This was supposed to be easy. We’d just come off of one of the most full and difficult times a man can experience. First, we traveled through Galilee, telling people about Yehoshua and the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Simon and I were sent off together and we came back fairly flying at the feats we performed. Preaching the word! Casting out demons! Healing people! And all at our hand!
We were reporting to Yehoshua when the news came: Yohanan the Baptizer had been slaughtered by Herodes Antipas. Simon went into a tizzy over that, as he does when things happen that touch our Jewish identity. Thankfully, there were only the twelve of us around when he went off; they don’t call him the Zealot for nothing. I stayed quiet, like often. I’m certainly not one of the most vocal of the disciples.
I watched Yehoshua as Yohanan Thunderson sat down next to him and put his arm around him. Yohanan is quite the contradiction in terms, explosive and vindictive one moment, gentle and caring the next – though his explosions usually come when he sees someone he cares about getting slighted. Anyway, Yehoshua is pretty even-keeled, but I could see he was really saddened by this; Yakov Thunderson once told me that Yohanan the Baptizer was his and Yehoshua’s cousin. He ought to be sad.
“Come away by yourselves to a quiet spot and rest for a while,”* he said to us and so we got into Simon the Rock’s boat and struck off for the wilderness outside Bethsaida, since no one generally went there. However, someone must have seen us go, because before we beached the boat the people started showing up. They came up from Bethsaida and over from Gamala where some of Simon’s old friends are. Yehoshua, being Yehoshua, wouldn’t be deterred from teaching the crowd and healing those who needed it. Personally, I was not too keen on it.
“Stop moping and remember how we got to do this stuff, too, Thaddaeus,” Philippos told me in Greek, “Yehoshua is bringing the kingdom of God.” Philippos prefers to speak Greek, even though he is perfectly fluent in Hebrew like the rest of us. Yahuda of Kerioth looked around at the crowd, noting the openly armed Gamalans.
“He very well might be crowned today,” he muttered in Aramaic, so only the three of us could hear it. Most of the people in the Galilee area speak pretty good Greek, but Aramaic is less well-known. Mine is decent enough to understand simple sentences like Yahuda was using, but get him, Nathanael Talmaison, Yahuda Alphaiosson, Matityahu Levi, Thomas and Yehoshua off on a debate on the law, I get lost after about the fifth or sixth sentence. Aramaic is, after all, the language of the scholars. Greek and good old Hebrew are enough for a farmer like me. Thankfully, my friend Simon is there to interpret for me when I get too lost.
The long story short, Yehoshua taught the people and then he fed them, close to 15,000 of them! And he only used five loaves of barley bread and two fish that a little boy had brought up from Bethsaida! I couldn’t believe my eyes or hands as I picked up the leavings. It was amazing! Yahuda of Kerioth was working beside me when we heard rumblings from one of the Gamalans.
“If he can provide this meal from just a bit of food, imagine what he could do with the few swords and spears we have with us!”
“And here they go,” Yahuda whispered in Aramaic, “just as I told you.” There was something in his voice that suggested to me that he wholeheartedly approved of the Gamalans’ plan. Then I heard Yehoshua calling. He usually speaks quite quietly, but when he raises that baritone voice of his, the whole world stops to listen. We took our full baskets back to where Yehoshua was standing by the lake. It was getting dusky and there was a slight wind rising. I could see Simon the Rock looking over towards Capernaum and wondered what was going through his mind; no one knows the Sea like Simon, except maybe Yakov Thunderson.
“You need to get in the boat and leave now,” Yehoshua said in that calm, commanding tone which no one would even imagine disobeying.
“Yes, teacher,” we said with varying volume. Matityahu, being one of the older ones in the group, climbed into the boat ahead of the rest of us, along with Andreas.
“What about you, teacher?” I heard Yohannan Thunderson ask.
“I’ll be along presently,” Yehoshua replied, while we pushed the boat into the shallows. There was some scrambling as we all got aboard and most of us got wet. Nathanael Talmaison griped some about getting himself wet again and cowered in his usual spot, the back by the rudder. He neither likes to be cold, nor can he see very well, so he keeps his head down. Andreas is the best navigator, so he took the rudder and Simon the Rock, and the Thundersons raised the sail. A few hearty strokes on the oars and the sails caught a slight east wind and we stood out to sea.
“No problem at all,” Yakov Thunderson rumbled in his inimitable bass.
“You say that every time, Yakov,” Andrew called from the rudder, “and then we get a heavy wind.” He spat over the side of the boat, glancing back at the shore where Yehoshua had turned towards the crowd. We heard his powerful voice carry across the water, dismissing the people.
“Those Gamalans aren’t going to like that,” my friend Simon muttered to me.
“I don’t think Yahuda of Kerioth likes it either,” I mumbled back, noting the black look lowering on his brow. Honestly, I wasn’t too keen on Yehoshua’s not following up on the possibility of being declared king right then and there. After all, he was the rightful king of the Jews. Yohannan and Yakov Thundersons’ mother was sister to Yehoshua’s mother and had told Yohannan and Yakov that Yehoshua’s father was directly descended from David and Solomon. Thus, Yehoshua would be the rightful heir to the throne, as the firstborn of Yakov of Nazareth. Today would have been a good day for it: five thousand men, not counting women and children, ready to acclaim him. Perhaps half of those men were armed and ready for a fight. Then the things I’d seen Yehoshua do – cast out demons, calm a storm, heal lepers, even raise a man from the dead – would have made him invincible in his own right. Why did he not just accept the acclaim, march on Jerusalem and claim sovereignty? I couldn’t understand it.
“He did it again,” Simon the Rock’s good-natured bawl cut into my reverie.
“He did what?” I asked.
“Yakov,” Simon replied, gesturing towards the last glimmers of sunset. “The wind has turned.” This was not unusual for the Sea of Tiberias. Sitting in a bowl surrounded by hills, the wind could change at a moment’s notice, transforming the glass-calm waters into a churning cauldron.
“Let’s hope it’s not too much of a storm,” Matityahu moaned. He has a weak stomach and can barely handle a calm Sea, much less a moderate blow. I count myself fortunate to have a much firmer constitution when it comes to riding in a boat.
“Don’t worry about it, brother,” his twin, Thomas, said. “With our fishermen at the oars, we’ll be across before you know it.”
“Leaves us to do all the work, as usual,” Simon the Rock roared good-naturedly and went to help Yohanan gather the sail. Three of the four fishermen and Philippos grabbed the oars, shoved them into the locks and put their backs into it. On a calm sea, four men can put the boat across the lake in about an hour, but the wind which started lightly quickly turned heavy. It was contrary to us, but we didn’t dare disobey Yehoshua’s command to go across the lake, so we all took turns rowing – except Matityahu, who was hanging over the railing, spewing Yehoshua’s miraculous meal into the waves.
What seemed an eternity later, I came off my second turn at the oars and collapsed against the bulkhead, breathing hard. My whole body ached from the exertion and even my ironclad stomach was starting to feel queasy. I looked up at the clear skies, the stars winking brightly above us, feeling the harsh gale slice across my face, flicking spume into the boat and bouncing us up and down. After a few moments I had caught my breath enough to sit up and look over to the railing where Matityahu was still hanging. I glanced to the back and saw my friend Simon at the rudder. The four fishermen were at the oars, singing one of their sea songs to keep in time. I looked out at the water when the shriek came.
“A ghost!” To this day, I do not know who yelled; perhaps it was even me, for there on the water was a pale figure gliding along, maybe ten strides from the boat. It was the right size for a man; the usual beige robes we all wore stood out against the black waters. It moved along with uncanny grace in the ground-eating stride of a seasoned traveler.
“Do you see that?” Yahuda of Kerioth screeched. The fishermen dropped their oars with a cry and we stared at the apparition. I had been hot from the rowing, but now I grew very cold and my hands started shaking. I quickly clasped them and clenched my teeth, so I wouldn’t let the others see how unmanned I had become.
“Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid.”* That voice! It was his voice. I would recognize it anywhere! In that instant warmth spread from my very core and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. If Yehoshua was there, on the water, then we were safe. He’d calmed the storm before, he could do it again. He was moving much more slowly now, just at the same pace of the idling boat. I opened my mouth to call to him to come to the boat when someone else spoke.
“Lord, if it is really you, tell me to join you on the water.”* That throaty rumble could only have been Simon the Rock. He seriously deserved that name, “the Rock”. How dense could he be? There was only one person who could have that voice. Why did he need to test the Lord?
“Come!”* Yehoshua said, and before anyone could lay a hand on him, Simon the Rock swung himself over the railing and strode towards Yehoshua. Three steps, four steps. Then I saw him turn his head; and he dropped … like a rock.
“Lord, save me!”* he shrieked. I’d never known that husky roar to ever go that high. As I looked, Yehoshua leaped forward, covering the five strides in a single bound. Before Simon’s chin hit the water, those huge, rough builder’s hands closed around his outstretched hand and Yehoshua pulled him up to stand beside him. Even over the wind and the roar of the waves, I could hear the gentle remonstration Yehoshua gave his dripping disciple.
“You have so little faith. What made you doubt?”* Yehoshua kept his arm around Simon as they took the few steps to the boat. Yehoshua heaved Simon up first and he was gathered in by Andreas and the Thundersons, while I reached out my hand to my teacher. Thomas was there, too, and we pulled him up. No sooner did his feet touch the boards than the wind ceased. It was as if someone had closed a door: it just stopped and the waves began to die down. He’d done it again. He’d calmed the storm a second time; this time without even a word. I fell to my knees and touched my forehead to the rough planks.
“You truly are the Son of God!”* Did the words come from my heart or my lips? I don’t know, but when I looked up, all I could see was him, his hair and beard slightly damp as if he’d been in a light drizzle, a soft smile on his face, a light in his eyes that I could not quite fathom. Someone touched me on the shoulder.
“Yahuda, look!” It was my friend Simon, using my Hebrew name. The calmed waves and the gray of dawn behind us showed it to us: We were no more than a dozen paces from the shore!
“That’s Gennesaret,” Andreas exclaimed. “But how…?” We all looked back at Yehoshua, who was still standing where he’d climbed into the boat. He shrugged.
“We’re here. Shall we go ashore?”
I looked back at Simon the Rock, dripping wet, shivering in the early morning cool. I thought of the warmth that enveloped my heart when I’d heard Yehoshua’s voice. What was it that Simon had experienced? What had I experienced? Were they comparable? Was Simon’s experience superior to mine; or was it perhaps inferior?
“You have so little faith,” Yehoshua had told him. Was that a critique of his sinking or of his needing to get out of the boat to prove that it was Yehoshua walking on the water?
Quotes marked with * are taken from Johnston M. Cheney and Stanley Ellisen, Th.D., The Greatest Story (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1994), pp. 104-108.
I wrote this piece while I was preparing a sermon on Peter walking on the water as my way of processing the thoughts that came as I worked through the various passages telling this event. This specific retelling assumes the location of the feeding of the 5,000 to be Bethsaida Julius on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In this retelling I used the same historical, linguistic, and cultural background assumptions that underly my book The Builder with one key caveat: I made it a point to translate the surnames like Bar-talmai (Bartholomew) or Boanerges (Sons of Thunder) into an anglicized form to help the reader understand how the people in Jesus’ day and age would have perceived such surnames. Overall, though, for me the most important questions are the ones that Yahuda Thaddeus asks himself at the end of the piece, for which I have no clear answer. As you, dear reader, ponder this, may the Holy Spirit illuminate you to come to your own conclusion regarding them.
Cheney, Johnston M. and Stanley Ellisen. The Greatest Story. Sisters: Multnomah Press, 1994.
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