Scripture might be more figurative than actuality. For example, Job reads very clearly to me as figurative fiction (and it’s probably the most ancient sections of all Scripture which is the key to such a reading). But once we get into a clear scientific context in which Scripture is written (which is very clearly the context of the Gospel writers), one is left asking, “if this is not actually true, what else is not actually true”. The approach that you’re taking of an entirely figurative intention of the authors leaves me asking you on what basis you believe that Christ was born of a virgin or physically raised from the dead?

  7. This sounds like a technical challenge with a combination of “atmospheric” microphones and choice angles for the visual side (or sides).

  8. Peter,

    You may be interested to know that we said the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist celebrated by +Gene.

  9. Kelvin says

    Peter, obviously you’ve misunderstood what I was saying on Sunday. I said that the gospel reading was true, I did not say that it was not.

    Ryan is absolutely to the point. Along with the rest of the congregation, I said the Nicene Creed on Sunday. I happen to believe it too.

  10. Robin says

    I have no problem in believing that Our Lord walked on water. Certainly He could have done so had He wished.

  11. Kennedy says

    It sounds like you need a small mixer to mix the feed from the sound system (much like the feed to the loop system) with an audience mile (a boundary mike on the wall would work well) which would be fed to both (or all) cameras.

    An alternative, (if your cameras can record in stereo) would be to split the sound system and atmos tracks on L&R to allow you to balance them when editing.

    Ah the joys of video – radio is so much simpler.


  12. stew stevenson says

    You say “the question isn’t whether this is true for Jesus? It is whether it is true for us?” But both questions are of critical interest and if the first is ‘no’ then – (for me) – to hell with it, christianity is a nice book group…

    Aesop’s fables are “true for me”, so is The Catcher in the Rye, so is The Shawshank Redemption, so is Holby City (sometimes) why don’t we put up a big screen and talk about them…

  13. Thanks for your comment Stew.

    No doubt Christ can be found in all the cultural expressions that you mention. However, for me, the Bible and particularly the gospels always seem like the obvious place to get to know Jesus.

  14. Kelvin,

    Sorry, from reading your sermon I’m still not clear whether you believe that Jesus *actually* walked on the water. Perhaps you could just give me a straight forward “yes” or “no”?

  15. Peter

    I don’t think the sermon could more clearly say that I’m unlikely to give a straight forward “yes” or “no” answer to the question.

    That’s the point.

  16. Writing as a lurking atheistic humanist, I suspect from Kelvin’s point of view we’ve had approximately 2000 years of dialogue with the contents of the Bible. Most of us (even us atheists in the West) are very familiar with it and with many of the interpretations, allusions, etc. It is much richer soil (mixing metaphors here) than most other works and so the sermons/talks using it often produce nicer fruit. The Bible is mythic not historical; I think for many liberal christians whether some (all?) of the miracles are factual isn’t relevant. It is the meaning drawn from the story (whether Pride and Prejudice or the gospel according to Matthew) that is relevant.

    Kelvin, interesting and well done blog you have here.

  17. peter o Jesus did walk on the water .The question is why.To demonstrate that He was the Messiah ?sure, possibly but mainly to let us know that when we need him he will be there ,that we can trust Him.However we need to get to know him and invite him into our lives and talk to Him daily so that He knows our voice.Sure our lives will not be perfect but God helps us to acceptance. God is of the spirit and we need to develop our spiritual side to get closer to him.Peter you obviously read the Bible and it’s good to have questions but why do you read it?

  18. Just as an aside, is interesting:
    a) other, some older, religious myths exist that involve inexplicable water phenomena including walking upon it;
    b) Some people take the passage literally (either for naiive as a contrivance) which leads them to seek ways to explain the phenomenon away;
    c) Some people take the passage non-literally in the first place and don’t have to.
    d) The “interpretive criticism” block of that page is lamentably short. The first suggestion in there expands to a view of the Gospels that they were formed, in no small part, by the authors digging through the OT for types in order that they could say “Jesus was like Moses only more-so”, etc. This is the difference between “history prophesied” versus “prophecy historicized”, taken in awareness of the culture of the times (Rabbinic teaching, awareness of Scriptures, the formation of a nascent Christian movement upset by the fall of Jerusalem and Roman persecution – read M J Borg, he’s big on this angle). There is, however, a huge problem area opened up by the quote from the commentary: if “Jesus is the Son of God” is trotted-out as some panacea, then you have to explain a god who used to intervene dramatically, violating his own laws of physics, and yet somehow doesn’t do so today.

    Erp: welcome. I, for once, appreciate your understanding that Christians come in “liberal” too 🙂

  19. Melissa says

    I remember back when I thought that Christianity could offer those straightforward type answers. The painful part was that the religion itself and also my own living of life was on constant trial. Looking back, it all seems so fragile.

    I am glad for these sermons where the ‘knowing’ is of a different kind.

  20. David |Dah • veed| says

    Oh, the blessings af a visit from Peter O. He can sense the opportunity to feast on carrion a world away.

    You should feel honored Kelvin, he visits the finest blogs.

  21. I know my comments are simplistic and sound naiive and they probably are.However I don’t believe Christianity offers simple straightforward answers-I have wrestled with my faith all my life I have questions and doubts too.If you don’t question and doubt you can’t reflect and grow

  22. sorry pressed submit button by mistake
    I don’t understand most of the Old Testament but at some point I came to the belief that I do believe in God I don’t have all the answers but somehow that doesn’t matter any more.I just know Him and He knows me andi know He is there for me

  23. Rosemary says

    The thing is, it is an utterly false false dichotomy to suggest that either Jesus walked on water, and was born of a virgin, and was raised from the dead, or none of them occurred. As Peter O himself suggests we all bring some discrimination to our reading of the Bible. The question is how we make our judgements.

  24. I think the issue for me is not so much that there are huge depths in the Biblical text, but on what basis one can say that what one discerns is from God. For myself I have no problem with most of Kelvin’s sermon, but I would want to argue that one can only plumb the depths of the event in question by accepting that the event did actually take place.

    Put it another way – the Resurrection is not simply a spiritual or theological concept which can be experienced in the individual believer’s life. The reality is that the reason it can be experienced is because Jesus did actually physically rise from the grave. It is the actual historical event which makes the spiritual experience real, or as Paul argues, if Christ did not rise from the grave then our faith is in vain. In the same way, unless Jesus *actually* walked on the water any application drawn from the passage is foolishness and grounded simply in experience and emotion rather than historical and spiritual reality.

    The physical events of the Gospels are presented as actualities, including the Virgin Birth. To deny them is to make the Bible no more eternally instructive than an Enid Blyton book.

  25. Robin says

    > The physical events of the Gospels are presented as actualities, including the Virgin Birth. To deny them is to make the Bible no more eternally instructive than an Enid Blyton book.

    That seems a very dismissive way of putting it. For myself, I do believe that the physical events of the Gospels actually took place. If I didn’t, however, this would not reduce the Gospels to the level of an Enid Blyton book. At very least, they would have the value of Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoyevsky’s novels, both of which contain eternal truths although they are not factual records, or – perhaps better – of Scriptural books such as Genesis or Job.

  26. Eamonn says

    I find Peter’s suggestion that the Gospels were written in ‘a clear scientific context’ rather intriguing: can you really cure blindness with spittle and mud?

    Aside from that, though, I’m quite prepared to believe that in problematic episodes such as the walking on water something may have happened. Whatever it was, it now lies beyond our capacity for verification. The important thing for us now is what the evangelist made of it for purposes of proclamation.

  27. It has been great to read all your thoughts and comments and am learning loads.I am not an intellectual,you may have noticed, and the Bible is going to cause discussion and debate long after I am gone but there comes a point for many people when they ask themselves do I believe? is this making a difference to me? is it true for me?For others it will always be an intellectual theology -no one can prove that all these events happened.It comes down to faith- no one can make another person believe We read we listen we think we may decide we may not-we may keep searching or just stop and turn our backs on it all.For me life is much better in believing than not

  28. Eamonn,

    The answer to your question is, “Yes, Jesus can cure blindness with spittle and mud”. When the event is recorded it is recorded as an historical reality – Jesus did spit, there was mud, the man was actually cured of blindness. You cannot simply have the application, that Jesus cures us of our blindness (physical or spiritual), without the actual events themselves being true. Surely John intends us to understand that the encounter he is describing actually took place. Indeed, in the Lukan accounts (and Luke seems more than others to rest his Gospel in specific details of actual events) Jesus says, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk…” If in fact the lame didn’t walk and the blind didn’t see, what is the purpose of such a passage if not to deceive about what Jesus actually did?

  29. Robin says

    Of course Our Lord could cure blindness with spittle and mud, or with whatever He chose; and in this case I have no doubt that He did.

    I still think, however, that there can be a middle ground between a passage’s being a factual narrative of an historical reality (which, I repeat, I believe this was) and being valueless or even deceitful.

  30. The most remarkable part of all this for me is the tone of expected surprise in Ryan and Kelvin’s comments above re: the nicene creed.

    Thanks for the confirmation but should we feel pleased to have bishops and provosts who actually mean it? Is it not in the job spec any more?

  31. Hi Benj – thanks for your comment. I don’t think you should have to feel pleased that clergy believe the Nicene Creed. And actually, I’d say that it is in the job spec.

    However, it is worth noting that when I came to St Mary’s, on most Sundays, the Nicene Creed was not used.

  32. The other thing that Kelvin has re-introduced for the Nicene Creed (and the Apostles Creed at Choral Evensong) is everyone facing east when saying the creed.

  33. >everyone facing east

    Yes. That’s because I travelled in Egypt just before being ordained.

    I’m in favour of westward facing celebration (ie the priest and people facing one another) but not in favour of abandoning the idea of facing East for the creed.

    East is where the Sun comes up every morning. It is the direction from which we expect Christ’s return.

    We turn. (ie make a metanoia) We turn physically.

  34. East for the creed, westward facing celebration – I believe Kelvin and I might actually agree on something!!!

  35. `If in fact the lame didn’t walk and the blind didn’t see, what is the purpose of such a passage if not to deceive about what Jesus actually did?’

    Bifurcation fallacy alert. An easy answer: it could be a plant on the author’s part to have Jesus appear to fulfill some OT description of the coming Messiah, maybe to the increased comfort of disciples after AD70. That leaves one thinking: maybe Jesus did perform some miracles, but *the literality of report of any one such is unimportant*. Certainly the alternative to literality is not deceit, unless you choose to see it as such!

  36. Tim,

    It’s still a lie then isn’t it? You’re left arguing that God allowed untruths to exist in Scripture, and I’m not sure that’s an orthodox view.

  37. Robin says

    Peter, do you believe that anything which is not a statement of fact is a lie? I’m not a creationist, but I certainly wouldn’t call the first chapter of Genesis a lie! At very least, I would say it was metaphorically and symbolically true even if it was not a factual narrative like the notes of a laboratory experiment.

  38. we come to it now what is truth.?can we just have mathematical truths or proofs or is there room for philosophical proofs.I’m sure you’re all more familiar than me than Descartes first proof on the nature of God.The Bible I believe does contain absolute truths and as Robin says on occasions is metaphorically and symbollically true.However we are humans trying to understand what is a Supernatural being and the Bible stories and events are presented in very human terms for us to try and understand the nature of God and how He wants to have a relationship with us.Sometimes I think because we are from God but fully yet “in tune” with Him we don’t quite know the lingo yet so misunderstand the message.I think Kelvin is right you need to ask” is it true for you”
    Sorry to interrupt your debate guys with my rambling thoughts p.s I know I’ve probably got the Descarte thing wrong – a cup of tea beckons I feel

  39. Rosemary says

    It depends what you think the nature of scriptural inspiration is, doesn’t it? A general inspiration – a desire set in the appropriate heart to record, or to teach, or whatever, or a dictation.

    It is as with people. I believe that the saints are those inspired by God – I look at great Christians and see the light of God shining in their lives … but when I see they are actually human I don’t say: ‘Oh, well, then – they were sometimes mistaken, or angry, and if God could allow THEM to be close to him, he is just supporting a lie!’

    This is a flawed world, and it is our faith that God works through it, and transforms it.

    There is only one Word of God, and his truth does not rest in getting facts right.

  40. I agree Rosemary,”his truth does not rest in getting facts right” and I have met people from whom the light of Christ shines out ,ordinary everyday unassuming people going about God’s work.I was trying to say that in trying to understand God’s nature Desc. said that it was in not in God’s nature to be a deceiver.I believe in the Christian God I have faith in God I cannot prove He exists but I innately believes He does therefore for me he does

  41. Peter O – sorry I’m commenting on something you said a while ago. Just caught this thread and want to ask you a question…
    You said:
    >It is the actual historical event which makes the spiritual
    >experience real

    Which historical events are you referring to? The four gospels of the NT each have slightly different records of events. The Gospel of John differs considerably from the other three gospels in its historical record even to the point of the cruxifiction taking place on a different day than that of the other gospels. Therefore can you tell me, did the cruxifiction happen on a Thursday or a Friday? or, to be less flippant, did it happen before or after Passover? it’s just that I’d like to know.

  42. Zebadee says


    You are beginning to sound and write like Peter Marshall. There can be no greater accolade that one could give. I might just add that you are now up to the Nigel Robb standard of preaching.

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