Sunday, August 7, 2011

“Hey, cheer up! It’s me, don’t be scared.”

Special thanks to Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, who showed me a completely new way to look at the account of Jesus walking on the water, and to Scott Hoezee, whose work I borrowed heavily from in completing the sermon.

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

Romans 10:5-15
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Gospel 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

We’re picking up, in our Gospel reading, where we left off last Sunday. Jesus has spent the day touching, healing, and ministering to the thousands of people who met him when his lonely boat reached the shore, and he had multiplied loaves and fishes and fed the five thousand. Now, as the shadows lengthen, Jesus sends the disciples back across the Sea of Galilee in the boat, and sends the crowd home with full bellies.

And Jesus went to pray.

Jesus prayed a lot. Sometimes he prayed all night. And with his heart still heavy over the news of the execution of his cousin John, perhaps this was his chance to finally be alone with his Father, to finally have a moment to as “why?” Perhaps he finally had time to ask his Father, “what’s next?”

Hours pass, and for the disciples, a little solitude and “alone time” with God would have been a welcome relief from the frenzy of rowing, bailing, and worrying as they fought against the Sea of Galilee. Our translation does very little to convey just how bad things were for the Twelve, there in that little boat. The Greek tells us that, in fact, the waves tortured the boat, and the wind fought against them, opposed their every move! The Sea of Galilee is well-known for how quickly the weather changes there, and as the night went on, the disciples were literally fighting for their life!

And in the midst of all of this chaos, Jesus took a stroll, and like to have scared the disciples half to death!

Now, I need to back up a bit and say a word about superstitions. Just as there are American superstitions like the one about walking under a ladder, or specifically Southern superstitions like the one about rocking an empty rocking chair, the Jewish people in the first century had superstitions. For example, there was the one about large bodies of open water. They said that the open water was filled with demons. So it isn’t hard to imagine that these worn-out and terrified disciples, seeing, in a flash of lightning, a figure coming toward them across the open water, might not have had, “oh, cool, it’s Jesus!” as the first thought on their mind.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ve heard a lot of sermons about Jesus walking on the water, and I am betting you’ve heard some where Peter is praised for his faith, congratulated for having the courage to step out of the boat and walk toward Jesus. I know I’ve preached that sermon at least once.

But something has always bothered me about that. Peter stepped out of the boat, successfully walked on the water, at least for a few steps, and Jesus called him “You of little faith?” Really? Not even a “good effort, Pete, let’s try it again from the top.” or “Hey, nice try, buddy. Better luck next time.”

Jesus and Peter got in the boat, the seas were calmed, but no one patted Peter on the back, not even the writer of the Gospel acknowledges that he did something praiseworthy – Jesus is the one being worshipped, for the first time in the Gospels. Poor old Peter! He walked on water, man! Give him some credit!

Or… maybe not.

When the disciples saw that shadowy figure doing what no human being can do, move across the open face of the water, they were absolutely certain that they were going to die – that a demon was coming to finish the job the sea had started.

Imagine their relief, even joy, when Jesus called out to them, “Hey, cheer up! It’s me, don’t be scared.” No doubt they remembered the time, on this very body of water, when Jesus had stood in the boat and had calmed the wind and the waves with a word. Finally, they thought, everything is going to be all right.

Well, almost all of them thought that, anyway.

It’s easy to miss what Peter really says to Jesus. It sounds like a harebrained request in any light, and the sheer audacity of Simon Peter, getting out of the boat and walking off, captures our imagination. But is Peter acting in faith?

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Does that sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like exactly what Satan said to Jesus while he as testing the Lord in the wilderness?

“If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread… throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the Temple].”

Doesn’t it sound exactly like what the Pharisees asked for constantly: proof? “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

The lesson we are most often taught about Jesus walking on the water is that Peter had the right idea, stepping out of the boat, and would have been A-OK if he’d just kept his eyes on Jesus! And while there is, I suppose, merit in that teaching, I would contend that Peter’s error started long before he stepped out of the boat. Notice that Jesus asks Peter “Why did you doubt?” But that word for doubt doesn’t refer to the loss of faith which caused Peter to sink. Nor does it refer to the fear brought on by the surrounding storm. No, that specific Greek word for “doubt” refers specifically to doubt about the person of Jesus Christ – Peter’s doubt was that Jesus was who he said he was!

Jesus could well have been asking Peter, "What are you doing outside the boat in the first place?" Jesus had just shown them how much he could do with no more than simple bread and fish, he had fed well over five thousand people, with more than enough to spare! But Peter wanted something more as a way to test out Jesus' true power and identity.

Many scholars and commentators note that the feeding of the five thousand, our Gospel lesson from last week, has very strong connections with the Lord’s Supper – the breaking of the bread, the fact that so many were fed from one loaf, and so on. Since the only other time that Matthew’s Gospel makes mention of the disciples worshipping Jesus is when he appears to them after the Resurrection, it is arguable that this act of walking on the water is a parallel to the Resurrection appearances of Christ.

In walking on the water, climbing in the boat, and making the sea instantly calm, Jesus is demonstrating that he is who he has said all along that he is. He is demonstrating, decisively, his lordship over all of creation, his mastery of everything that exists, no matter how powerful, daunting, or dangerous. In demanding that Jesus prove himself, in stepping out of the boat, sinking, and requiring help, Peter not only endangered his fellow disciples by delaying Jesus, he made it all about himself.

It’s been said that if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat, and that’s right. And there are times and situations that call for the people of God to step out boldly, to act out their faith in heroic and dramatic ways for the cause of Christ.

But there are times when we don’t need to act like Simon Peter. We don’t usually think much about the eleven disciples who stayed in the boat--you know, the ones who didn’t jump over the side of the boat and try for some fancy footwork on the waves. Those disciples just pulled on their oars against the wind, steering their way toward Jesus for no other purpose than allowing him to get on board along with the rest of them. Sometimes it's enough just to be in the boat, awaiting Jesus' presence among us, believing that winds and waves or calm seas, he is surely with us, even to the end of the age.

Even if this story is about what people have always thought--that is, the need to do heroic and dramatic acts of stepping out on faith--even so, there is something to be said about faithful, low-key, non-dramatic work in the boat, too. There's something to be said for just believing the power of Jesus' word when he claims we need not fear because he is the Great I Am. There’s something to be said for pressing on in faith not because we’ve tested Jesus and found that he lived up to all the hype. Not because Jesus has enabled us to get attention for ourselves by doing something spectacular. No, we press on because you believe Jesus when, through the Spirit, we hear him say , “Hey, cheer up! It’s me, don’t be scared.”

1 comment:

  1. I never heard of that superstition about open bodies of water. Knowing that make this story so, so much different.