The typical miracle in Mark is to do with healing, often combined with casting out unclean spirits, making the blind see, the deaf hear, and so on. Very good things to do. Nowadays we understand far more about illness and medicine---so these miracles aren’t quite as supernatural for our consciousness. In the gospel, faith (your own or someone else’s) is a condition to be healed, or there is some other theological overlay. Nevertheless it’s all in line with a universal human want and something we’ve got quite good at ourselves.
And then the calming of the storm when Jesus was asleep in the bottom of the boat saving the disciples from a very frightening situation. It would be a career-ending moment for any politician to criticise the RNLI as anything but good. And even the cursing of the fig tree---a clear sign of God’s judgement on wrong. We assume we will be on the right side. Even here we are in the realm of right and wrong.
And then today’s miracle. It’s a calm night, and Jesus insisted on the disciples getting into the boat and setting sail leaving him behind. And then the wind gets up—he actually sent them out on their own into the adverse wind. Then they saw him walking towards them on the sea.
There have been a number of naturalistic explanations of this miracle. One was that Jesus was walking on the shore “by the sea” not “on the sea”. One was that he was walking on a sandbar or in very shallow water. One was that it was a sort of mirage. One was even that there was some strange ice formation that he was walking on. These explanations make even less sense to me than the 1960s explanation of the feeding of the five thousand.
Why are these explanations so odd? It’s precisely because this miracle has no ethical dimension. While the disciples had a wind against them, they weren’t in any particular danger, or if they were it’s because Jesus sent them into it. People pay good money to go to gyms and strain against oars. So no particular “miracle” was needed here. The only credible naturalistic explanation was that they imagined the whole thing. And until Jesus got into the boat, apparently changing his mind about “passing by”, that was exactly what they thought…they thought it was a ghost.
In our reading from Revelation, “the sea was no more”----the ultimate fulfilment of the point in creation where there was nothing but sea and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. In Exodus we read about how the glory of God “passed by” Moses while he was hidden from seeing God’s face. In the book of Job “God alone trampled the waves of the sea”. These are the resonances of the miracle---Jesus moving on the face of the water. Jesus passing by just as did the Glory of God, Jesus trampling the waves of the sea. It’s only God who moves on the face of the waters. It’s God who “passes by”. It’s God who tramples the waves of the sea. This miracle is purely theological----it tells us, as the centurion said at the Crucifixion, “Truly this man was God’s son”.
Indeed Jesus actually manufactured the situation by sending them out into what would become a storm. That also recalls one of God’s odder moments, sending Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, when only God would have known the positive outcome. Both of these make me feel very uncomfortable about the nature of God---leading us into trouble only to get us out. No wonder some modern translations of the Lord’s Prayer refer to “saving us from the time of trial” rather than leading us into temptation.
What do we think about a miracle which is only about religion and not about ethics? The Church doesn’t have a monopoly on moral doctrine. Often a good way to decide what is right is to see what the church suggests and do the opposite---that’s certainly what George Carey did in the three-parent baby debate. Of course Christianity should lead and even oblige us to behave well, how should we do that? Should the institutional Church be engaged in doing good, through social-service projects, political activism, and by providing material support for people who are badly off?
The philosopher Harriet Baber suggests that Christians who aim to promote human well-being can achieve this more effectively by supporting secular organisations that work for social justice, and by democratic political action to encourage the state to do so. She says we should rejoice that secular institutions have taken over those secular jobs, so that the Church can focus on religion.
She goes on: There is plenty for the Church to do: preaching the Word and administering the sacraments; maintaining church buildings as sacred spaces; providing spiritual counsel; conducting religious services; teaching the faith; evangelising the world; and opening the Kingdom of heaven to all believers. She goes on to say:
If we baulk at this proposal, it is perhaps because we have absorbed the secularist assumption that religion is worthless unless it serves secular purposes: articulating ethical principles and promoting good behaviour, helping the needy, and promoting social justice. Have we?