Matthew 14: 22-33
Immediately he 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.”
Our scripture for today is cited more than most in our Christian consciousness. The image of Jesus walking on water is such a definite sign of his other-ness, of his unique miraculous power, of our own weakness when we see ourselves in Peter sinking into the waters. Much can and has been made of this text, and as such we all risk falling into a predictable pattern of interpretation. There is nothing wrong with having these touchstones, images we can depend upon to ground ourselves. However, the difficulty of canonization is that it is often tied to sterilization – our reading of the scripture becoming rote and lifeless.
The conditions of our story are some of the most engaging in the scripture. Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him so that he can rest from a long day of miracle working and spend time in dedicated communion with the other members of the Godhead – itself a fascinating mystery of the text. Having rested for a time, Jesus decides to walk to meet his disciples. Matthew is clear here that Jesus was heading directly toward them, but Mark differs in saying Jesus was trying to walk past and ahead of them. Their boat had been slowed in its crossing by a storm, so Jesus may have wanted to be on the other side ready to minister to them when they arrived.
Personally, I prefer Mark’s account, the image of Jesus walking quickly past the disciples in the boat and trying not to be seen so that he could overtake them seems promising. Jesus speed walking is a powerful image to me. More than that, it shows that Jesus was confident that the disciples were secure in making their way across the waters. Still, it seems that Matthew may have had his reasoning for deleting Mark’s mention of Jesus walking past the disciples and being spotted. Christ in Matthew is more clearly taking his time moving across the lake, not in a hurry and not acting in any superhuman way, but in a transcendent and otherworldly way.
Jesus’s movement across the water, however it looked to those who saw him crossing, was uncanny enough for him to be mistaken for a ghost. This mistake, somehow fairly common in response to Jesus, is something that we cannot fault the apostles for. If we are honest with ourselves many of us gathered here have likely decided we are in the presence of spirits through much less convincing information. A cabinet opens unexpectedly, a strange bang issues from seemingly everywhere and nowhere within our house, or a trick of the eye makes us see a dark figure in the corner of our eye for a moment. Can we blame the apostles then when, from a distance, they see a human being walking across a stormy sea, walking toward them no less!
Jesus tells them not to fear, perhaps with a heavy sigh if Mark was indeed correct that Jesus was attempting to sneak past them. Peter, never one to pass up an opportunity to make an example of himself one way or another, asks to walk out on the waters with Jesus. He makes it as far out as Jesus is currently standing, the storm still raging around them, and then realizing the miracle has indeed kept him above the waters, he begins to sink – the wonder of the moment not powerful enough to overcome his concerns. Jesus grabs him and gives us those famous words, “Oh you of little faith.” Jesus enters the boat, the storm stops, the disciples worship him, and the boat continues onward.
We could leave off discussion here. Let Jesus and the disciples stand as their own little lesson. Faith and doubt, fear and security, uncertainty and the definite contrasted in sign after sign. Yet, the miracle has something deeper about it. The overwhelming sense that we are often seated beside the disciples – the gift of God’s presence a reality on the horizon, something that we fear as much as we crave, the desire to step our from where we are and into something new, to bring our worship from the closed off understanding we have to something larger and realer than we could even know.
There is something about this story that seems to capture our faith in the turbulent times we now inhabit. We have gone from a place of security on the shore to something far less definite, a boat being pushed here and there by the seemingly random winds of each day. We, like the disciples on the sea long ago, have spent a long while wrapped up with no distractions to keep us from staring our problems in the face, the wind and the rain overtaking any pet comforts that would usually be enough to distract us from them. Like the disciples in a small wooden boat, we have been buffeted with seemingly no respite.
Blessed are we of course that, even in the midst of these difficult times we have seen relative security. Food enough to survive, community enough to find some semblance of fellowship in the midst of separation, and the knowledge that even as the world seems to burn around us, the radiation from the fire has only warmed rather than singed us. For many of us, we are indeed lost in a boat at sea, but rather than a small fishing boat we find ourselves in something slightly more secure, a ship of Theseus rather than the Ancient Mariner’s ship.
Yet, in the midst of all this, we find ourselves reaching out in faith. The kindness of God that we knew, the security that was present in the rhythms of our life disrupted, something routine as a trip to the store began to take on unexpected complications. Our understandings of order in the world, of justice, of who to believe as disinformation spread throughout the world, all these thrown into disorder with catastrophic consequences.
God seeks us out in a dual way. On one hand God is walking straight toward us and on the other hand walking ahead of us, going to meet us on the other side of the trouble. We in our own lives can see God as doing one or the other, in both cases seeing the frightful image of divinity not quite with us and not quite away from us, an ambiguous state we abhor in our attempts to categorize our experiences.
In this ambiguous state we cry out to God, “Come to us or else we will think you’re just a ghost!” We crave proof of God’s presence in our life and without it we begin to fear we were somehow mistaken or that God somehow disappeared from the universe. We feel alone, the sight on the horizon challenging rather than comforting us until the meeting is completed and the human and the divine are given the comfort of presence.
Our cry out to God to come among us is met with another cry from God, “Be peaceful, do not fear.” The storm does not cease, the world around us is still disheveled, but God is there calling out to us to find peace in the Divine presence – even if this presence is still at some distance. This is often where we end our encounters with God. We hear the imperative for us to be at peace, we encounter God at a distance, and let our fear pass into the background. The storms still rage, our place is still unsure, and we stay as such until the storm has passed and our life returns to normal.
However, this is not the only outcome of this scenario. We can safely sit where we are and wait things out, or we, like Peter, can take God at God’s word. We can ask Christ to see us move from the safety we know and for us to wade right into the turmoil of the world. We can step out and, like Christ, find ourselves surrounded and engaged with the troubles of the world, but still somehow afloat.
In the midst of a Pandemic, in the midst of a continual exploration of what justice means in modern America, in the midst of campaigns of falsehoods and misinformation there is no way that the church can sit in its pews and wait things out. On one hand we cannot do so because, the pews are in there and we continue to meet out here. On the other the simple truth is that, as long as we are traversing through this life, it is not enough to wait out the troubles we face – because if we wait for trouble to end we will never step out from our relative safety,
For too long we have defined ourselves as a group separate and uninterested in the happenings around us. We see hardships of poverty and oppression, we see evil dominating the world and truth sidelined for convenient and harmful rhetoric that allows for more expedient and binary concepts of the world around us. We have murdered nuance through our silence on all issues but those pet passions that we have yelled from pulpits to rapidly emptying sanctuaries. The Church is seen for the thing it is, an association of people gathered in one place and waiting for an end to their trip through this world.
Imagine if we stepped out though, imagine if we continued to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable. We have spent several months now meeting in ways we never would have thought of before. We have spent several months redefining how we see a world that is fragile enough to be waylaid by a threat that is only a few microns wide, yet that can kill something like 4-6% of all people it touches. We have spent several months watching the long silence we have held over the suffering of our siblings in Christ boil over. We have shown that we are capable of breaking out of our pet comforts when forced to, can we dare do it when we have other options?
We must come out on the waters of this life, we must engage with problems rather than hide away in our sanctuaries. We must do justice and love mercy, we must chase after the Kingdom in the here and now, and we must do something rather than just stagnate until we become a passing mention in museums and history books. Because, if we return to our story, we see that the truth is that the storms of life can only be calmed after we have made the steps out into the water. When we go out into the muck and mire of a world in pain. A step that will inevitably see us failing, falling, but still find ourselves in the arms of God our protector. Our God who will carry us into a new world of peace and goodness. Only if we step out, only if we engage with the world, only if we are able to live like Christ. Only then, only if. – Amen.