Did you hear about the netballer who was asked how many how many goals she had kicked during the game on Saturday? That's what's called a category mistake. It is not so much asking the wrong question, as completely misunderstanding what's going on!
(If you live in the USA: netballers don't kick the ball.)
In the story where Jesus walks on the water, we often make a category mistake. We ask whether he really walked on the water or not. But that's a question of our time, not Jesus' time. It's not the wrong question— it simply misses the point.
In Jesus' time there were people, without doubt, who simply assumed that he literally walked on the water. And there were other people— both groups including followers of Jesus— who assumed he didn't walk on the water; that idea would have made no sense to them. It was not the question they would have asked about the story.
The question that was of interest to Jesus' people was not, "Did it really happen?" but "What does this story mean? What on earth happened to make Matthew tell us this story?"
That's the question we're going to look at this morning. We could ask the other question, and we could argue about it for ages, but I'm pretty sure it would not get us anywhere useful.
Water, and particularly lakes and the sea, were symbols of a place for chaos and evil in Jesus' time. In the story of the beginning, in Genesis, God comes to the water and imposes order upon the chaos. You remember that it says "the Earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." The word without form is translated as chaos in other places in the Bible. (Isa 24:10, 34:11, both passages referring to judgment; cf. 4 Ezra 5:8. Quoted here from Dennis Bratcher)
So, in this story, when God creates the land, what God is doing is pushing the water back, pushing back the chaos, creating boundaries around chaos, taking control of the chaos, and making order.
But for Jesus' people, the sea and deep water remained as potent symbols of all that is wrong in the world. They were a way of talking about how the creation— including us— was in some sense incomplete, or fallen, or gone wrong. We heard Psalm 69, where terrible things were happening to the person writing the psalm, and the way they talk about these is to imagine their suffering in terms of sinking down into deep water.
1 Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me. …
4 More in number than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me without cause; (cf John 15:25)
many are those who would destroy me,
my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
must I now restore? …
With your faithful help 14rescue me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.
Notice that the water in this Psalm is not a literal thing. It's a metaphor, an image, of the chaos and suffering of people at the hands of people.
The rather obvious meaning of this story has something to do with Jesus walking over the chaos. Jesus is in control. He is able to walk across the places of great danger. He controls the chaos. This is not surprising, given that at the end of Matthew's gospel it says, "Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (28:18)
But if we take the water walking literally there's a real problem. Because, clearly, chaos is still here. If he can control the world in a way which means he takes over nature and alter the laws of gravity, and has the ability to stop storms with a word, why doesn’t this happen now? Something else… is going on with this story.
Jesus comes, first of all, to deal with the chaos in our lives. I don't just mean the turmoil in my personal life, or the turmoil in your personal life. I mean the chaos in humanity as a whole. Most of the chaos in my life, and in your life, is caused by the chaos in humanity as a whole. We learn from, and are created by, the opinions, the ideas, and the pain and the wounding, of other people. And, of course, we suffer directly at the hands of others. No one is an independent person.
In fact, when it comes to the healing of the chaos in creation, it appears that the healing of the chaos within humanity, will be substantially related to the healing of the chaos creation. You can see that is Paul's expectations in Romans chapter 8: 18-25. In other words, it's not the world which is wrong; no— we are the problem with the world.
The chaos in our lives, the swirling deep waters which are so dangerous and can drown us, have to do with the way we insist on judging people as good or evil, categorising them as loved by God or hated by God, and treating them according to our bad judgement, and excluding and expelling them. We find it almost impossible to think of people without categorising them as good or bad, as liked or disliked, as hated or not hated, as right or wrong.
It is so difficult for us to imagine another way of being human— some other way of relating to people— that we scarcely know what we are talking about when we wonder if we can live a life that doesn't categorise, expel, and do violence to people.
In fact, many people imagine that God is going to end the world by doing violence to untold millions of people, which is incomplete contradiction to the nature of the God revealed to us in Scripture, where it says, God is love. (1 John 4:8) But we are so indoctrinated into the normality of violence that we do not see what a travesty it is to imagine God as judgmental. And so we live judgementally and violently, for judgement… is violence.
It is almost impossible for us, as human beings, to relate to people outside of violence, outside of categorisation as in or out, approved of or disapproved, good or bad, loved or unloved. We live by excluding others from our love, judging them as less than ourselves. We base our lives around this. Our whole culture is based upon the violence of always having someone who is wrong, someone to blame. There is always someone who we make into an outsider.
This is the impossible thing for us to walk over, the thing into which we sink immediately when we try to walk over it. There is something here which we cannot transcend in our normal humanity. In fact, it doesn't even occur to us to try. In fact, we don't think about it, or even see it. We just do it… because it is our normal. For most of the time we think that violence and judgement are the correct way to be. How can life work without boundaries and enemies?
This is the chaos which is slowly sinking us, and at the moment, bringing us again to the brink of nuclear war, this time with North Korea. And which is the violence coming to the surface as rage begins to boil during the debate over marriage equality in Australia. As always, people on both sides of the argument are being injured.
Despite all this, it says in 1 John verse 3, "Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him." It says that we are to be remade, made fully human, made like Jesus the Word become flesh, made fully in the image of God. We shall finally become fully human.
For a few moments, Peter, when he had his eyes on Jesus, was like this. He walked over the chaos of his humanity. He was a new Peter. He saw, and imagined, a new way of being. He lived it. And then, when he took his eyes off Jesus, he sank. He lost the vision.
I think the story of walking on water refers to something like this vision. It reflects a new imagining of reality given to the first disciples of Jesus. Something in his behaviour, and something in his resurrection from the dead, gave them a new imagining of how life might be— of what it might mean to be human. I suspect that some of them entered into that imagination for periods of time, and found that it changed everything in their imagining of the world.
This is a gift offered to us. I said in the Bible Study post, this week that there was a person with whom I’d had a tortured relationship. It was clear that the violence in both our lives was polluting and skewing everything. I was a person driven to categorise, to see things in black and white, and to be judgemental. It was how I had survived.
For some reason something changed. I had learned something of why we had such a hard time getting on— that had been clear for a long time. Yet as one of my friends says, it's all very well to see how these things work; it's a completely different thing to change the way we live.
But one day, somehow, I walked straight past the usual resentment. It was like walking on water. For a few hours, no matter what waves rolled in, I was untouched, full of compassion and understanding, healed of the violence in us both, and full of heavenly delight. I'm not sure that literally walking on water would have been any more amazing!
And then it was gone. I could not even remember how, why, or what… had empowered me. I sank like a stone into my former self, and my former way of being. And I mourned.
But I have not forgotten. I have seen there is a new way of being, a new creation. And it's glorious.
Trust Jesus and get into the boat: Practice being church. Practice living the way of Jesus. Seek to live as he did: seek to be gentle, kind, forgiving; don’t judge and condemn. Trust him that this way of living works. And now and again, perhaps even more than a few times, you may find he enables you to get out of the boat and walk places you thought were truly impossible. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2017)
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!
It may be helpful to read this post after reading
Magic Jesus and the Real Feast, and
Where Lies the Miracle?
Previously on One Man's Web
Daring to walk on water (2011)
Sink or Float (2014)
Risk Rescue and Life (2014)
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