I am indebted to the work of Origen of Alexandria, John Dominic Crossan and Peter Rollins for providing a deeper understanding of the stories of Jesus’ Feeding of the Multitude and Walking on the Water. You can listen to the sermon here
There’s a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition that I love, and I know that I’ve told before. But like all really good stories it is well worth repeating. So, there are these three monks, who decided to practice meditation together. They went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he tow walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks he too returned striding upon the water. The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not! I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?”
When I peer back through the mists of time to the miracle stories that have been handed down to us, I feel like that third monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. So many interpretations of the miracle stories continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we nor Jesus are or were super-natural beings. Such interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, many more monks than simply three to guide us. But let me draw your attention to three of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us were the stones are so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come.
One of those many monks is the ancient theologian known simply as Origen of Alexandria who lived from about 185 to 254 and who left behind a body of work which provided the Church with a way of approaching the texts of Scripture which nourished the lives of believers for generations. Indeed, Origen’s approach to scripture only fell out of fashion among protestants in the last 200 years or so. To put a long story short, Origen believed and taught, as have generations of theologians since Origen that the stories in Scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning, or surface meaning which is designed by the writers to reach those who are uninitiated or uneducated about the ways in which the sacred texts function. Beyond the literal meaning lay a deeper meaning, indeed Origen taught that beyond the simple literal meaning of the biblical the seeker of wisdom would find layers of deeper meaning. For centuries the Church followed Origen’s views of scripture teaching the simple literal meaning to the masses while reserving the deeper layers of meaning for the initiated often referring to these deeper layers of meaning as the mysteries. While the masses were busy getting on with life, the religious professionals dug deeper and deeper into the mysteries eventually creating a church hierarchy that firmly divided the uninitiated from the enlightened. Obviously, I’m giving you the abbreviated version of this long and complicated story that goes much deeper; I am if you will simply pointing you toward a stone that lies below the surface of the water upon which we seek to walk. Hidden beneath is a method of exploring scripture that relies on symbols, myth, illusion and most important of all allegory. Origen and generations of theologians who came after him understood that the stories of scripture had many, many layers and relied on symbolic and allegoric methods to touch our imagination and inspire in us a way of being in the world.
Sadly, perhaps in the beginning for expediency’s sake, but eventually in order to preserve it’s own power over the masses the Church began to rely more and more on the simple literal meaning of the text. Indeed, the church reserved the mysteries to such an extent that it can be said that the hierarchy by and large hid the deeper layers of the text so well that even some members of the hierarchy forgot about the symbolic and allegorical methods of interpreting the scriptures. The hidden mysteries might well have remained hidden if it had not been for the fact that so many other mysteries have been uncovered by humanity with regard to the natural world. Human knowledge has expanded by leaps and bounds, and you and I live in a world where information is at our fingertips; most of us carry devices in our pockets which can unlock more mysteries that we can keep track of in the recesses of our memories. The reality is that these little devices can now unlock the deeper mysteries that the church once kept hidden from the uninitiated. The insights gleamed from historians, theologians, and clergy that once remained tucked away in the halls of academic institutions or in seminary libraries, are now available to one and all. Every line of scripture every jot and tittle have been carefully examined and re-examined and we now have so many interpretations that no-one of us can claim to be an expert in the field.
We are all once again simply seekers of meaning. But there are a few of us who have dedicated their lives to the study of the deeper meanings and we here at Holy Cross have had the privilege of one who has come to be know the as one of the leading New Testament Scholars in the world. And it is Dom Crossan who I’d like to point to as our second monk on the bank who has the power to point us toward a stone beneath the surface that might just enable us to find our way upon the sea so that we too might walk on water toward this character Jesus. Dom is a wise revealer of mysteries, who insists that we must bring all our faculties of reason to bear upon our interpretations of scripture, while he warns against the dangers of relying upon literal interpretations. Dom insists that, when it comes to reading scripture the important thing to remember is that it: “is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
So, when it comes to this story about Jesus walking upon the water and of Peter’s lack of faith impeding his ability to follow Jesus, we do not have to check our brains at the door and believe that Jesus literally fed 5000 people or walked upon the water in order to follow Jesus. Indeed, in order to follow Jesus, we must look beyond the literal toward the symbolic and the allegorical if we are to begin to grasp the mysteries that the author of the Gospel according to John was trying to reveal. We must begin with reason, and reason tells us that humans cannot defy the laws of physics, to feed a multitude or walk upon water. These stories may appear on the surface to be about a miracle but hidden beneath the surface are stones that can enable us to follow Jesus. The author of these particular stories was writing some 70 years after Jesus walked the earth. The author whose name we don’t know, but whom tradition calls John was writing to a fledging community which was struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus; a fledging community that lived in the midst of chaos. The Romans had not only just destroyed their world and in addition to living under a brutal military occupation, this fledging little community was singled out by their oppressors for special persecution because many of them were Jewish and they aspired to follow the teachings of a Jew who had been executed by the Romans as an enemy of Rome. Chaos was all around them, their leaders where being pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions. Peter and Paul had long since been executed by the State. As followers of an illegal organization the people of the Way often lived in poverty, food was scarce. In the ancient world chaos was represented by the sea. Storms on the sea represented a particularly fatal kind of chaos which threatened to destroy the fledgling little community of followers of the Way.
The author of the Gospel according to John works with the symbols his readers would have had no difficulty recognizing. The author of the Gospel wrote to encourage his battered and abused little community so that they might have the courage to continue to follow the Way, which Jesus taught, lived and died for. The listeners of these particular allegories would have understood the desire to hoard what little they had, rather than share their resources so that all could be fed. They would have understood the gospel-storyteller’s allegory’s insistence that even in the midst of chaos, no storm could defeat them if only they kept their eyes firmly on Jesus. Have faith continue in the Way and the little that you have will be enough for everyone and the storm will cease and even you of meager means will not sink, for just as God provided food for your ancestors when they were wandering in the wilderness, God has already provided food for you.
So, with those stones revealed, mindful of the symbolic meaning of these stories, what depth of understanding can we come to on our own particular journey across our stormy seas? What difference does it make how we interpret these little stories? Well as long as we continue to argue over whether or not it is possible for five loaves and two fish to feed 5000 families or for a man to walk upon the surface of the water, Jesus remains but a mythical character. Either Jesus remains a mythical character and we must suspend our understanding of reality. As a mythical character, we can admire Jesus, but can we actually emulate Jesus? Can we embody Jesus? I mean we are after all only human. So, if Jesus remains some sort of super-human, how are we supposed to embody Jesus? How do we live into the teachings of a super-hero?
It is impossible to live as Jesus lived as long as our image of Jesus is one that insists that Jesus had super-powers. If we are to take Jesus teachings seriously, we must look beyond the literal to the deeper symbolic meanings. How can we embody the peace to which Jesus points if we don’t even believe that Jesus was fully human? How is it possible for we mere mortals to aspire to be all that we are created to be, if we actually believe that it takes abilities beyond the natural order to save us from ourselves? So many people are hungry, hungry for food and hungry for justice and hungry for peace. The storms that are raging, war, poverty, disease can only be quelled by a concerted effort from those who earnestly seek justice and peace in this world. If we are to do that as followers of the Way, we are going to need to know where the stones are so that we can point them out to others. But more importantly so that we can lay them along side the stones that followers of other ways have found. If humanity has any hope of evolving into a species that can sustain life on this planet we need to look deeper into the sea and begin to reflect what we see hidden beneath the surface of our seas. Let the chaos reveal what is there.
Creation is sufficient to all our needs, we have the resources and the means to walk upon the waters of this life in the midst of any storm that comes our way. It is time for us to learn from our elders, it is time for us to look into the riches of all our traditions and to learn from our mistakes, as well as our triumphs. It is time for us to have the courage to trust the wisdom that has been handed down to us and to reject the nonsense. It is time for us to dig deeper into the meaning of everything. It is time for us to stop looking to the heavens for salvation.
Which brings me to our third monk: our friend Peter Rollins is a master storyteller and in his little book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, Pete has retold the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in a way that challenges the way in which we are currently living out this story.
‘Jesus and the Five Thousand [A first world translation]: Jesus withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place, but the crowds continued to follow Him. Evening was now approaching and the people, many of whom had traveled a great distance, were growing hungry.Seeing this, Jesus sent His disciples out to gather food, but all they could find were five loaves of bread and two fishes. Then Jesus asked that they go out again and gather the provisions that the crowds had brought to sustain them in their travels. Once this was accomplished, a vast mountain of fish and bread stood before Jesus. Upon seeing this He directed the people to sit down on the grass. Standing before the food and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks to God and broke the bread. Then He passed the food among the twelve disciples. Jesus and His friends ate like kings and queens in full view of the starving people. But what was truly amazing, what was miraculous about this meal, was that when they had finished the massive banquet there were not even enough crumbs left to fill a starving person’s hand.’
The image of Jesus portrayed in Pete’s telling of the allegory bares a close resemblance to the image of Christ that we, the wealthiest Christians who have ever walked the face of the earth, continue to project to those who are in need.The chaos of the storms we have created, far from being stilled by us are all to often stirred and churned by our steadfast refusal to share out of our abundance.About 30 years before the gospel of according to John was written, the author of the letter to the Ephesians prayed for the followers of the Way: “May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
The presence of Christ in the world is said to be directly encountered in the presence of those who gather in Christ’s name. Rollins insists, and I believe that he is absolutely correct here, that “in very concrete terms, people learn of Christ through those who claim to live out the way of Christ.”
When we insist upon ignoring the deeper levels of meaning to be found in the scriptures; when we steadfastly refuse to step out upon the stones of wisdom which have been provided to us, we embody a callous image of Christ who is incapable of ushering in God’s reign of Justice and peace. The world cannot afford our childlike shallow interpretations of scripture, we must be prepared to go deeper. It is time for us to stop worshipping the idol we have created of Jesus the super hero who uses supernatural magic tricks to fight injustice. We need to set aside our childish idol in order to embrace the Human One, the Christ who lived as one of us, so that we might live as Christs to one another. In order for us to embody the love that surpasses all understanding we too will need to reach into our abundance to share with those in need; we too will need to step out and step up as it were, using the stepping stones that have been provided by the wisdom of our elders, so that we too can walk upon the waters, even in the midst of chaos.
We have been; indeed, we are richly blessed. There is more than enough to feed the world’s multitudes. No storm, no chaos is beyond our abilities to navigate. For we are indeed, the heirs to the LOVE that surpasses all understanding. So, together let us echo the prayer for the Ephesians: To God—whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine—to God be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.