Sunday, August 13, 2023
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Katy, TX 77450
Today’s gospel follows the feeding of the 5000. We didn’t hear that last week because we celebrated Transfiguration Sunday so we had those readings instead of the Proper 13 readings. Matthew presents two major miracle stories back to back in chapters 13 and 14. When he is dismissing the crowd this morning, that’s the 5000 men, not counting women and children. Stop and think of the size of this crowed. With a family of four we are talking 20,000 people. He has healed and fed many people.
I think it is safe to say that Jesus has had a busy day healing and feeding people not to mention that he has learned of the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He needs time to go and pray, to connect with God and I suspect do some grieving at the death John the Baptist. Remember they were related and John is probably his cousin.
He made the disciples get in the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Another translation uses the word compels them. I note that he didn’t suggest, ask or anything else, he forced them get in the boat. Jesus is exhausted, drained and in need of solitary time with God.
Rather than look at this as a strictly literal story I want to spend some time looking at the symbolism in this story, for Matthew’s story is unique. In the Luke and Mark version of the story Jesus is in the boat with the disciples when the storm arises. The focus here is on his stilling the storm and the seas. The walking on water is unique to Matthew.
Water is an ancient symbol for chaos. Think in terms of the Creation story and Noah. The Spirit, the ruach blows over the chaotic waters in Genesis and the prologue to John and God brings order out of chaos and creates land and the world as we know it. With Noah the waters in the flood story breaks forth from under the earth, it wasn’t just rain.
For first century Christians the sea was very dangerous. They rarely sailed out of sight of land for navigation was very basic. Compasses had not been invented. Navigation was strictly by stars and the sun. There was no Accuweather, storms could come up quickly and without warning.. I’ve lived by bodies of water much like the Sea of Galilee growing up on Lake Erie and then working on Cape Cod. I remember one day being out on a kayak on the bay side of Cape Cod and saw a storm coming over from Boston. We just got back to shore when a storm with 80 mph winds struck. We surely would have been in deep trouble if we hadn’t made it to shore. So keep that picture in your mind as you think about this story.
In the Hebrew Scripture water was also an impediment: Think of Moses and crossing the Red Sea. The Israelites cross but then the waters close in over the Egyptians bringing destruction.
For Matthew I believe that the boat is a symbol of the early church and the disciples are the church. They are battered or in Greek tortured by the waves. The popular culture in Matthew’s time was against them, they were a small group challenged and often persecuted. This story is really a metaphor for the struggle of Matthew’s community in a world that was against them.
In Matthew’s story the disciples are separated by chaos from Jesus. Then Jesus is coming over the waters, trampling over the chaos, unaffected by the storm. Fear is a major theme here and they see Jesus coming but are terrified that it is a ghost, they apparently don’t recognize him at first. Then he says, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Now the translation is a problem here for the “it is I” in Greek is the famous Ego Emi, I am. The words God says to Moses. I am in the Hebrew scriptures meant it was God! Matthew, through Jesus, is saying it is God incarnate that is trampling the waters of chaos to come to them.
Then Peter being Peter does something crazy. He asks, “If it is you command me to come to you on the waters.” Peter can’t wait for Jesus to get to the boat, but steps out. He’s doing ok for a bit but then he takes his eyes off Jesus, notices the wind and panics. As he begins to sink He calls out “Lord, save me!” Jesus takes his hand, catches him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” I don’t think that Jesus is mad at Peter. If you listen to how I said that line it is filled with compassion.
Doubt here is Greek word that better translates as vacillation not unbelief. It only appears twice in the entire New Testament in Matt 28:17. This is where Jesus appears after the resurrection and even though they see Jesus, some still “doubted.”
In times of chaos we can have a feeling of where are you Lord. St. Ignatius calls these moments of desolation when God seems distant. Yet the hope is this is when God is really the closest waiting, like with Peter to take our hand and “save us.”
Symbolically Peter lets the chaos of the world distract him and he begins to sink. Yet there is Jesus ready to pull him up out of the chaos, to get him back in the boat. As soon as they enter the boat the wind ceases and all is calm. Then and only then do the disciples seem to get it and worship Jesus. With Jesus in the boat all is well. With Jesus in our boat, all will be well.
We are living in a time of chaos and that is hard on all of us. Chaos in families, in politics, in schools, weather. All of these can rock our boats and the boat of the church has certainly been rocked and is being rocked. Life as we know it is different and as we move forward with plans we need to be patient and not jump to conclusions.
What is the chaos of your life that appears to separate you from Jesus?
The question I wish to leave you with is what is the chaos in your life that appears to separate you from Jesus? What is the chaos that makes you want to sit in the boat like the disciples? Lord knows there is an awful lot of chaos out there in today’s world. There are many things to be fearful of, many things that can get in the way of our ability to follow the teachings of Christ. But remember the passage from Romans two weeks ago. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing in this world or anywhere can separate us. There are no waters of chaos that can stand between Jesus and us.