Scripture: Matthew 14: 22-33 Nigel Bunce
“Take heart, Don’t be afraid.” These words of Jesus to the disciples are the essence of today’s Gospel. This Scripture has two parts. Jesus walks on the water. And then Peter tries to do the same thing.
The context of the Gospel story
After Jesus fed the Five Thousand, he needed to recharge his batteries. So he spent the rest of the day alone in prayer on the mountainside. He told the disciples to go ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee. He said he’d catch them up later.
The Sea of Galilee is an inland sea, a lake. It’s probably of similar size to Lake Erie. Large lakes are very dangerous when storms blow up. Shipwrecks are more than just a possibility. And that night, a storm did blow up on the lake. Rowing was hard work for the disciples. But as dawn broke, Jesus walked towards them on the water. The disciples thought he was a ghost. I’ll come back to the words, “he was walking towards them” in a moment. Parenthetically, both Mark and John tell versions of this story.
There’s a similar story earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. In Chapter 8, Jesus stilled a storm, while the disciples were rowing on the Sea of Galilee. But that time, Jesus was asleep in the boat. He challenged the disciples, “Why do you have so little faith?” But in today’s passage, Jesus comforted them. “Take heart, Don’t be afraid.” These are the sort of words we might hear today from a paramedic team as they respond to an accident victim, or someone taken seriously ill.
The storms of life: “Take heart, Don’t be afraid.”
Today’s Gospel struck me as like a parable because we often think of life’s troubles as the “storms of life.” But especially, I noticed that the Gospel said that “Jesus came walking towards them.” We sense that Jesus knew that the disciples were afraid, and came to comfort them.
Right now, the COVID pandemic is a huge storm, societally and individually. It’s a time when people need that comfort. People out of work. Those who must use food banks. But independent of COVID, there are always other storms. I’m having trouble with my boss. Should I look for another job? Why do I have so many arguments with (pick one) my spouse, my parents, my children? Can I afford it to put Mom into care? And should I even think about something that seems so disloyal? If we listen, we may hear Jesus whisper, “Take heart, Don’t be afraid.”
But before we can listen, we need to take a breath and get out of the storm. In fact, that’s exactly what Jesus did at the beginning of today’s Scripture. He withdrew by himself to pray. Told the disciples to go on without him. And by the time the disciples had their moment of crisis, Jesus had recharged his batteries. He had the energy to tell them, “Take heart, Don’t be afraid.”
Like last week, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus walking on water is a miracle. We can’t explain it rationally. But in Matthew’s day, the supernatural was a normal way of telling stories. Not so for most of us today, except for science fiction. Teleporters only exist in Star Trek. But if we look for rational or scientific explanations for Jesus’ miracle stories, we will be out of luck.
Peter tries to walk on the water
In the second part of today’s story, Peter, the impetuous disciple, said to Jesus, “If you can do that, so can I.” So he climbed out of the boat and started to walk towards Jesus. But then he lost his nerve. He began to sink, and called out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus caught him and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matthew is clear about the conclusion we should draw. The disciples then chorused, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Peter said, “Lord, save me!” Let’s think about that for a moment. Scholars think Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community of Jewish Christians. They thought that Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah would initiate God’s reign on earth by looking after and protecting the Jewish people. He would save them from oppression, corruption and unfairness.
Those Jewish Christians weren’t thinking about eternal salvation. For them, Jesus wasn’t the Second Person of the Trinity. That’s a much later, Christian doctrine. For Matthew’s hearers, the story would have gone like this. The disciples recognized Jesus as the Messiah because he protected Peter. Because he miraculously saved Peter from drowning.
In most stories about stormy seas, the storm foretells something bad. Like the Grimm’s fairy tale about the fisherman and the three wishes. Or what happened in the Biblical Book of Jonah. God told Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. But Jonah took a ship going in the opposite direction. So God sent a great storm. Jonah realized it was his punishment. He had to throw himself off the ship to make the storm die down. That’s how he ended up in the belly of the great fish.
But today’s storm story has a happy ending. “Take heart, Don’t be afraid.” There’s a back-story in the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 107 is all about God’s deliverance of people in trouble. Verses 23-30 describe sailors who run into a storm on the high seas. It terrifies the sailors. They cried out to the Lord. God quieted the storm and brought them safely to harbour.
The seas as “the deep”
In an essay on today’s text, Peter Lockhart wrote that the expression “the deep” for the sea recalls the imagery of Genesis 1. There, God’s creating force calmed the chaos of ‘the deep’. Peter walked on top of ‘the deep’. Below him lay chaos and the threat of drowning – and probably monsters!
Lockhart’s image of ‘the deep’ represents all those monsters that make us afraid – our mortality, and the uncertainties of life. Monsters like the pain of broken relationships, of rifts between family members. Or the prospect of terminal cancer or dementia, or the loneliness or hopelessness or despair that so many people feel. Jesus’ words, “Take heart. Don’t be afraid”, can offer healing and hope when we are threatened by the stormy seas of life.
Jesus tells us, “Take heart, Don’t be afraid.”
In Psalm 46, the psalmist writes, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Every one of us has experienced times when God seems to be absent. We thrash around spiritually, and say, “Where are you, God in this storm?” On the surface of today’s story, Peter started thrashing around when he began to sink. It probably just made things worse and he sank all the faster.
The superficial story is that with Jesus’ help, Peter could do the unimaginable – stay afloat on the Sea of Galilee. The ‘parable’ is that with God’s help we can do more than we imagine possible. St. Paul wrote exactly those words to the Church at Ephesus. We know them as our Doxology. “Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Amen.