12 th Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2005
Matthew 14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." 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 his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
Fear and chaos on the sea
The captain of the ship had ordered the shutters closed on the ship that sailed out of Folkestone Harbor toward Ostende, Holland. The sea, in late November could be gentle as a lamb, as it had been when my companions and I crossed over from the European continent to England two weeks earlier, or it could be tempestuous, as it was when an early winter storm battered both coasts. In the fall of 1980 there was no “Chunnel” and the hovercraft for a quick crossing were grounded by the storm, and expensive beyond our means. Our classes at the University would start again on Monday, final exams in fact, so there was no opportunity to wait and travel later. Thus we found ourselves on the boat with the shutters closed, clueless as to what that meant for the moment. We soon found out.
The ferry, no small vessel, left the safety of the harbor and began its slow and wild ride across the English Channel. The ship tossed on its night crossing so violently that even usually seasoned seafarers were struggling with sea-sickness and hastened to find places to ride out the storm. Several times the front of the vessel dipped completely below the swells of the waves. My travel companions and I could not flee to the outer decks, where it was cold and wet, even on the topmost part of the ship. We finally found an outdoor bench, out of the wind and relatively dry and four of us huddled together, bundled against the cold, faces pale green, and trying very hard to keep our composure. Supper had departed long ago. Dignity abandoned us not long after. Had we known, we would have made excuses for our final exams and traveled on a later date.
Fear is a word that comes to mind: fear of being out of control, either of ship or wave, fear that death could be just a wave away. Such is the fear I felt in that moment. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.
Calm in the midst of the storm
I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when waves are roiling and wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, adding to the disciples fear. They exclaim that it must be a “Ghost” (The Greek word here is phantasma, which appears only here and in parallels in the New Testament). In order to calm their fears, Jesus immediately asks them to “take heart,” and he identifies himself.
But something changes in this exchange, at least for Peter. He seems to see and hear more in Jesus action on the water than the other disciples because he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat, to join Jesus on the water. I can’t help but wonder, though what possessed Peter to want to leave the boat in the first place? Were things so rocky, so fearsome so far from shore (“many stadia from shore” certainly meant anywhere from a half a mile or more). Was the boat filling with water? Was Peter trying to show off? Was Jesus personal presence so calming and so reassuring that Peter needed to be where Jesus was? Why would Peter request such a task? We can’t know the answers to most of the questions. We just know that Peter suddenly found himself out of the boat and walking on the water towards Jesus. When his attention returns to the wind and the water, he begins to sink, and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope is now Jesus.
In and out of the boat
As we struggle to understand the meaning of this story for our lives today, my guess is that we really don’t expect to see Jesus walking to us when we are on the sea, nor so we expect to go walking on water ourselves any time soon. Most of us joke from time to time that someone we know “thinks they walk on water” but we know otherwise. But the question remains is this a morality tale about our faith and the extremes that we should be willing to go for Jesus? Or is there more to discover in this text.
One of the first places that some of the earliest Christians went for understanding this tale was to the boat itself. They understood that the boat was a symbol for the Church, the very body of Christ. They understood the boat as a place of safety in the midst of life’s storms, and with the hostility they experienced from a variety of places we know their storms could be severe. But this understanding only makes Peter’s response to Jesus all the more puzzling. Peter, “the rock,” the leader of the early Christians surely would not abandon the Church?
Perhaps the early Christians were comforted with the knowledge that their first leader was so human, so vulnerable, that he was not the Lord and could not face the water and the storm without Jesus’ help. Perhaps the early Church knew that if Jesus were not in the boat (in other words was not with the Church) then there was no refuge there. There may be a dozen other “perhaps” and questions most of which make great Sunday School morality tales, but not such great preaching. This will be true so long as we keep our attention on Peter, and through Peter on ourselves, rather than on Jesus.
When we turn our attention back to Jesus, then we have a better chance of seeing what God is up to. Where the story starts to get strange is at the point where Jesus identifies himself to the disciples to calm their fears. “It’s me,” he says. But the phrase that Matthew uses here is more than a mere greeting. Jesus uses a phrase that in the Greek Scriptures, both old and new means so much more than “Hey guys, It’s just me!” The Greek phrase here is Ego Eimi, which is the same identifying phrase that God uses in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, when Moses asks for God’s name.
Now, at this point, several scholars disagree with this interpretation, citing Peter’s response that seems to indicate that he understood Jesus to say, “It’s me” and he responds, “if it is you...” But I’m not so sure. As I look at Peter’s actions as well as his words, and his unusual request, I can’t help but think that Jesus’ self identification is exactly what sets Peter off on his wild water adventure. Peter is basically asking something like this. “If you really are ‘I AM’ here with us, then give me a command that I couldn’t possibly obey and I’ll know it is true.”
When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel and if we weren’t convinced by the reprise of the manna (in the feeding of the thousands story) in the last section of the Gospel, we should pay attention now.
This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. This blessed presence does not show us that God has supernatural powers so much as it give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that the storms of this life cannot hurt us, even when we are outside of the safety and comfort (well, relative comfort) of the Church.
In a recent movie, several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Lets Go!” This is, I suppose the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go!”
Even when we lose heart
The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. Only fools pretend otherwise.
Then we will see, with Peter, that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We discover, at times to our relief and at times to our chagrin, that we are not the heroes of this story. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, in fact take us outside of his care and concern. This is important. For even when we are back inside the boat of the Church, when the waters about us appear to be calm, we find that we are still in the midst of a storm.
I expect just such a storm will be raging as political forces of one side or another try to co-opt the mission and direction of the ELCA (my denomination) as it assembles in Orlando Florida over the next few weeks to debate and discuss many issues of our life together. Foremost in people’s minds will be the subject of homosexuality. It is a storm that has gained a life of its own in our surrounding culture and I find that the church feels very much like a boat being tossed about on a sea of controversy.
It is my prayer that many in the ELCA will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the Chinese finger puzzle that this issue has become, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms. Will we see the “I AM” coming not to condemn either side of this debate, but rather to bring healing life to all? Will our fears be calmed long enough to bid him command us out of our boat, our safe places, and into the storm with all of our being? When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too catch our flailing limbs upon Jesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the safe and comfortable boxes in which we have always existed (both Liberal and Conservative voices take note!). The choice is ever before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out in the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman, Pastor