Sink or Float?
Sunday of August: 10 – Pentecost 9
22 Immediately << We are to understand that this story is connected to the feeding story. he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, 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 towards them on the lake. << The Greek says "sea." 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, 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.’
28 Peter 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 towards 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 worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
The Kingdom of Heaven is a treasure for which you would sell everything you have. We may glimpse it in that contradictory community called church. where some people bear great fruit, and some seem more like weeds. But the weeds are allowed to stay. Tiny like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Heaven grows to shelter people of all sorts. It corrupts the way of the world, leavening its horrors.
The kingdom of Herod is luxurious and exclusive, but deadly. Full of fear and insecurity, it abuses and kills. Herod kills the last of the great prophets before Jesus.
But Jesus takes his disciples to a desert place where, despite the grief of one more flight from the Herods, the Kingdom of Heaven bursts in with food left over. It feeds five thousand men, plus women and children; the number for the Torah. Twelve baskets are left; the number of tribes in the restored Israel. In a place where there is no luxury, the Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of plenty. It includes everyone. It gives without hesitation until people are filled.
Does Matthew's church sees itself here? After the feast Jesus leaves his disciples and goes up the mountain to pray. There's a hint of Moses in his actions, and even a foretaste of The Ascension, when the church is left without his physical presence.
Before leaving he sends them— he compels them— to cross the sea without him. He sends them out over the deep where all kinds of unfathomable uncertainties and evils lurk. He sends them into the world.
[It is Jesus who dismisses the crowds without the disciples, which might have its own message for those of us who are keen to control the church, or shepherd it too closely.]
Matthew's church is like the disciples, feeling on their own, battered by the waves, until the early morning. It's long enough to have any bravado about "living the kingdom" thoroughly doused. By the fourth watch of battering cold, even the kind of fierce joy that sometimes comes from doing God's work well in the storm, is replaced by realisation that this storm, erupting out of herodian depths, may drown us.
I remember the utter and visceral fear when a Min Min ceased its dance across the horizon and suddenly hurtled towards us. It can only have been worse in a storm on a boat. There is nowhere to flee. Everything around is already full of threat.
When Jesus appears to the boat of the church he seems to be of the same order as all the other terror which threatens their life! He does not come in the way we expect.
But Peter understands. In a moment of transcendence Peter sees that all this terror is actually the path of the Kingdom. This is the Way! We are not mere nothings in our mercy, and compassion, and feeding, and crying for justice. In a perspective we only dimly see— which we often lose sight of— we are facing down principalities and powers, and the weapons of Herod, and are being the Kingdom of Heaven.
If this is true, he cries, call me out of the boat. If this is the kingdom, I will do more. And he begins to sink.
Preachers often say "he took his eyes off Jesus." The text does not say that; only that he saw the wind and was frightened. Others say the point is that he cried out to Jesus, and Jesus saved him and took him into the safety of the boat.
I think that when we get out of the boat we will sink. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a solo effort. We belong in the boat. Even Jesus does not walk across the sea with impunity. Herod and Pilate will hang him from their mast.
Yet Jesus also calls us out of the boat. Sometimes there is a service to be done which means we go alone. The boat may follow. Or we may even do what is needed and walk back to the boat! But the story that is remembered is the story where we sink. Is this the default for discipleship?
I would prefer not to preach on this text. It is ripe for trivialising and sentimentalising. How dare I talk about suffering and sinking when my congregant's four brothers and sisters are dead in the massacres of war? I'm sinking!?— what was happening to my friend who spent 17 years in a refugee camp? How can I preach this text in the week the Australian government takes 157 people off-shore in "deception, secrecy and willingness to undermine the rule of law in Australia," all under the control of a Minister who claims to be Christian and claims Wilberforce and Tutu as inspiration?
But the text does witness to experience. We do get called out over deep water and find ourselves alone and sinking. How do I stay honest? How will I not be found rationalising a great evil? I'm sure Scott Morrison feels like he is sinking. And how will I not be found splashing around in a puddle of my own making or imagining, while pretending to a great discipleship?
Have I fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison? (Matthew 25:31-46) Or have I pre-empted the angels of the Lord and torn up the weeds (Matthew 13:29) uprooting all around?
And most of all, have I been at the seat of power in Herod's kingdom, killing, excluding, silencing the prophets? Or am I sinking, crying out to the Christ, scrambling for the leaky boat which is struggling through the waves toward the Kingdom of Heaven? Because if I am warm, safe, and comfortable in life, floating along in the seat of power, maybe I am in the wrong boat. Or just a barnacle on its bottom; a weed.
I'm not a boat person, so this is not a story I relate to all that well. I'm more for the desert.
It is also a story to be claimed, not a story to be imposed. To say to someone that they should see Jesus walking on the water in their particular storm is to use the gospel as a weapon against them. It is an abuse. If Paul felt like all things worked for the good for him, well, great. He has no right to tell me that as I am sinking, and I have no right to tell you. If, however, you feel a hand grasp you, hold on tight!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!