On your ordination day last year I asked you about your hopes and aspirations and expectations as you approached this great moment in your lives. “You wouldn’t be human if somewhere within, you didn’t tremble at this threshold” I said, recalling my own ordination more than forty years ago. Now that I look back, it felt a bit like the disciples going down to the sea, getting into a boat and setting off on their voyage. Even if the lake wasn’t rough to begin with, it was now, John points out, “dark”. Ahead of them an adventure beckoned. But there was so much that was unknown to them, so much that they couldn’t know. There is risk involved in launching out on to the deep at night, as they will tell you when you visit Galilee and learn about the storms and squalls that suddenly sweep down from Mount Hermon and churn up the water treacherously.
But I think the key question concerns what is going on inside us. Van Gogh said that the human heart is “very much like the sea; it has its storms, it has its tides, and in its depths it has its pearls too”. This is a metaphor they may not recognise in poor landlocked dioceses. But we here in Newcastle know the North Sea and its fickleness, the calm still days where barely a ripple laps the pristine white beaches of Northumberland, and the storms out of the north east that crash against the basalt rocks and lighthouses and breakwaters so violently that you wonder they are still standing. We know our own selves too. On the night before Thomas Merton was ordained priest in 1949, he confided to his journal The Sign of Jonas. “My life is a great mess and tangle of half-conscious subterfuges to evade grace and duty. I have done all things badly. I have thrown away great opportunities. My infidelity to Christ, instead of making me sick with despair, drives me to throw myself all the more blindly into the arms of His mercy.” He knew about treading water at seventy thousand fathoms.
Which is, not literally but metaphorically what the disciples experienced on Gennesaret that night. “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” They had rowed three or four miles, says John, which can only mean that they were in the middle of the lake, out of sight of the shoreline. At the height of the tempest, they see Jesus coming to them, drawing near to the boat. “And they were terrified” says the text. You’d have thought they would already be frightened for their lives because of the storm. Yet it’s the apparition of Jesus that terrifies: that’s clear from the words Jesus speaks. “It is I; do not be afraid”.