Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land. Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by. And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.
When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there. And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was. Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well.
- Mark 6:47-56
In yesterday's reading, we read that, after completing their first mission, the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. And He said to them, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while." For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, "This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat." But He answered and said to them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to Him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?" But He said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they found out they said, "Five, and two fish." Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. So they all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men. Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away. And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray. (See Bread in the wilderness.)
Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land. Jesus has sent His disciples back across the Sea of Galilee, toward familiar home territory of Bethsaida. Jesus has remained behind for solitude in order to pray.
Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. It doesn't matter where He is; His concern is for them, and they are struggling. He sees what they're engaged in. At this point in His ministry, we remember they've just completed their first mission (apostle means "sent out" on a mission), and in yesterday's reading they began with a few loaves and fishes and distributed what Jesus blessed to feed a multitude in the wilderness. He's sent them back across the sea on their own. His disciples are fledglings and learning what ministry is to entail when He is gone from them in the flesh.
Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by. The fourth watch of the night is about 3:00 A.M.
And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." My study bible says, "It is I, literally, 'I am' (Greek ego eimi), especially used in the Gospel of John, is Jesus' own testimony to His deity. It reflects God's name as revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). Only God is self-existent, uncreated, the only being whose existence depends on no other but Himself; therefore He alone can truly say, 'I am.'"
Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened. A note in my study bible tells us: "The knowledge of Christ is a matter of the heart. When our hearts are illumined by God, they become the seat of divine presence, grace and knowledge." It also notes that in all the ascetic writings of the Eastern Church, the heart is known as the "seat of knowledge."
When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there. And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was. Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well. They set sail for Bethsaida, but wind up a little further West, at Gennesaret, after crossing the Sea of Galilee, "straining at rowing" against the wind. The plain of Gennesaret was known as a very fertile place at the time of Christ. The Sea of Galilee is also called the Lake of Gennesaret, which gives us some idea of its importance also to fishing. In contrast to the wilderness where Jesus has just fed 5,000 men (and more women and children), this is a bustling place which is teeming with agriculture and fishing industry. The harvest of this ministry here is great; faith indicated by these healings is in abundance, so that everywhere Jesus goes, people beg even to touch the hem of His garment, and are made well.
I think it's important that we contrast the struggles of the disciples rowing across the Sea with our own journeys of faith, because everything in the Gospels, and perhaps we could say everything in Scripture, teaches us about ourselves and about the spiritual life of faith. It's important that we note that the apostles have just returned from their first mission, which was quite successful, and we get a picture of the ups and downs of ministry. They find themselves in a wilderness area, drawn away by Jesus in order to rest and tell of what has happened. But they're so busy, we read in yesterday's reading, that they don't even have time to eat. And the crowds follow Jesus even to the wilderness. But it's a time of great opportunity: all four Gospels tell us of this feeding miracle, of bread in the wilderness. But immediately afterward, after this great teaching opportunity of the feeding and multiplying of what is on hand, the disciples are sent again off on their own, and have a terrible time of it, even these experienced fishermen native to the Lake rowing hard against the wind. In the midst of it is Jesus, who even at 3:00 in the morning, knows what is happening to them. His words, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid," are words that teach us about faith. We will always face difficulties, even in the midst of the most successful endeavors. We will face our fears, we will need courage (in the Greek, that which is translated "be of good cheer" also has the meaning of "take courage"). But He is there with them, and He is there with us. Alone and struggling across stormy seas, even those which we may have experienced many times, we still need His comfort. It's faith that fed the multitude in the wilderness, faith they need across the seas at 3:00 A.M., and faith that gives the bountiful harvest in the fertile place of Gennesaret. Mark's gospel tells us that the disciples had failed to recognize and understand this dimension of the feeding in the wilderness, and so they are given yet another experience in the power of faith. Everything becomes occasion for teaching and learning, growing in their capacity to minister. So we should also look at all events in our own lives. Can we put our faith in Him through our adversities? Do we remember He's there? We may not know the outcome of every mission, but the Gospels teach us one thing through all events: with Him, we are always on a road, we are always in a place of learning and growing and teaching. Our real learning curve is in deepening our faith and opening our hearts, through all things. Included in today's lectionary reading is this verse from Psalm 119: "I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad." The outcomes may seem perfect or not, but our real success is in the limitless learning of this journey.