Posts Tagged ‘Walking on water’

We are not meant to walk on water

August 12, 2017

Pentecost 11 – 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who dares us to believe and refuses to perform tricks to prove that God exists. Amen.

Recently Michael and I watched the movie “War Machine”. It features Brad Pitt as a gung-ho Four Star American General who is a veteran of the war in Iraq. He is sent to Afghanistan to bring an end the war or at least to find a way to bring the troops home. In order for him to do this the General, Glen McMahon, has been given wide-ranging powers. He is convinced that he, not those with years of experience in the country, knows just how to bring the Taliban to heel. He decides (against his explicit brief) that with more troops he can take Helmand Province, an area which in fact has little strategic or political value and which is a notoriously difficult area in which to carry out any sort of military operation. McMahon uses some underhand methods to gain public support for his plea for more troops and launches his offensive with disastrous consequences – for civilians, for his troops and for the war effort as a whole.

The movie is a good depiction of the sort of self-absorbed person who believes that they and only they are the solution to a problem and who will do anything to prove their invincibility. McMahon is so self-obsessed and so determined that he can do what is required that all objections and rational discussions are swept aside. The accepted wisdom is meaningless to him because he is sure that he knows better.

It is important to have people who challenge the accepted wisdom of their time. Without such people we would not have landed on the moon, explored the depths of the sea, discovered electricity and developed life-saving and life-changing surgery. We need people who see the world differently to provide leadership, to push-boundaries and to ensure that we do not stagnate. At the same time questioning the existing situation simply for the sake of seeking glory, in order to prove someone wrong or simply for the sake of it can expose the character of the contender, lead to harm to some if not many and may put a movement or discovery back years or decades.

Peter was many things – he was impetuous, thoughtless, he didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions and it took him a long time to accept that Jesus’ ministry was not about dramatic miracles and interventions, he wasn’t going to be particularly extraordinary and nor was he going to present as some sort of heavenly being. Today’s gospel is a good example of this aspect of Peter’s character. It demonstrates his overwhelming desire that Jesus be something special or that prove himself to be who he says he is. He couldn’t accept things as they were. He needed to push the boundaries to provide himself with some sort of evidence that Jesus really was who Peter hoped him to be.

Because Peter cannot simply accept things as they are, he puts God (in this case Jesus) to the test. In so doing, Peter reveals his lack of faith, need for absolute proof, and worst of all, his propensity to share the view of Jesus’ opponents that if Jesus is really the Christ, he should demonstrate it in such a way that it would be clear and easy for him to accept.

It is early morning – somewhere between 3:00am and 6:00am. The disciples have been on the lake all night. No wonder their tired, unsuspecting eyes believe that the figure walking towards is a phantom. When they cry out in fear Jesus tries to reassure them. He says: “Take courage, I AM, do not be afraid.” The expression: “Take courage” is one that Jesus has used twice before (9:2, 22) and “Do not be afraid” is an expression that is often on Jesus’ lips in Matthew’s gospel. “I AM” may simply mean “It is I”, but it is also the language used for God in the Old Testament. Eleven of the disciples appear to be satisfied with this response – the familiar language and the “I AM” statement assure them that this is no phantom, but Jesus coming towards them. Peter is not so easily satisfied. He cannot accept things at face value. He challenges Jesus to provide proof of his identity. “If it is you,” he says. “If it is you.” These are the words that Satan uses when he challenges Jesus in the wilderness (4:3,6). They are the words used by the High Priest at Jesus’ trial (26:63) and the words of those who mock Jesus at the crucifixion (27:40). “If it is you[1].” Even before Peter has even left the boat, he has put himself in the same league as Satan and Jesus’ earthly opponents all of whom demand: “Prove yourself, show us what you can do, demonstrate that you are not like the rest of us, and then maybe we’ll believe”.

Peter leaps out of the boat into the waves, not because he trusts Jesus but because he doesn’t trust Jesus. Peter sinks, not because he loses focus but because he didn’t believe it was Jesus in the first place. He puts himself at risk in the hope that Jesus will rescue him and that his doubts about Jesus will be put to rest.

The problem for Peter is that Jesus is not a conjuror. He doesn’t perform miracles to prove himself or to gain status and power. Satan couldn’t persuade Jesus to win over the world by doing astounding feats; Jesus will not perform miracles to win over the High Priest and he will not free himself from the cross just to attain temporary glory. Jesus will not put God to the test by doing something stupid like jumping from the top of the Temple and hoping that God will send angels to catch him.

We are not meant to walk on water, nor are we to take heedless, pointless risks in order to prove to ourselves, or to others, that God exists, or to test whether or not God will get us out of difficult and dangerous situations. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or to manipulate. We have simply to accept that God is, and no matter what happens around us, to hold fast believing that God will come to us over the waves and the winds that buffet us will cease.

 

 

[1] I am grateful to Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman for these insights. workingpreacher.org

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Taking our eyes off Jesus

August 9, 2014

Pentecost 9 – 2014

Matthew 14:22-36

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who stretches out his hand and holds us when we falter. Amen.

 

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,

other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed

that during the low periods of my life,

when I was suffering from

anguish, sorrow or defeat,

I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
 ‘You promised me Lord,

that if I followed you, 
you would walk with me always.

But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life

there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.

Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?’

The Lord replied,

‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,

is when I carried you.’

-Mary Stevenson

 

This poem adorns cards bookmarks, placemats, wall hangings, plates and a vast number of other things. It is a reminder that while we might take our eyes off Jesus, Jesus never takes his eyes off us.

Like most gospel stories this morning’s gospel reading is packed with detail.

You may remember from last week, that Jesus sought solitude after the death of John the Baptist and that he and his disciples got in a boat to go to a deserted place. His plan was foiled by the crowds who followed him seeking healing. Jesus’ compassion was such that instead of sending them away, he not only healed them, but he also fed them. It is now evening. Jesus commands the disciples to get into the boat. Then he dismisses the crowd. He himself remains behind to pray (his reason for being in the mountains in the first place).

When the disciples are a significant distance from land, the wind and waves build up and (according to the Greek) “torture” the boat[1]. This is not unusual. The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by mountains. When a wind causes the cool air from the mountains down to meet the warm air of the lake, the change in air pressure means that storms spring up suddenly and without warning. The lake is relatively shallow which means that waves build up more rapidly than they would in deeper water. We know that at least some of the disciples are fishermen and used to weathering stormy seas. This would explain why they do not appear to be afraid of the storm or the wind – even though they appear to have been battling the waves for several hours.

They are not afraid until – sometime between 3 am and dawn – they see a figure that they presume to be a ghost, walking on the water towards them. Terrified, they call out in fear, but Jesus – for of course, that is who it is – responds: “It is I, do not be afraid.” Both phrases are significant. The words: “It is I” are reminiscent of God’s words to Moses from the burning bush. I AM being the self- designation of God. Jesus is identifying himself to the disciples. At the same time he is identifying himself as divine. “Do not be afraid,” is also a familiar phrase. These are the words of the angel to Mary and to Joseph and to the shepherds in the fields. A natural response to the presence of God is fear or awe and from Genesis onwards, God’s representatives are careful always to allay that fear with the words, “Do not be afraid”.

Jesus is present but the storm continues to rage. The storm is not the source of the disciples’ fear, nor is the purpose of this story to demonstrate Jesus’ power over the storm.

Peter, who from now on, becomes the spokesperson for or the representative of the disciples wants to be sure that it is Jesus. Perhaps too he is testing Jesus’ divinity – if Jesus is “I am” then surely he will be able to empower Peter to come to him on the water. Jesus’ command: “Come!” makes the impossible possible. Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Jesus. At first all is well. Then Peter sees the wind (or more likely the effects of the wind). He loses confidence and begins to sink. Terrified, he calls out to be saved. Jesus reaches out to catch him, at the same time chiding him for having little faith and asking why he wavered or doubted. Together they get into the boat. Only then does the wind stop.

Astounded by what has happened, those in the boat realise that Jesus is the Son of God and the fall down and worship him.

The chapter ends as it began with large crowds seeking out Jesus in order that he might heal their sick.

For the ancients the sea was the place of chaos and evil. It was volatile and uncontrollable. That Peter left the boat at all is evidence of his faith and confidence in Jesus. That he faltered when he realised the danger in which he had placed himself is perfectly understandable. Jesus might chide Peter, but blind faith is not a pre-condition for Jesus’ saving grace.

Faith enables us to do extraordinary things and to face terrifying and demoralising situations. Responding to the call of God empowers us to do things we could not otherwise do – to step out of the safety of our figurative boats and to walk across the stormy seas of life. There will be times when we walk with assurance with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, but there may also be times when we falter. When we are overcome with confusion or grief, when we are weighed down with despair or guilt or when misfortune hits us out of the blue we can forget that Jesus is present with us or waiting ahead of us. At those times we can be sure that even if we forget, Jesus will not forsake us and that, when we call out in terror, Jesus will stretch out his hand and pull us to safety. The storm that had threatened to overwhelm us has been stilled.

We will discover that Jesus does not put limits on his compassion or his love nor does he place conditions on his help. Just as he did not abandon Peter to the sea, he will not abandon us in those times when our faith is tested or when our confidence in him has grown weak. Our faltering faith may mean that there are times in our lives when we take our eyes off Jesus, but no matter how much we waver, Jesus will never take his eyes off us.

 

[1] (The Sea of Galilee is not a sea at all but a large inland lake. It is formed between the steep cliffs of a wadi where the Jordan spreads out across the Rift Valley. The sea itself is 680 feet below sea level and the surrounding mountains reach up to 2000 feet in height. This means that while the valley enjoys a temperate climate the mountaintops get quite cold. When a wind rises in the east it brings the cold air down to the lake and when the cool air meets the warm the resultant change in air pressure mean that storms can spring up suddenly and without warning. The lake is quite shallow – 141 metres – and this means that it takes no time for waves to build up.)


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