Walking on water

At the beginning of Matthew 14 we read about two feasts or meals. There is the feast of Herod at which John the Baptist’s head is brought in. It is a party for the elites which displays the power that is capricious and removes any who stand against it. This contrasts with the feast of the Five Thousand where the powerless are fed through the grace of God – Jesus directs his disciples and through obeying him a seemingly impossible situation is overcome. Five thousand people not counting the women and the children are fed and with more than sufficient. We have Jesus’ feast of life contrasted with Herod’s feast of death. So we begin . . .

22  Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. 23 After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. (Matt 14)

Why now? I think that the writer wanted to show that Jesus had to wrestle with new temptations. When Jesus was tempted in the desert scripture notes in Luke’s version that “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” It is probable that Jesus was beset with issues many times as he travelled towards the cross. Note also, that he went up into the hills. This metaphor indicates he needed to get closer to God and he no doubt needed some quiet time to recharge and think. He had been told by John’s disciples what had happened (v12) – the awareness of his inevitable clash with the powers and principalities of this world grew.

And that is what we face today. How do we explain and show the Kingdom of Heaven, what I would rather call the Commonwealth of God, to people today when we are beset with the terrors that the powerful unleash on the vulnerable? Whether they be the people on Manus and Nauru or Aboriginal people still incarcerated and dying in numbers that are out of proportion despite Royal Commissions – the early deaths and the institutional racism besets our legal system. Governments would rather terrorise us by focussing continually on fear and by re-arranging the deck chairs rather than dealing with the inequalities and despair in our communities. So we are being battered by the waves and some may feel like the ship is sinking!

24 Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves.

The sea is a fearsome element. Calm and serene one minute, it can become a raging maelstrom the next. Di and I have direct experience of what it is like to be in a small boat driven by wind and waves. We were in a 6 metre trailer sailer, spinnaker up and surfing on a massive wave in the upper reaches of Spencer Gulf as if the boat was a surf board! It was a fearsome experience. Scary. But there was also a confidence in our friend who handled the boat and gave the orders. I can remember just watching the other boats around us heeling over and feeling a surreal sense of calm in those moments while I watched. The disciples in the boat had experienced sailors among them but perhaps you might sense that once panic sets in no one listens to the captain who know what needs doing. And when the team panics then the boat is in danger of sinking.

25 About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”  27“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”  28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”

Jesus sometimes seems a long way off when we need him. Nathan Nettleton suggests that “perhaps real faith is the capacity to keep trusting that, even though we are in the boat with a bunch of flawed people who are no better at believing than we are, we are better off in the boat than out of it and that Jesus will come when we have learned what we need to learn and been shaped as we need to be shaped by the experience of being in the storm together, and that when he comes he will not be wanting us to jump out of the boat, but that he will get into the boat with us and bring us safely to the shore of the promised land.”

But I think there is another side to this story. Perhaps the one that has entered our culture in the phrase “walking on water” used to indicate any impossible thing. It was experienced only by his disciples. No one else saw it happen. And what would be the easier thing, walk on water or still a raging storm? Likely as not this story was not meant to be taken literally. And it is not a repeated miracle. When Herod says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “You’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool,” Jesus refuses the temptation.

And it is about temptation – temptation to follow Herod’s party, to take the easy way, to party on, to not rock the boat, to keep our heads down lest the powers of this world notice us, to stay safe by sheltering in the shadow of the powerful, to stay comfortable. Are we afraid to question why our world is in the mess it is and the reasons for it? Do we dare to more than dream of a new world, God’s Commonwealth here on earth? Are we afraid to sail out of the sight of land and into the storms?

Some commentators suggest that the problem with Christians is that they need to get out of the boat! If we want to do the hard things, the seeming impossible things, we need to get out of the boat. We need to chance getting our feet wet. We may sink many times but we are sure to be pulled, as need be, back safely into the boat. When we have that sinking feeling we can be assured that Jesus will lift us up again. When we have learned what we need to learn and been shaped as we need to be shaped by the experience of being in the storm together, then we will have the courage to get out of the boat and do the things that need to be done.

But in the end getting out of the boat is really a metaphor for leaving our comfort zone. It is not about leaving the church. So, in a way, we can be in the boat and out of the boat at the same time. We take the boat with us when we do God’s work in the world. Maybe some of us need to be in the boat, to make it safe and ship shape and to be ready to lend a hand, to welcome people seeking shelter from the storm. Others need to be out doing the hard stuff, but depending still on the boat to be there when we need it. Like Geoff said last week, we need to have a Resource Centre, a place where we can come to charge our batteries to get help and support and perhaps a blessing. We can’t do stuff on our own nor can others do it for us. We need to confront our fears. We need to find Jesus in the storm.

Finally some more context. There are some verses missing from the end of the set reading that finish this chapter.

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

The boat isn’t always at sea or in stormy weather. The boat has to come back to shore sometime. That’s when we get out of the boat. For what? So people can be healed. It’s not the boat or us that people come to see. The boat only helps us to get to that place where Jesus wants us to be. The attraction is when people see something in us, by what we do or say, when we reflect Jesus. We are not the ones who bless or transform. It is Jesus who we have with us that blesses and heals. He goes with us as we journey out into the community. As we allow him to be with us, as we allow ourselves to be transformed by his presence, we start to identify not with the party of Herod, but with those Jesus fed, the marginalised, the poor, the oppressed.

. . . . so in the end faith isn’t measured by God doing what we ask.
Faith is measured by us doing what God asks, confronting our fears and walking with Jesus, wherever he may lead, maybe even on water!

May it be so.

Peter Russell

Edited from a sermon delivered at Pilgrim Uniting Church on Sunday 13 August. 2017 – For the full version listen here.

References:
Bible Readings from New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011.
Nathan Nettleton http://laughingbird.net/SermonTexts/0425.html