We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
In that first account of an experience of the numinous in Exodus, when Moses sees the great mystery – a burning bush which was not consumed, he is both terrified, but also longs to draw near. And it is as he draws near that he encounters the hidden God, but who now also longs to reveal himself to Moses. So, God reveals himself by telling Moses his name: ‘I AM’. And at the climax of the disciples’ numinous experience on the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals his true identity to his frightened disciples: ‘It is I.’ But in the original Greek, he simply says just two words, ‘I AM’.
I don’t think experiences like this, numinous experiences, are rare. Many of us have had them, and continue to have them. I wonder what your own experience has been? For many people, especially for the first time, such an experience can be disturbing. It can feel so strange and utterly mysterious that they are afraid to talk about it. But for others, they continue to be fascinated by the sense that a ‘being’, perhaps God, was trying to reveal himself to them. And they cannot rest until they find the source of their experience. Perhaps they will start going to church, or seek out a spiritual guide, to help them in their search. In my ministry, countless people have come to speak to me about an experience like this which they have had. Often, they are nervous about describing it, in case I think they are a bit crazy! It is always a great joy for me to reassure them that these experiences are very common, and that very likely God was breaking into their lives, God, the Good Shepherd coming to find them.
So often, the experience of the numinous, of God breaking into our lives, has actually been the beginning of life’s greatest adventure! As St Augustine famously put it, after his own numinous experience in that garden in Milan:
“To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances. To seek him, the greatest adventure. To find him, the greatest human achievement.”
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