Today we might describe him as a team player, someone who always was with others, together working towards a shared goal. The truth is, he had to be because his life and his livelihood depended on it. Cephas was a professional hunter. Hunting was in his genes, in his heart and in his head. He had an ability to weigh up risks and potential gains, a talent of putting these together into a big picture and in it to pin-point the perfect moments of opportunity. To make the catch, he knew, took total commitment, of his life and the lives of his crews every time they took to the sea. This made him an ‘all-or-nothing’ kind of guy. It made him an optimist, always looking for an opportunity for action, ready to commit, to declare, to rush in, and sometimes to get it wrong.
Tonight, Cephas found himself alone on the sea, and he was not used to being there.
In the darkness he thought back to where his walk had begun, when a travelling healer had given a talk at the community hall in his town. Everyone who heard him speak had been affected by what he said, and the claims he made. Cephas, never one to miss an opportunity, had asked him to help his wife’s mother, who was really sick, and the healer had made her well. This was the first surprise. The second came not long after this incident when the healer had joined his team on an impromptu daytime trip out onto the sea.
Night-time on the sea, however, was very different. It was the time when Cephas was most alive. His senses, trained by his young lifetime’s experience, were finely tuned, to the moods of the moon-lit water, the feel of the winds and the sounds of the shore. It was at night when the fish moved near to the surface, where their nets could reach them; the trap sprung, the catch made. But tonight, they had left their nets behind, in fact, they had left their nets on the shore what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Even now, alone on the sea, he could picture the details of that day. He had been working the night of the morning when the healer had met him on the shore. It had been one of those frustrating nights, a fruitless foray of poor light and fleeting glimpses of fish beyond their nets’ reach. The healer had suggested that they take to the sea again, to head to the deeper water where the fish were never seen in the daytime. Cephas didn’t quite remember why he agreed to go, perhaps something in his character said, ‘why not, we’ve nothing to lose’. Perhaps it was the calm authority of the man in front of him, the way his voice inspired confidence. So instead of cleaning their equipment and heading home to bed, they had hurried out onto the sea, with the healer and Cephas at the helm.
Tonight, Cephas and his friends were in his boat, again, over the deep water, the shore only a few flickering lights in the distant darkness. Out here the winds were unpredictable, the sea rough, the boat was being tossed from one wave crest to the next. Cephas, the hunter, was on watch, his eyes scanning, first the sea, then the sky, then the shore, matching the shapes with the scenes in his mind which told him where they were and it was then that he saw him, a distant pale shape on the water.
For a man of the land, the healer had surprised them all that day he had approached them on the shore. Not only did he know about healing, he knew about fishing too. A long way from the shore, they had thrown their still-wet nets out over the side, at his suggestion, and from the barren waters had come so many fish that the two boats had hardly been sufficient to carry the colossal catch. It was as the waves began to lap over the gunwales of the boat, laden with fish and low in the water, that Cephas had come to realise that he had much to learn and that it was time to turn from his old life and to let the healer take the helm.
The shape on the sea was as familiar as it was surprising. Cephas knew the walk, the way the figure held himself was the same as the day he strode up to his boat on the shore. His friends, seeing the look of confused excitement spread across Cephas’ face, turned their gaze to follow his. The silence broke as each, in turn, spoke ‘It’s a ghost!’, first a whisper, then a statement, then a cry of fear in the darkness. Then another voice, calm, confident, reassuring, over the rough water, ‘Take courage. It’s me!’
Everything about this man, made Cephas want to be more; more alive, more involved in what the healer did, to be more, in every way, like him. The adventure of the hunt was nothing compared to the adrenaline thrill of being with this man. He touched the sick and they became whole. He fed the hungry and his words, though hard at times, restored hope to heavy hearts. He spoke and things happened.
In that moment, with no net to hand, the hunter hurled himself out of the boat. He had to take hold of the one he could not let go. “Command me to come to you!” One word of reply sufficient, “Come!”, and there he found himself, on the water, confident, carried by the voice of the one who called him. Walking. Alone.
The opportunity seized, the commitment made, Cephas strode out. Had it been their net they had thrown, they would all have pulled it in, hauling together in harmony. There was no team around him now, just the water and the one, his eyes and his heart held firm in their gaze. He was alone, on the sea, in the waves and the wind.
Most people will find it impossible to comprehend what happened that night. How it might be, that water could be walked on. Why an ordinary man might throw himself from his boat and friends, into a storm. Cephas himself recalled little, except the strength of the wind, the water rising around his body, his cry, the hand of help and the voice again, harsh perhaps, questioning, not his courage but his faith.
Cephas may have walked from the boat alone, but his return was with the healer. Walking together.
Most of us are land livers. We cannot see and do not know what happens on the deep waters. Not everyone will choose to sail so far from the shore, not many will hear the voice calling us to do so. We read of Cephas and admire, impressed by his bold actions, his commitment, and carry on with our lives on the land. We prefer the stability and certainty of things seen and known. We see success as something built on solid ground, we know that standing together is the only way to succeed, and yet we see in Cephas’ story something else.
Cephas saw in the healer, a confident certainty, a kind authority, a strength and stability, that his whole heart longed for. He calculated that what he could gain from being with this man was far greater than what he already had. He cast his livelihood aside, cast his nets aside and cast himself onto the dangerous waters of opportunity, just to be with this man, to walk with this man, and to live for this man.
Busy days, cleaning and mending, follow times of frustration and fruitless labour. Dark nights of worried wakefulness, fill with wondering and watching for the fresh light of dawn. We recognise them both. In them both, Cephas recognised the healer, seeking him out, walking to meet him where he was, on the shore and far out at sea. Will we, like Cephas, seize the opportunity, throw caution and cares aside, and trust that this man has the power to heal our sickness, feed our hunger, restore our hope and change our lives?
It can be hard to understand and perhaps too easy to dismiss the person who is prepared to ‘step out of the boat’ because we see the wind and feel the waves. Sinking into the sea, we know, is inevitable because it is what happens to everyone who leaves the safety of a boat. It can be hard to comprehend what happens at sea from the safety of the shore. But from time to time we will meet someone like Cephas. Someone with a mixture of optimism and commitment, someone who believes that when the healer speaks, he can trust every word with his life. Someone who is prepared to throw themselves into something new, to walk into the unknown, to follow where they hear the healer calling them to go. Cephases can make mistakes, because they are human just the same, but they should inspire us to know that when we, like them, put our lives in the healer’s hands, empowered by his Spirit we can do amazing things, just like him.
Perhaps next time we meet a Cephas, we might try to be more like the healer; spurring them on with our words, encouraging them with our actions, supporting them with our resources and maybe even, hoping and praying that we too might have the courage to step out alone.
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Cephas grew up with the name Shimon ben Yonah (Aramaic, ‘Simon son on John’). When he met the healer, his name was changed to Cephas (Aramaic, meaning rock). The accounts of his life were first written in Greek. The Greek form of ‘Cephas’ is ‘Petros’ from which we get the name ‘Peter’. The healer’s name, in English, is Jesus. You can read the original accounts of these events in Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-51; John 6:16-21; Luke 5:1-11; Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; John 1:40-42