Sermon for Trinity 7
Sunday 7 August 2011
Looking towards Jesus
I’ve got to admit that today’s gospel is very challenging for me. When it comes to so-called nature miracles I’m extremely sceptical. Nor am I at all convinced by so-called naturalistic explanations such as the idea that Jesus was walking on stepping-stones or that he was walking by the sea shore and not actually on the sea. The fact that the gospel speaks of Peter sinking rules the last one out for sure! The idea has even been propounded that he was walking on ice! I don’t think so! Frankly it is impossible to know what really happened. If you push me I’d say that this story arose through a process of intensification of the miraculous and probably has its origins in an event when Jesus comforted his disciples while their boat was buffeted by a storm. This is probably the origin of the storm stilling narratives as well. In this passage, however, Matthew is making two important points from which we can learn.
You’ll recall that in the story the disciples are in the boat on the sea while Jesus is in the hills praying. They are separated from Jesus and they feel this separation in their terror and fear during the storm. They are alone and vulnerable. Their terror lasted a long time. According to the passage, the disciples were already on the sea in the evening by which time the storm had begun, and it was not until the fourth watch of the night – sometime after 3 am – that Jesus miraculously comes to them. In other words they were being pummelled by the storm for at least six hours. The significance of this story for the church and for individual Christians is that although Jesus is separated from us, yet he continues to pray for us and will come to our aid when we are in need. So we, like the disciples in the story, must “take heart [and] have no fear,” although we “are beaten by the waves and the wind [is] against [us].” The Christians for whom Matthew was writing were sharply conscious of Jesus’ physical separation from them. He had been in the world in the lifetime of some people still living, but he was no longer with them in his physical presence. They felt his bodily absence more acutely than we do who have only known him spiritually. But we too face many fears and concerns and we need to know that Jesus continues to pray for us, to ask God his father and our father to comfort us and support us. This is not a theme we often think about, is it? But there are many passages in the New Testament which speak of Jesus praying for us, bringing our needs into God’s presence. God knows, feels and understands our needs and concerns, our pains and our sorrows, because Jesus who has embraced our humanity, is in God. He has taken the experience of being human in the life of God and thus deepened the empathy God has with us. Furthermore many of us know that Jesus comes to us in our time of need, that as well as being present with God, he is also present with us, supporting and upholding us.
The story of Jesus walking on the water is common to both Matthew and Mark. But Matthew makes a significant addition to Mark’s narrative. He adds the incident of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water as well as Jesus. This addition also has something important to teach us. Peter represents us, the ordinary Christian. Matthew and his community have a very high regard for Peter, the first of the apostles, the rock on which the church is founded. Yet the gospel does not omit the story of his denial of Jesus and here he is presented as a man of little faith, a doubter. Like Peter we want to obey Jesus’ call to follow where he is leading. But like him when we face problems and challenges our faith falters and weakens. We all have our doubts. There’s nothing wrong with honest doubt; but doubt borne from suffering can be deeply debilitating. It can lead to despair. Like Peter we need to cry out, “Lord, save me.” Many of us are too proud or too doubtful to do so with any conviction. We’re also justifiably dubious about those who claim that God always answers their prayers. Nevertheless God is always there, always ready to come alongside us and support us as we pass through the waves of woe, leading us into the lifeboat of his love. It is noticeable in the story that when Peter is looking towards Jesus he is safe, when he considers the waves and the storm he starts to sink. In the same way we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. This is no pious or waffly idea. It means trying to think and to act as Jesus did. Not easy, but surely central to our discipleship. For me the person of Jesus is the reason I am a Christian; he sets a standard to which I can only aspire. But though I may only aspire, his inspires me and you too, I am sure, and where he leads we, like Peter of old, must follow.
Trinity 7 | Sunday 7 August 2011