Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Stepping out of the boat

Here's the full text of the sermon Bishop Richard Ellena preached at Onuku Marae.

Bishop Richard Ellena  |  22 Jan 2017

Sermon for the ordination of

Archdeacon Richard Wallace - Bishop of Te Waipounamu.

21st January 2018

I runga te ingoa o te Matua, te Tama, me te Wairua Tapu.

Ki te kaumatua maua nga iwi o tenei Marae – tena koutou.

I feel very humbled to be standing here today because the roots of my whanau are in these hills.

My Mum was a Crotty – she was born in Akaroa hospital; her parents and grand-parents farmed in Le Bons Bay. Her paternal grandfather, my great-grandfather, was the principal of the school in Akaroa.

Much of my childhood was spent here. Underneath the wharf in Akaroa is a pocket knife that my grandfather gave me. It fell through the timbers of the wharf when I was fishing one day, over 50 years ago – one day I will get over it!

I learnt to row dinghy’s here in Whakaroa, I know what it is like to be caught in a southerly change out in the middle of the harbour, which is probably why I was so drawn to the Gospel reading for this unique occasion.

It’s a very famous biblical story that lies at the centre of our Gospel reading for today.

It’s the subject of a stunning glass panel in St Faith’s Church, Ohinemutu – Jesus wrapped in a feather cloak walking on the waters of Lake Rotorua.

It is parodied in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar as Herod sings to Jesus; ‘Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool…’

But Matthew’s account of this story offers us a vision of the radical faith into which we have been called and into which Rihari is being ordained Bishop.  

Jesus has just fed a crowd of four thousand people.

Its late afternoon and he puts the disciples into a boat home across Lake Galilee while he dismisses the crowd and then heads further up the mountain by himself to pray.

This wasn’t a simple row across Akaroa harbour; this was more like a journey from Onawe Peninsular to the head of the harbour. But neither was it a dinghy – it was most likely one of the fishing boats that Peter and Andrew or James and John had fished in. This was their backyard and this boat was big enough for the twelve disciples to fit into.

Night falls and a southerly has hit and these guys are a fair way out from land and are really struggling against the strong winds that have come up and the waves that are buffeting the boat.

Then the next verse (and note the time frame) ‘just before dawn Jesus went out to them.’

These disciples have spent virtually the whole night struggling, by themselves, to make any headway with the boat.

I wonder if this is what we would call the dark night of the soul.

Is this where the Church finds itself today – out in the great sea of contemporary life – struggling to make any headway – and trying to do it totally in our own strength?

Rihari, there will many times when, despite your best efforts, nothing seems to be growing, nothing is changing;  times when you feel like you have taken one step forward only to be blown two steps back. You will begin to doubt yourself, and this is the dark night of the soul vividly pictured in this passage – that time when the disciples took a journey - without Jesus.

The dark night of the soul is not when Jesus has abandoned us – it’s when we try and do it without him!

‘Just before dawn – Jesus went out to them walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said and cried out in fear.’


One New Testament scholar who I have deep respect for describes, in two of his commentaries, an interesting addition found in Mark’s account of this story.

In Mark 6 we read that, ‘Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost….’

He was about to pass by them?

Was he just playing sort of game with them (as some commentators have suggested).

‘Hey boys, I’ll race you over to Wainui!’

This author thinks otherwise. He points out that the Greek word for ‘passing by them’ is ‘parerchomai’ (par-er-khom-ahee) which is a technical term found in the Greek translations of the Old Testament to describe those moments God, in all his glory, becomes visible – usually as a prelude to the call he was about to place on an individual or a people.

It is used in the passage where God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock ‘while my glory passes by.’

It’s also used when Elijah is taken up a high mountain because ‘the Lord is about to pass by.’

And it’s the same term used in this passage from Mark’s Gospel.

What the disciples are seeing from the boat is the full glory of God – the fullness of God revealed in Jesus.

No wonder they were scared stiff. Every time that the glory of God is experienced it is accompanied by an incredible sense of awe – almost bordering on fear.

Can I just quote what David Garland writes in his commentary on the passage?

‘Jesus is not pulling off a staggering visual stunt to amaze his friends. Rather the miracle attests that God himself has visited us in the flesh. This spine-tingling, knee-buckling reality cannot be captured by a jaded Hollywood and may even be overlooked by modern Christians who have lost their sense of awe before the holy.’

In Jesus all the fullness of God is revealed.

We sing songs about Jesus being our best friend. We speak of him as ‘our companion on the journey.’ We sit in our comfortable seats – or not so comfortable pews - and listen to good sermons about our good God.

But we hardly ever fall to our knees in awe of the one ‘who wrought our full salvation.’

When was the last time the Church was driven to its knees in awesome wonder at the glory of God revealed in Christ?

When was the last time we were overwhelmed by the amazing grace of God?

There’s just a little bit more to this part of the story (in case we didn’t get it the first time) because Jesus calls out to them in their fear and says ‘Take courage, It is I.’

Jesus is using the divine name for God – It is I – or more correctly translated ‘I Am.’

Two chapters further on, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I?’

A question that is birthed, but not answered, out in the middle of the lake in the middle of the storm when Jesus went ‘to pass them by.’

Faith does not begin with knowing all about Jesus – it begins with knowing Jesus, fully human, fully divine.

Radical faith is birthed in this spine-tingling, knee-buckling reality.

Yet in so many of the gatherings within the Church Jesus is never mentioned except as the tailpiece to a prayer.

Have we domesticated, redefined Jesus – far from the picture we see of the glory of the divinity walking on the water in the middle of a storm?

Is this maybe why there seems to be so little power in the contemporary Western Jesus to transform anything!

Meanwhile the disciples are still in the boat. It’s still very stormy conditions, and it’s Peter who calls out to Jesus – Peter - always the one to respond without thinking of the consequences - “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Notice the doubt that is in his voice ‘Lord if it is you……’

Doubt is okay!

And Jesus simply says ‘come’

So Peter climbs out of the boat.

John Ortberg wrote a delightful book called ‘If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.’

If the last part of the story gives us a picture of a radical faith, the part describes radical discipleship - getting out of the boat and walking on water because Jesus invites us to do so: to step out of the comfortable, safe, familiar – into the unfamiliar, unknown and uncomfortable.

And to do so, leaving our security blankets behind – whatever they might be.

When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples (in Matthew 10) they were told not to take any cash or credit cards. And no bag, because they were only allowed the clothes they were standing up in - and nothing for them to lean upon.

Peter steps out of the boat – he was a fisherman! Never leave your boat!!

Can we understand how crazy this act of Peter’s is?

There was a right royal southerly storm blowing!

Bit of stupidity really.

And that’s probably what the other disciples thought of Peter when he climbed out – but that’s where Jesus was and is - outside the boat.

Rihari, one of your biggest frustrations will be the time spent inside the boat – dealing with, and maintaining, an institution that can suck the spiritual life out of us. When all the time Jesus is inviting us to trust him and to walk on the water outside the security of the boat.

What is he asking you as an individual – and you as a hui amorangi – and we as a Church - to step out of the boat and do, because that’s where He is?

Radical discipleship involves radical discomfort – to be a water-walker:  but it also invites us to radical trust.

As long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus once he climbed out of the boat he was walking over the waves. As soon as he took his eyes off Jesus and looked down at the waves, he began to sink.

Many Anglicans will never experience that sinking feeling because the boat is too comfortable and safe – particularly in a storm.

So nothing ever changes.

The sinking is part of the journey.

So Peter looks at the waves and begins to sink and he cries out – ‘Lord, if it’s you please save me’ – no he certainly doesn’t. What we get is a yell of terror ‘Lord, save me!’ – no ‘ifs and buts’ now....  

Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him before he goes under and takes him back to the boat and as they climb in to the boat the wind calms right down.

And this is one of the paradoxes of the story. Jesus invited Peter to come to him out of the boat. But he saved him into the boat.


We’re not called to jump ship.

Remember right back at the very beginning of the passage, ‘Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him’

The boat was Jesus’ idea.

It was the same boat – but something had changed within the boat due to the presence of Jesus.
 Instead of a bunch of tired disciples fighting against the wind they were now (if you look at the last verse) a group worshipping together in the presence of Jesus.

This is the radical community that you are called to build as a Bishop – one that is founded upon its worship of Jesus – powerfully present.

It is a community where fellowship means more than a cup of tea following a Sunday service.

Young people in particular are passionate about this – They don’t want pseudo-community – they want to worship with a group whom they do life with; the Body of Christ where we can be honest in our fears and our loneliness and discover a freedom in Christ through them; a welcoming community that cares for the most vulnerable; a community that respects our differences and our doubts and believes and practices the power of prayer.  

And this may be a challenge to 21st century Anglicanism that seems entrenched in its comfortable once-a-week formality.

It’s challenging but it’s life-giving.

It’s the faith that we have been called into.

Radical faith in a radical God: radical discipleship and radical community.

And then watch Jesus make all things new!

Never let go of Jesus my friend.

Keep your eyes on him.

He will never let go of you!

The grace…….

Kia tau, ki a tatou katoa.

Te atawhai o to tatou Ariki

A Ihu Karaiti

Me te aroha o te Atua

Me te whiwhinga tahitanga

Ki te Wairua Tapu

Ake, ake, ake. Amine.