A sermon delivered August 13, 2017 at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids MI.
Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind,he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” The Gospel of Matthew 14:22-33 NRSV
This is a familiar story isn’t it? It’s one of the stories that even the not very Biblically literate know. And for Christians, most of us have lost track of how many times we’ve heard it. And I bet you’ve heard more than one sermon on it too.
The common interpretation of the story focuses on Peter, his faith in getting out of the boat and his lack of faith that causes him to sink. How often have you heard someone say, “Oh ye of little faith.”?
I’d like us to spend a little time looking closely at this story. Because this is a familiar story, we might forget to notice how carefully written it is, how it recalls and echoes Torah and the rest of the Gospel of Matthew.
As the Eugene Peterson quote in the bulletin, says these stories invite us into them.
One of the characteristic marks of the biblical storytellers is a certain reticence. There is an austere, spare quality to their stories. They don’t tell us too much. They leave a lot of blanks in the narration, an implicit invitation to enter the story ourselves, just as we are, and discover for ourselves how we fit into it. (Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, 42)
If we are willing to go.
To set the scene, Jesus has just fed the 5000 men plus women and children. Then immediately he makes the disciples go . This “makes ‘ is as in “compels”. It’s a forceful word. They are in a boat, which from the earliest times has served as a symbol of the church. Here the disciples are, without Jesus in the boat, alone, far away from land and safety, battered by waves. The last time something like this happened to them, Jesus was in the boat with them.
Remember in the Bible, water, big water, seas are dangerous places – In Genesis God tames and parts the waters of chaos. Out on the big sea a sea creature swallows Jonah. Paul is shipwrecked. We are supposed to remember all this about water when we hear this story.
If you have ever been on water with big waves in a smallish boat it’s unsettling. Scary even. Now picture yourself in the boat with the wind and wave and its sometime between 3 -6 am. If you have ever worked nights, you know between 3-6 can be a tough time, nothing good happens, everything looks bleak. The disciples are by themselves, in a boat, battered by waves in the darkest part of the night.
Where is Jesus? He sent them away from himself. Not good.
Think about the symbolism, Boat and church. Sea and chaos. Without Jesus. And then they see something? No wonder the disciples think they are seeing a ghost! Someone is walking on the water? Who can do that?
Sometimes I ask the students I work with what is going on here. They usually say this is a miracle and they miss the bigger part of the story.
In the ancient world, walking on water was something only gods did. Not people. In the Old Testament, God is depicted as walking on water several times. God who conquers, who overcomes the sea, the power of chaos, the powers of destruction. In this story, Jesus is doing what God does.
Then Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. Think a little about that. What is translated at “It is I”, in Greek is “I am”, the very name of God. “Do not be afraid”, this is what angels and divine beings tell mortals.
This whole event is a theophany, a divine appearing.
Notice that Jesus is walking toward them, to the boat. The one who stilled the storm, just a few chapters before, is coming to them. All they need to do is wait. Jesus is on the way.
And Peter says an odd thing, when you think about it. “If it is you, command me….”.
“If it is you” – that’s interesting, it echos what the devil says to Jesus in the wilderness, “If you are the son of God”. It echoes what the mockers shout to the crucified Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…”
Peter’s “If it is you, “… what is it? A challenge? A expression of doubt? Even though Peter calls Jesus “Lord” It’s hard to make it a statement of faith. Regardless, of what it is, challenge, doubt, Jesus’ response is “Come”.
Peter starts walking on the water, notices the wind and begins to sink, crying out for Jesus to save him. And Jesus does, reaching out his hand.
Peter must have been close, eh?
That’s interesting, so close, an arm’s length away and Peter loses his focus. Now astute readers might recall the psalms and prophets where we read about God’s stretching out God’s hand to save.
And once they’re back in the boat, Jesus asks, “Why did you doubt?” Doubt here means something like vacillate, waver, not skepticism.
What do you think that refers to? “Why did you doubt?” Was the doubting when Peter on the water noticing the strong wind? OR was it Peter’s question from the boat, “If it is you…”
Often this story gets used to talk about how Christians, if we had enough faith, would get out of our boats and walk toward Jesus, no matter how impossible that might be. We should walk on our version of water. Faith becomes the vehicle by which we do something spectacular, something amazing. Faith overcomes the world as we experience it. And by implication, if we don’t succeed, perhaps we lack faith.
But I’m not so sure that’s the only interpretation available to us. Why else might Matthew be telling us this story?
For centuries, a boat has been the symbol of the church.The boat in this story carries all the disciples- the very beginning of the church is right in that boat.
What if they were supposed to stay with the boat, stay together for Jesus to come to them. What if faith meant believing what Jesus said to them,“Take heart, It is I, do not be afraid”? What if this is a story about staying and trusting?
So which was it? A time to step out or a time to stay? What’s this story about? Do we stay in or start walking?
It’s hard to know from the story as we have it. As the Peterson quote suggests we need to enter into it. It’s a parable- like story. It doesn’t give us an answer. Or a rule. We need to enter into the story, put ourselves in the boat, among the waves in the dark of early morning and see a ghost like figure calling to us, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”.
What do we do? Get out of the boat? Or stay in the boat?
I want to be clear- especially in these times. Make no mistake, this is not a choice between action and inaction. The disciples in the boat were not passive. They are rowing, probably bailing too. They are actively engaged, actively struggling against the waters of chaos and destruction. They are engaged against the forces that want to destroy the Kingdom of God.
This is not a story about action versus inaction.
This is not a story about boldness or timidity.
The question is what kind of action are you and I called to.
I’m not going to give you “the” answer today. Other than sometimes the answer is to get out of the boat, sometimes it is to stay in the boat. Figuring out when to do what is not, as we might hope, simple. It’s not a matter of learning some rules or principles. Knowing what to do requires some discernment, some practice. And the ability to discern emerges out of relationship with the one who speaks to us.
You may have read William Young’s book, The Shack. Not a theological work on Calvin’s level (which might be a good thing) but it is an interesting exploration of God, who God is and how God is at work in the world.
The main character is Mackinzee or Mack. Tragedy has struck his family and Mack and his family are struggling. Mack gets a puzzling note one day, asking him to return to the shack that was the scene the tragedy.The note appears to be from “Papa” which is Mack’s wife’s name for God. Mack goes to the shack and meets God – in the persons of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu -the Holy Spirit. There is a conversation in the book, between Mack and Sarayu, that I have condensed which might give us a clue about what to do with this story from Matthew.
Mack allowed his oar to turn in his hands as he let it play in the water’s movements. “It feels like living out of relationship- you know, trusting and talking to you- is a bit more complicated than just following the rules.”
“What rules are those Mackenzie?”
“You know, all the things the Scriptures tell us we should do.”
“Okay….” She said with some hesitation. “And what might those be?”
“You know,” he answered sarcastically, “About doing good things and avoiding evil, being kind to the poor, reading your Bible, praying, and going to church. Things like that.”
“I see. ….And how is that working out for you??
He laughed. “Well, I’ve never done it very well. …I just figured I needed to try harder, but I find it difficult to sustain that motivation.”
Mackenzie!” (she chided, her words flowing with affection.) ‘The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other. My goodness, you didn’t think you could live the righteousness of God on your own, did you?”
“Well, I thought so, sorta…” he said sheepishly. “But you gotta admit rules and principles are simpler than relationships.”
“It is true that relationships are a whole lot messier than rules, but rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you.”…
They continued to move lazily with a current.
“So, will I see you again?” he asked hesitantly.
“Of course. You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship- a way of coming to be with us.”
The Shack, William P. Young excerpts from pages 197-198
In Matthew’s story Peter makes, as Peter is wont to do, a quick decision. But a single decision doesn’t tell the whole story of Peter and Jesus. Jesus was in relationship with Peter long before this incident and that relationship continued long afterward. Their relationship wasn’t based on rules and Peter’s getting things right.
God is faithful, and steadfast- whether Peter was supposed to get out of the boat or stay in, Jesus was there with him and for him.
Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.
We live in rapidly changing and unsettling times. Some of us are concerned about national and global politics – North Korea. Charlottesville.
Some of us are unsettled because our pastor has taken a new call and we have to move on without her.
In a couple of weeks I’m going to be meeting incoming freshmen, whose lives are changing in major ways. Moving away from home. Making new friends. Facing the challenges of college level education.
Some of you are the parents or grandparents sending someone off to school- maybe it’s college, maybe it’s kindergarten.
Some of you are changing jobs, some have health concerns. As they say, the only constant thing in life is change.
Some clear rules about how to navigate life would be nice. Assurance that following the rules will bring us safety and happiness would also be very nice. It’s no wonder we search for rules. It is tempting to read the Bible looking for the rules. But the Bible isn’t a guide book of rules to follow.
Our Book of Order says the Bible is the written word that points us to the living word- Jesus. The Bible orients us to the story of how God is present in the world. The Bible is an invitation to enter that story. To walk alongside Peter and the disciples.
And walking along side Jesus, we see how to walk into our own story.
We experience the way of love and relationship.
We grow into that love knowing we are loved.
We row and we wait, we stay in the boat, we get out of the boat.
Not with the assurance of rule followers but with a faith like those guys in a boat.
A little clueless.
Doing their best.
Learning to trust Jesus, even when it is dark and stormy and Jesus seems like little more than a ghost.
But this Jesus will not let us go, will not lose us, will not abandon us.
This Jesus has his hand stretched toward us.
Listen for him. Listen to him. Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.