Pentecost IX – August 10, 2014
Matthew 14:22-33 (mk 6:45-56) (John 6 15-21)
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
Miracle in the Storm
We are in the 14th chapter of Matthew. The disciples are in the thick of it now. They had dropped everything to follow Jesus. Back in the 10th chapter they had been given their instructions “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” “…I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;”
In this life altering adventure with Jesus the disciples had witnessed many healings, they had heard many remarkable stories and parables that brought them a bit closer to understanding what the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, is like. This experience was intense. This 14th chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins with the death of the imprisoned John the Baptist who was killed at by order of a somewhat conflicted Herod who did it to satisfy the whim of his niece. John’s brutal death was a devastating blow to the disciples who took John’s body and buried it. They then gave the hard news to Jesus. Jesus needed time alone but the crowds kept coming to him. In his grief he continued to heal the sick. As the immense crowd had gathered to be with him… when the hour was late he took two fish and five loaves of bread and looked up to heaven. He blessed and broke the bread and there was more than enough for the crowd to eat… a crowd that numbered 5,000 men plus women and children. You know the story. Before Jesus dismissed the crowds he ordered the disciples to get into the boat and cross over the lake to the other side There was more work to do.
Now Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” It was not an invitation. It was an order. They were to make a crossing to the next unknown encounter in ministry… which meant that they needed to go to the people… and they obeyed Jesus… having no idea what this next encounter, this next mission, this next moment of obedience and discipleship would look like.
As they push out onto the water I would imagine that it would have felt rather soothing to move away from land and away from the hubbub of the dispersing crowd, and to glide on the water, relaxing, catching breath, feeling tense muscles slowly unwinding… to know a bit of reprieve as they prepare for whatever is in store for them next. Jesus had told them to go on ahead while the last of the immense crowd was dispersing… and then he needed his own time apart to pray. John’s death was still a fresh ache in his heart. When evening came Jesus had found his prayerful solitude… but the disciples, in the early hours of morning, were far from gliding over smooth waters… and were now struggling to move forward against whipping winds and waves that tossed and battered their small boat. In the wee hours of the morning the exhausted disciples, far out from the shore, soaked and, I imagine, chilled to the
bone, were embroiled in a struggle in the midst of chaos. This was not the moment to indulge in sweet, comfortable memories of the past, the comforts of a home that now are far off away. It was not a moment even to contemplate what the new day would bring. All that mattered was this moment, a moment that is pulsing with adrenaline and acutely focused on the matters at hand… staying afloat…. staying alive.
It was in this place of raw terror that the miracle occurred. But what was the miracle? Was it that Jesus was able to walk on top of the churning Sea of Galilee? Was it that Jesus had command over the elements? Was it that this was yet another opportunity to recognize, know and experience the presence of God in Jesus? Was it something else?
It was probably between 3 and 6 am that the disciples spotted a figure walking towards them. The figure appeared unworldly.. like a ghost … and they were terrified… The Greek word used in the text is “phobos” as in phobia… they were terrified at seeing this approaching figure. And Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I”…. as in God’s great statement of self “I Am” found elsewhere in scripture” “…it is I” Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” The mystery of the ghost-like figure is solved. But they had been terrified because Jesus came to them in a form and manner that they had not expected. This was, yet again, a new type of encounter. What more can we make of this event?
The story of Jesus walking on water actually appears in the Gospels according to Mark and John, as well as in Matthew. But it is only in Matthew that we hear about Peter’s bit in the story. After realizing who Jesus is… Peter, in his audacious fashion, asks for confirmation of Jesus’ identity by telling Jesus… to command him (Peter) to come out of the boat… He asks Jesus to command him to step right out into further chaos. Jesus says “Come.” … to satisfy Peter’s uncertainty? To invite him to take a daring step that he would never have envisioned before? Like a young child intent on making it to the outstretched arms of his mother with wobbly first steps Peter actually does walk on water… for a brief moment. His focus does not last. He notices the strong wind that he had been oblivious to just a second ago, and he begins to sink.
An often touted explanation for Peter’s sinking is that he lost his focus on Jesus… with the message that if we don’t keep our laser focus of faith we will doom ourselves to sink in the waters of failure. Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” …and Jesus reaches out his hand, catches him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Was Peter truly a failure? He did walk on water… if but for a moment. “When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This holy encounter, in the midst of chaos, this question of obedience and faith is one for us to sit with, engage with, chew on and learn from. The disciples were in the thick of it with Jesus and his active ministry that was beginning to make a turn towards Jerusalem. All else I their lives had been pared away. They had been obedient and, even now, in the midst of all that has been happening, in the midst of a whipping storm… Peter takes a big risk as he asks to be commanded to come out of the relative safety of the boat. Peter reaches out… he risks… and he obeys. Is this not an act of faith? Is this the true miracle we are to know?
It is about obedience and it is about faith. Faith is not something to be pluck off a shelf and casually added to one’s life. We don’t simply have faith by willing it into our lives. We must be engaged. We must live into it. We must seek to grow in faith and we must dare to risk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said:
…Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith… The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definitive step is demanded, the call vanishes in thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”
In the Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer goes on to say “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith as an act of obedience.” ….and obedience is not a miracle… it is a tool… a challenge… a gift…
For the disciples… life was new, and different and challenging. Their eyes, and hearts and minds were being opened to a greater reality. They had responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Their obedience was wrought challenges, disappointments and loss, as well as new discoveries and new riches.
The riches of life in Christ are for us too… a world opening up that does not promise calm sailing. It demands something of us. It invites to enter, to risk, to deepen as we follow and obey the call… it welcomes the whole of us… and it guarantees to have a price… and the promise is that we will live into a life that is far more than we can ask for or imagine.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted by Charles Cousar in Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 441.