"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Water Walking

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August 10, 2014, Matthew 14:22-33, Romans 10:5-15 (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)

We’ll look today at this very well-known encounter between Jesus and the disciples – the walking upon the water in the storm. In the flow of this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we’ve just heard of the murder of John the Baptist at the hand of Herod. The encounter immediately before the storm is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

Let’s start by looking at each section of the account. We’re in a miracle-rich section of the Gospels. Jesus sends the disciples away in a boat, apparently to catch up with them later. As he often did, Jesus was taking some time to pray in solitude. The disciples are moving across the water in the boat, the text tells us the boat was a long way from land – the Greek here says ‘many stadia’ where a stadia was a unit of measure of about 600 feet or 185 metres. The parallel account in John’s Gospel tells us that the boat had been rowed about 3 or 4 miles across the lake – note the word rowed. As we’re told in Matthew’s account, the wind was against them. It’s likely they weren’t under sail for this journey, since sails don’t really work well when you’re trying to travel the same direction the wind is blowing from. There is no mention here about fear of the storm, for remember there were a number of professional sailors in this group, who would be well aware of how to handle a boat in the rough water and wind.

In the fourth watch of the night – this would be between 3 and 6 am, so the rowing has been going on all night. You would be correct to assume they would be exhausted, both because of lack of sleep and because of the physical effort of rowing. The disciples now spot someone, or something walking toward them across the water. This is something that cannot happen – and rather than assuming that it is Jesus coming to their aid in a time of need, the disciples assume that what they see is a ghost which leaves them terrified. Now sailors, if you know any serious sailors, can be a superstitious lot. Each year when we would put our boat into Lake Winnipeg for the sailing season, we would place a silver dollar underneath the base of the mast before raising it. The silver was intended to bring good fortune in sailing, and more practically to provide a good path into the water should the mast be struck with lightning. There were beliefs at the time of Jesus that the souls of those who drowned at sea did not enter the realm of the dead, but rather would wander the surface of the water. The disciples, still very much in their place of not fully understanding what was going on, react with terror.

It is interesting at this point to ponder what the disciples understood was going on – we’re just leaving the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 which ends with no affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. Indeed, in Matthew’s account all that we’re told is that people were satisfied – that is, had their hunger dealt with. In John’s account, we hear a declaration that Jesus was ‘the Prophet’ (likely Elijah) come back into the world. What we do not hear in any account is an affirmation of divinity. There is a sense that, for the disciples, another teaching moment was going to be required. Here it is – with this mysterious figure approaching across the wind-swept waters.

There’s also a sense of immediacy in this account. It begins with Jesus ordering the disciples, ‘immediately’ to get into the boat and leave. Once the disciples see Jesus and react with terror, Jesus again, ‘immediately’ says, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Just as immediately Peter challenges the claim, “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus merely replies, ‘come’, and now Peter too is walking on the water. When Peter ‘sees’ the wind, that is, is reminded about the stormy conditions around them he begins to fear and cries out one of the shortest but most effective prayers we see in the Bible, “Lord, save me!” Peter has learned who it is he should cry out to. Jesus takes a hold of Peter, and the two of them get into the boat. Without a word from Jesus, the storm ceases.

Now, in this miracle rich section of the Gospel, we see finally the recognition of who it is the disciples are travelling with. Those in the boat worship Jesus, and say, “Truly you are the Son of God.” That phrase might sound familiar as we hear the identical words uttered by a centurion at the foot of the cross of Christ as Matthew’s account draws to a close.

Now, what can we draw out of this encounter? First, we see in the story a confirmation of Christ’s identity. The image of walking on water is one that in the Hebrew mind was a role reserved for God alone (Job 9:8, Psalm 77:19). It also draws to my mind the hovering of the spirit over the primal chaos in Genesis. This storm at sea forms another type of chaos, one where the human element becomes quickly endangered, and God’s hand is required to calm the storm. We also see his kingship defined in the reaction of the disciples once they witness all of this, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” That last statement in particular will be heard again in two chapters (Matthew 16:16) on Peter’s lips when Jesus asks him directly who he says Jesus is. Peter answers that later question with, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

As our final step through this passage, we now ask the question – what is the Scripture saying to us here today? Let’s talk about boats first.

If you’ve been to a number of different church buildings, you’ll know that some have quite deliberately exposed ceiling beams, often ones that are curved. Even if we don’t have that type of structure – which is deliberately done to look like the inside of a boat’s hull, the name we give the main part of the worship space tells us something about the church. We call this area…the nave, a word drawn from Medieval Latin navis, the word for ship. This imagery, of the church being like a ship, has been around since the earliest days of Christianity. This is not surprising, for the region of Christ’s ministry would have been as comfortable with water-based metaphor as they were with agriculture-based stories. Through the Gospels it is often boats that bring Jesus to new areas to preach and to heal and to cast out demons. It was boats and ships that brought the apostles around that part of the world in the early days of the church. Today, the church, is still the vessel which brings the gospel into the midst of people.

This church is also the place that we come regularly to share in the community of believers, it is often our place of refuge when the storms of this world crash across our bows and leave us terrified. So regardless of what you hear on the news – rockets in Gaza, Russians massing on the border with Ukraine, ISIS under the banner of fundamentalist Islam spreading hatred and death across Iraq – you can return here every week to seek a place of peace and calm. The church forms our safe ship in the midst of our stormy lives. Likewise, if you’re experiencing that chaos in your personal life, this ship is a place to return for healing and calm.

When I talk about church in this manner, I want to be clear that I’m really not talking about the building, or the particular parish we happen to attend, or even the denomination we choose as our home. I’m speaking about something that is beyond the physical into the spiritual and mystical. So while the bread and wine will become, for us, on the altar the body and blood of Christ, so too this physical ship we call a church is an outward physical sign of a deep but somewhat hidden spiritual reality. This is the communion of saints, past present and future, of which we’re a part by our belonging within the Body of Christ. So this ship I speak of is, as we would say in the Book of Common Prayer service, “ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee that thou dost graciously feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; assuring us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are living members of his mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom.” The blessed company of all faithful people, which makes us living members of His mystical body.

This is a great comfort in times of uncertainty and loss – the times when, like Peter we feel like we are beginning to sink beneath the waves of the storm. To know that there is for us this refuge where we may rest and recuperate. This community, this mystical body, grounds us and connects us in ways we can barely imagine.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about Peter, he “had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith…[that] the road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. … Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” Peter steps forth from the boat in obedience, and learns a valuable lesson about faith. He can’t do it without Jesus. Part of God’s plan for all of us is that we too will learn that lesson – so I want to give you one tool of prayer to use in your own walk of obedience.

You may know someone who is a true saint when it comes to prayer – the one that comes to mind for me is a member of St John’s who has gone to his glory, Ralph Morris. Ralph was a bridge engineer, and as a fellow engineer and a lover of bridges, we had many talks about the many rail bridges across western Canada. He was the clearest image of a living saint, although he would deny it, and of a life that was steeped in prayer. His life was an example to me of what the call of a Christian looks like when lived out in faith and prayer was one of the constants in Ralph’s life.

One thing that almost all western Christians would openly confess is having inadequate time for prayer – we all know we should be praying more, but seem unable to do it. So how do we adopt that life of constant prayer that Paul commands, so that we too can be a person steeped in prayer like Ralph? I’ll close by introducing you to a very ancient, and very tiny prayer – on par with Peter’s “Lord save me!” known as the Jesus prayer. This prayer comes out of the eastern monastic tradition, and is used as a short memory prayer that can be used any time in any place. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s it. In those 12 words you affirm the faith, ask for intercession in your life, and remind yourself of why you need God. Once you’ve memorized the words, you can use it anywhere – just to start out I left some business cards with the prayer at the back of the church. Take as many as you want and leave them where you’ll see them. It is a great prayer, even to say repeatedly when you’re driving or waiting for your family physician.

This prayer is frequently repeated by those who follow that discipline, and there is even a sort of a rosary, a prayer cord, that allows you to count out how many repetitions you use. I’m not suggesting that everyone should pray this prayer 100 or 1,000 times per day, but that having a short memory prayer you can use anywhere is one way of becoming that person of constant prayer. So while driving (particularly when cut off), when waiting in line, when going into a big job interview, waiting for a feared diagnosis from your physician…you can quietly pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Becoming that person of prayer is one aspect of the obedience that God calls each of us to conform to, the way of Christ. Like Peter, being a person of prayer helps us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ, even when we find ourselves in the midst of a stormy chaos.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.


Written by sameo416

August 9, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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