Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. When we were kids, my sisters and I liked to read ghost stories out of an old children’s book called The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. When the mood for the macabre would strike us, we’d grab a flashlight and a few blankets, then head to the basement, where we’d turn off the lights and tape a glow-in-the-dark skeleton to the wall. Then, by the light of the flashlight casting dark shadows on our faces, we’d take turns reading ghost stories that were sometimes funny and often scary. These ghastly tales would elicit screams and shrieks from us that boiled over into laughter. Our favorite game afterward was to see who was brave enough to leave our little huddle and run to the basement steps to turn the lights back on. But the very thought of being alone in the dark after stirring up our imaginations was enough to scare you half to death.
As I grew older, I became dismissive of ghost stories. After my theological studies, I firmly believe that, upon death, our spirits immediately depart to heaven or hell. They do not linger here on earth to visit their loved ones, seek revenge, or haunt their favorite whereabouts to.
And yet, as we discover in today’s Gospel lesson, belief in ghosts was common among the Jews. Jesus’ disciples obviously believed in ghosts (Mark 6:49; Luke 24:36-39). In fact, when they first saw him walking on the water, they were terrified—not of the storm—but of Jesus, whom they did not recognize at first. “They thought it was a ghost” (Mark 6:49). Jewish rabbis believed that ghosts were especially common at sea, and with at least four superstitious fishermen amongst the crew, they probably thought they were done for. Perhaps there was something, after all, to Hamlet’s assertion, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
For some strange reason, Jesus had meant to pass by the disciples, but when he saw the disciples cowering beneath the gunwales, he said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). He got into the boat, and the wind ceased, and the dumbfounded disciples were left to wonder, “What does this mean?” Mark writes, “For they did not understand about the loaves,” that is, the feeding of the five thousand, “but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). They couldn’t believe their eyes. When it comes to ghosts, people say that “seeing is believing.” But when it comes to recognizing the divinity of Christ, it requires faith (not sight) to believe and receive Jesus. Jesus walked on water. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
The disciples did not understand, and neither do we. What are we to make of this strange miracle? What is its purpose? Unfortunately, we are not well-versed enough in the Old Testament to grasp immediately the wonderful motifs that should be ringing in our ears. First there is the fact of Jesus walking on water—something no mere mortal can do (unless, of course, you’re walking on a frozen lake in January!). For the ancients, the sea was the realm of Chaos and Death—one great, big, watery graveyard, which is why in John’s vision of the new creation, “the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). The coming of Christ puts an end to destruction and chaos and brings a new order to the creation. God alone can hush the seas and walk on the waves (Job 9:8; Ps. 107:29). And Jesus does them both! What does that tell us about Jesus? He is more than a good rabbi, a spiritual master, another prophet, or a gifted guru. Jesus is the real deal: God himself!
And as if to drive home this point, Mark tells us that Jesus “meant to pass by them” (Mark 6.48). No explanation is given, but this language evokes the Old Testament theophanies, in which Yahweh appears to his prophets in a mysterious, physical form. For example, in Exodus 33, Moses begs God to show him his glory. But Yahweh reiterates that no one can see his face and live, so instead he will cause his “goodness” (his mercy) to “pass before” Moses. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is told to go out from his cave and wait for the Lord as Yahweh “passed by” in a whirlwind and an earthquake. These theophanies hint at the presence of God, but they do not reveal him—not fully. He’s shrouded and clouded in mystery, hiding himself from his sinful people for their protection. As Job declares, “Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him” (Job 9:11).
But here in our Gospel lesson, we do see him: Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, no longer clouded in mystery, but rather clothed in flesh and bone. Jesus passes by the boat to show the disciples his glory and reveal his true identity: the incarnate Son of God. But they miss the point and mistake him for a ghost. So he stops walking. He gets in the boat and draws near to his people and makes himself known in his Word: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50).
The phrase, “It is I,” is a wonderful saying. The Greek words are egō eimi, which literally means, “I AM.” … I AM. This is the same thing Jesus will say in next week’s Gospel lesson when he declares, “I am the bread of life…” (John 6:35). I AM. This is the divine name of Yahweh in the Old Testament. From the burning bush, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say to this people of Israel, «I AM has sent me to you»’” (Ex. 3:14). Jesus says, “I AM.” Jesus is Yahweh. “Jesus is Lord!” (cf. Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3). Jesus is God. I AM.
And yet the very same Lord who created the world, walks the waves, and stills the storm, is the same God who deigns to put on human flesh and come among us. He is not afraid to crawl into our boat—or our skin! He sets aside his glory and reveals his goodness, his mercy, by his incarnation, cross, and resurrection. The Lord of life dies on a cross for the sins of the world, for your sins and mine, but we do not see it. We do not see him. Instead, we see a criminal, a failed messiah, a broken dream, a corpse. And then, when he rises from the dead on the third day, we see a ghost once again (Luke 24:36-39).
But Jesus is not a ghost. And he is more than a man. He is God become a man “for us and our salvation” (Nicene Creed). “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). It’s all right! I am here. I AM.
And because the Creator is not afraid to put on the trappings of his creation, he is here too. I AM comes down to our little church and mounts our altar to enter into the bread and wine that are his Body and Blood. Once again, this is hard for us to see. It just looks and tastes like bread and wine. But these are not symbols. They are not merely “spiritual.” They are Real, because God is real, and Jesus is really present in his Supper. Do not let him pass you by without recognizing him! Jesus comes to you in the bread and wine, walking on the waves of sin that threaten to swamp your life, and he bids you, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Take heart… Take and eat… Take and drink… This is my Body… This is my Blood… It is I… I AM. In the name of Jesus. Amen.