Daring to walk on water

Week of Sunday August 7
Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33

22 Immediately 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. 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.’

Do I dare to believe that I might walk on water?

Matthew Chapter 14 seems to stand as a whole.

In the beginning we see the world of Herod Antipas’ court; the world as it is now. This is the world of political power and obligation, with its own peculiar code of honour. In this place it is right to display your stepdaughter’s dancing to a group of inebriated men, and to flaunt your power by offering “whatever she might ask” as reward. (Even to half your kingdom, in Mark 6.) In this world of Herod, of course the life of a man is not worth half a kingdom. The life of a man is not even enough payment for the public embarrassment caused by a scheming wife. Pride, money, and appearances are everything. Such is the freedom of the rich. And such is the world of today’s power. (14:1-12)

In contrast to this world we see the promise of the kingdom of heaven. Everyone is included. Even in a desert place there is food for all, and food left over. The sick are healed. Jesus, whom this chapter tells us is the Son of God (33) looks upon the people with compassion, not as subjects. Remember that “Son of God” is both a religious and political claim: by positioning the story here, Matthew presents the feeding of 5,000 men as a direct counter claim to the kingdom of Herod. He shows us the feast of Jesus; the world as it should be, and as it will be. (14:13-21 See last week)

Then we come to the reading for this week. (14:22-33)

The disciples are out on the lake, being battered by the waves. Water is the great enigma of our reality.  It gives and sustains life; a few hours without water leave us grievously ill, and on the way to dying. The fish of the lake and the seas feed us. The vistas of lakes and rivers, and the sea coasts, are a feast to our eyes; doorways to the transcendent, and thin places which draw us into the presence of the Divine as surely as the High Hills.

And water is deadly. We drown in it. The same sea which provides food spews fishermen’s bodies onto the beaches. Deep under the water there always lurks the possibility of evil. A picturesque lake can become a maelstrom with terrifying speed.

The night lake of Galilee is the great reality check upon Jesus’ claims. It is the world as it is now, battering our hopes for the world as it should be. It asks the question, “Do you dare believe the world can be different from the power of the Romes and the Herods?”

It’s in the early morning, in the dying time, that the disciples’ dreams and hopes of yesterday are being battered by the waves, far from the land, with the wind against them. The lake, threatening all its deadly potential, is mocking Jesus’ feeding. It is turning all that Jesus did into yesterday’s fleeting dream. These men, without Jesus, cannot even cross a small lake on their own. What chance have the bold claims of Jesus against the power of Herod, and against the brutal facts of physical and political reality which the lake symbolises. “You will always have the poor with you....” and the Herods.

Very early in the morning, Jesus answers. He walks towards them on the lake. His unmistakable claim is, “I own this lake. This is mine. I walk on it as I will.” This is not some rumour of feeding. It not some misunderstood psychological urge of the crowd to share their provisions after the example of a little boy, then embellished by a later story teller. In fact, this is not a claim at all. This is brute fact. He owns the power of water. He walks on it. The echoes of Old Testament images of Yahweh, (Ps 77:19; Job 9:8 Ps 106:9; 65:7; 89:9; 107:25-32) are not necessary to see this. The image has its own unmistakeable power.

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?’

I’ve been there, out on the water, in a thin place, and all things have seemed possible. And just as quickly, I have seen the waves, and sunk, shamed and humiliated, over-awed and silenced by the bellow of Herod and his lackeys. But I have also been hauled into the boat, and even in my humiliation and failure, found that the wind stops. The power of what Jesus points us towards has still endured, still been real.

What do these stories tell us today?

It is clear that the story of Herod is real, true, literal and actual. Sentence of death is passed every day. Metaphorically, the systems also serve up on platters, on a daily basis, the heads of those who have opposed them, or lost out in the power plays. We see this in the papers and on our screens, and even in our own street.

But the feeding of five thousand and the walking upon water are not literal. Are they just stories, or are they also true? Is there a reality, or are my experiences of the thin places mere imaginations, as fanciful as stories of walking on water and feeding great crowds from a few loaves and fishes?

Do I dare believe I can walk on water, and live for the world as it should be, or is that impractical foolishness that never will be?

I see hints of the coming kingdom in my street. People like Steven Pinker even argue we are living with less violence than ever before! The Herods do not have it all their own way.  There are islands of peace, sheltered from the storm for a time, as though Jesus had stepped into the boat. But this is still an imagining of kingdom. A day after such hopeful observations it can appear obvious that Herod rules as he always has.

What strikes me is that the Gospel does not end here, with Jesus walking on the water. This walking out to the disciples is not the moment of triumph, but a moment of rescue. The Gospel ends, instead, with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Walking on water costs Jesus his life. His claim is not tolerated. The Messiah is rejected. He is finally plunged into the deep, far deeper than Peter, with no one to rescue him.

That is a true story. We know it well, whether it is Dietrich Bonheoffer, Dom Helder Camara or Graham Staines who pays the cost. The powers kill off their opposition. The truth of the rescue on Galilee  is not to be found by looking for proofs of Jesus walking on water. It is to be found in Jesus dying, and before him, in Peter sinking.

When we ask if we dare walk on water, and live life as it should be, the outcome is clear. We will sink, many times, and we may die for it. The daring is in our trust and belief that there will be a hand to pull us into the boat, or if not, that there is a resurrection worthy of the name. This, I realise, is what we call having faith!

Andrew Prior

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!



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