Todays readings for 10th After Pentecost Genesis 37:1-4,12-28 Psalm 105:1-6,16-22 Romans 10:4-15 Matthew 14:22-36
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
This week we are reading the next bit in the story that began last week with the feeding of the five thousand. The story of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 has told us, as we discovered last week a lot about Jesus and his purposes in our world. So this week we turn to this second account of a different kind of miracle to see what it might say to us today.
“Immediately after feeding the crowd with the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” The disciples, exhausted from a very long couple of days have taken to a boat in order to travel a few miles across the lake but as we discover it’s not that simple and they have been battling all night. And I think this is our experience as well in the Australian Anglican Church, we feel as if we have been struggling along for a long time and that now we are like a little boat with a slow leak gradually filling with water and facing the prospect of going under.
This boat was being tossed about on a very rough and windy night. For the Jews the water was the realm of the evil one- it represented chaos and death and so the disciples were very afraid. They are also very tired, one would imagine, after the act of service that has revealed God’s abundant generosity, for God’s people. Jesus sends the disciples away, perhaps to remove them from the people lingering there hoping for another free feed. After his long day of gut-wrenching compassion and work of tending to their weakness, he needs time out, with his Father, to rest and replenish. We might presume that he doesn’t notice time passing. I’ll bet the disciples did, however, being tossed around and getting further and further away from the land and from Jesus as they battled a contrary wind. The text actually tells us that the boat was being “tortured” by the wind. And in reading this we need to remember the context of the people for whom it was written, they were a new church struggling under persecution, so this is a picture that must have spoken strongly to them.
In the very depths of the night, between 3 am and 6 am, they see a figure coming towards them across the water. Now they know where they left Jesus, and they know that people can’t walk on water, so it’s not surprising they jump to the conclusion that it’s a ghost. They are already in a great state of fear and this added to the nightmarish quality of what they are experiencing. Matthew here, is referencing many Old Testament verses about Jahweh. God was the one whose pathway was on the waters as it says in various Psalms. God was the one who could not only cross over the waters himself but make a pathway for the redeemed as it says in Isaiah. Jahweh, or God, was the only one with that kind of power. The disciples start to cry out in fear and Jesus speaks to reassure them. And what does he say? “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid”- that’s what it said in our version but in the original it said, more like, “Take courage- I AM. Do not be afraid” Jesus is using God’s name for himself. I AM or Yahweh as the words sound in Hebrew, was the only personal name that they had for God. And over and over again when God speaks to humans he says, “Do not be afraid”. Jesus has proved he is God, walking to them, making a path across the waters and then names himself as God, giving God’s greeting to them.
Peter, who is a representative here of all the disciples, immediately puts Jesus to the test. He asks Jesus if he can walk to him across the waves. I imagine Jesus like a parent with a small child saying, “OK, if you have to”, and Peter launches himself out of the boat. At first, he is fine but, all of a sudden, he looks at the waves and gets frightened and his doubts overcome him. Remember that most people in the ancient world couldn’t swim. Peter starts to sink. It’s so human isn’t it? There he is testing Jesus, its all going fine and then he suddenly is overwhelmed by fear and loses it completely. At least he has the sense to call out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. They get into the boat and everything calms down. “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks. And that is the question for the new church struggling against persecution in the time when this is written, and it is the question for all churches now struggling against persecution or perhaps against either disinterest or active dislike, as we are in the wake of the Royal Commission.
The answer is that Jesus is Son of God, God himself and has an unlimited power to save. The next few verses show us Jesus in Gennesaret healing everyone- even if they could only get close enough to touch the hem of his garment. And don’t forget that the word for healing used is also the word for salvation. This is the great God of power.
So what about us? Our little boat seems to be becalmed on the lake- not a puff of wind to trouble us- but not a puff of wind to bring us closer to where we want to be either. We can be just as doubtful as the disciples about the outcome of our voyage- after all we know that Jesus was left behind, not on the shore, but two thousand years ago. As E.R. Rawlinson wrote in 1925 about the early church in Rome, “it must indeed have appeared that the wind was contrary and progress difficult and slow: faint hearts may even have begun to wonder whether the Lord himself had not abandoned them to their fate, or to doubt the reality of Christ.” Do we wonder that as a church- whether Jesus has abandoned us to our fate and that we will slowly sink under the waves?
Just like Peter we can feel overwhelmed by fear and doubt but Jesus is always there to stretch out his hand. Peter was trying to emulate Jesus, which is, of course, our calling as disciples. We are called to feed and to bring healing, to show God’s amazing generosity to people, to exercise our ministry with gut-wrenching compassion. But sometimes we mistake our work, what we are called to do, for what Jesus does. It is God’s business to save, it is God’s business to do the actual healing though we may be the means through which it is done. We have to know our own gifts and use our energies wisely, we have to know where our responsibility lies as Jesus’ disciples here and now. The lesson we learn from this passage is that we are called to stay in the boat, that is the church, and to trust in Jesus. In our witness of being there, in faith, no matter whether we are being tossed about, or becalmed, we are exhibiting the faith we have in God. Of course, just like the disciples we do have to go out from the boat and proclaim what Jesus is offering to our world. We need to tell others of God’s great love for them, and for his power to heal and to console all who call upon his name. Jesus’ power is so great that everyone who had faith in Jesus had only to touch the hem of his garment and they were healed and saved. However, they did have to hear about Jesus in the first place in order to encounter him. And that is the message that we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning. “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
If you are like me you might feel uncomfortable about an exclusive claim, one that tells people that they cannot be saved unless they ‘become Christians’. Salvation is God’s business not ours, and we believe that God loves everyone. However, the reality in our world is that there are many people for whom God is either a mystery, or who are not even quite sure that God exists. They are missing out on the joy and peace of relationship with God. They are not experiencing life in its fullness, a life in which the knowledge that God loves us forms the basis of all we do and say. People are in need of a relationship with God, whether they know it or not and we can help them to that experience. This is what we are being sent to proclaim, that God has compassion on the sheep without a shepherd.
And for our church, the boat in which we experience God’s feeding and God’s abundant love, the place from which we are sent into the world- we must act together in faith, to support it otherwise this particular little boat will sink beneath the waves. “Take heart,” Jesus says, ““I AM”, do not be afraid.”