BIBLE READING: Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus walking on the sea
Before we look at what this gospel story might mean for us, let’s examine how Matthew's church would have heard this story.
Firstly, the boat in this story isn't only a boat. It stands for something. The central space of a church is called a "nave" from the Latin "navis" which means "ship". (Hence, our word, "navy".) Classic style cathedrals and churches are built so that if you stand in the nave, the middle of the church, and look up at the ceiling, it looks like an upturned ship. That's because the early church used the metaphor of a boat to describe the church. Matthew’s readers would have understood that the boat in this gospel story referred to the church, the vessel that was carrying them through their storm-tossed world safely across to heaven.
And secondly, in the same way, the lake isn't just the lake. The Jews were never a seafaring people because there are no natural harbours along the coast of Palestine. Having no sailing traditions or experience, the sea always remained mysterious to them. To the biblical mind, being on the sea is itself a threat, representing all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of created order. In Genesis, God's first creative act was to hover over the surface of the water, bringing order to chaos. In Job, God points out that He had set the limits to the sea. So this story where disciples find themselves together in a boat, being tossed about by the waves on Lake Galilee, made a good image for the early church. Those Christians were a tiny minority, in conflict with their Jewish origins and being persecuted by the Roman authorities. They felt like they were in a boat tossed about by the waves.
Thirdly, Jesus walked on the water to get to the boat in the darkest part of the night. Whereas we might think Jesus is defying the laws of physics, back then they would see Jesus overcoming the power of chaos. And how can he do that? In Hebrew Scriptures, only God walks on the sea, according to Job, Psalms and Isaiah. So Jesus does what only God can do, and speaks as only God does. "Courage" he says, "It is I. Do not be afraid." Jews of Jesus time understood that Moses and Elijah were aided by the power of God to perform different miracles for the people of Israel. But in this story they would grasp that Jesus is not merely a holy man like Moses or Elijah, but someone in whom God was truly present. When Jesus got into the boat after rescuing Peter, Matthew tells us the disciples worshipped Jesus. "Truly you are the Son of God!" they exclaimed.”
Let us look then for what the Word of God might be for us here today. It is very easy for us to identify with Peter who reminds us so of ourselves with his misunderstandings and his doubts about Jesus and God. Like us, he makes rash decisions and his actions land him in deep water - like in today's story! Like us, he always needs rescuing and always needs forgiving. For all that, Peter is a very sympathetic figure.
And so when we read this story we usually focus on Peter and we often draw this moral lesson: "If only Peter had had more faith, he could have walked on the water". And then we say, "If only we have enough faith, we could overcome all our problems in spectacular ways". So when the chaos of life overwhelms us, we pray like crazy for a miracle to take away the cancer, or for a miracle to change our financial mess, or for a miracle to change our child or change our job or change our spouse. But when we begin to sink despite all our prayers, we also feel guilty because of our "lack of faith". So then we're in the ridiculous position of not only sinking beneath the chaos of our life, but also feeling guilty because we don't have enough faith to walk on the waters of life's chaos!
But this story isn't about Peter and it isn't about us. It is about Jesus. He sent the disciples ahead while he prayed and then came to them in the darkest part of the night while their boat was being tossed about by the waves. He reassured them when they were scared. He accepted Peter's challenge and grabbed hold of him when he sank and brought Peter back into the boat. When Jesus said to him, "Why did you doubt?" he wasn't saying, "If you didn't doubt you wouldn't have sank." He said, "Why did you doubt that it was ME who was coming towards you?" The fear of the disciples and the folly of Peter is incidental; the focus of this story is Jesus coming towards their boat, striding over the chaos and the darkness.
Here are you and I this morning inside this little boat, the church of Jesus. Outside this ship is the chaos and darkness of the world and of our lives. The chaos of our jobs and our homes, the chaos of our family and our personal problems; outside is the chaos of modern society and the chaos of life's natural disasters. And the chaos and darkness of life fills our hearts with natural fear: fear that we will be overwhelmed, fear that we will sink. And because we are like Peter, we are tempted to bargain with God and say, "Lord, order me to come out on to the water with you." We are tempted to bargain: "Lord, if you really exist, please help me to walk miraculously over the chaos and darkness to safety in this world."
Some years ago, a brother in Mother Theresa's order came to her complaining about a superior whose rules, he felt, were interfering with his ministry. "My vocation is to work for lepers," he told Mother Theresa. "I want to spend myself for the lepers." She stared at him for a moment, then smiled. "Brother," she said gently, "your vocation is not to work for lepers, your vocation is to belong to Jesus."
Your vocation is to belong to Jesus. Our vocation – our calling, is to belong to Jesus. All around our little boat is the chaos and darkness of this world and of our lives. And it fills us with fear. But our vocation is to belong to Jesus. He is the Son of God, who was born into our world in poverty and died in disgrace, but whom God raised from death. He is the one who is coming towards us, striding over the chaos and the darkness. We belong to him. Paul says in Romans, that "If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved."
There will be no miraculous walking on water for us in this life, except the miracle of God's grace that enables us to say over the fear in our hearts and the fury of the chaos outside our boat, "Jesus is Lord. I belong to him." Thanks be to God. Amen.
Acknowledgement: Scott Hoezee