Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33
Matthew’s gospel typically portrays Jesus’ disciples as people of “little faith,” who fail despite their best intentions. In this story, Matthew shows how Jesus comes to the disciples when they are in trouble and sustains them in their time of fear and doubt.
22[Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee], while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When I was in middle school youth WWJD jewelry was all the rage. It was supposed to remind us, in any situation, to ask “what would Jesus do?” In an attempt to lead us to making good choices with our life we should do like Jesus did and feed the hungry, show mercy, forgive, and walk on water. Right?
While 8th grade me spent much time wondering what exactly Jesus would do if his date kissed another girl at the winter formal. What would Jesus do???? And then, it seemed like all the sermons and preaching I heard was about what people in the Bible did. How they listened to God. And how they are good examples for us. That confused me even more because they seemed like HORRIBLE examples. I mean it was at least reassuring that Jesus still loved and trusted his disciples after they messed up multiple times, but it didn’t give me much to work with.
It has been my experience that when we focus on what God is doing in a reading from the Bible – how Jesus is acting – we might gain a better perspective on not just our own responses but on what God is doing right here and right now. We may never know what Jesus would do if he accidentally sent an embarrassing reply all email that was only supposed to go to one person. – but we know what God has done – and God’s faithfulness and promise extends to us, here and now.
The whole set of readings for today focuses on some serious acts of God. And Matthew likes to highlight Jesus doing typical God stuff – stuff that the people had seen and heard before from the Old Testament. Jesus doing “God acts”—words and deeds that the Most High had said and done according to Israel’s Scriptures.
To set the scene, Jesus is again trying to get a little alone time, after feeding 5000 people plus women and children. He sends the disciples away first. And then dismisses the crowds. By the time he’s done praying alone that evening, the boat has been pushed out to sea by the wind. Early in the morning, he came walking towards them. Wind whipping his hair, battering the boat, and pushing the disciples away as he comes closer.
But this isn’t the calming of the storm – Jesus calmed a storm on the open sea 5 chapters ago. He could have made the sea calm as glass, brought the boat back to shore. But He walks to them, into the wind, into the chaos of the open seas….. And here’s something I never heard before.
According to one professor writing a book on Matthew. “the Gospel highlights Jesus’ choice to walk on the waves as a deliberate recollection of what God did at creation. Matthew states that Jesus “went (elthen) to them, walking upon the sea (peripaton epi tes thālassa)” (14:25). Remember when God questions Job about the cosmos. Job complains about God’s management of the universe, and in response, God asks him a few questions about where he was at creation, and if he himself has any management experience. According to the Greek translation of the text, God asks Job if he ever “went upon (elthes… epi) the springs of the sea (thalāsses) or walked (periepātesas) in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:16 Septuagint).
Earlier in the book, Job affirms that the Creator had traversed the oceans before the dawn of humanity, saying that God “stretched out the heavens and trampled on the waves of the sea” (9:8). Ancient peoples believe that the chaos of the sea was untamed, and untamable even by gods and goddesses. And yet biblical tradition teaches us that our God rules over even the chaos of the deep.
Every description of Jesus’ life in the Gospels has theological meaning related to the God and people of Israel, even as God is revealed in the life of Jesus. Jesus decides to walk on water because this is what God had done at the creation of the world. The disciples, of course, do not make the connection—to the contrary, they’re terrified because they think they’ve seen a “ghost”
Over their cries of fear, Jesus calls to them, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (15:27). Jesus reveals himself — not simply as Jesus, their teacher, but as “I AM.” A more literal translation of this sentence would be, “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid.” This self-revelation is a disclosure of Jesus’ source of power. For Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, Jesus’ words echo the divine name revealed to Moses. I Am.
Jesus reveals himself, using the divine name – but Peter is still not so sure.. Jesus, if it is you – command me to come to you on the water. God if you’re really there, do this thing, so I’ll know its you. Prove it, in essence.
But this isn’t the only time we hear someone challenge Jesus. When Peter says, “If it is you…” (ei su ei in the Greek), then he is joining the company of Satan (4:3, 6), the high priest (26:63), and the mockers at the cross (27:40) who all put the same challenge to Jesus. If it is you, turn these stones to bread. If it is you, get yourself off that cross. In each case, just like Peter, they want Jesus to do something in order to verify his identity. Prove it Jesus.
And for his closest disciples – inexplicably Jesus does it. He proves it, and Peter can’t handle it. He sinks. One of my seminary professors always seemed to speak about this story as a cautionary tale. Rather than some interpreters elevation of Peter as the bravest disciple – I’ll follow you anywhere Jesus…. The moral of the story is, stay in the boat. Jesus is here. Jesus is coming. There’s no need for you to ask him to prove it, he asked you to get in the boat so you stay in the boat.
And even in situations where our small boat is being battered by forces outside of our control, Jesus is with us. A boat was one of the earliest symbols of the church. A vessel of salvation in rough waters and chaotic unknown seas. In fact, the word for where you all are sitting is the nave. From the latin for boat or ship. My very first congregation’s building was built so that the wooden ceiling and boards and beams made it look like the hull of a boat over top of us.
A boat provides a way through chaos, a sanctuary from the wind and waves, though dangers exist on any journey, and you’ll certainly feel the wind and the waves. But the one who is lord of heaven and earth and all the chaos in between comes to us. May we trust his power and keep singing.
“No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”