The best way to walk on water

The Podcast:

Matthew 14:22-33

Aieeeeeeee! “Lord, save me!” Matthew doesn’t say that Peter screamed as he began to sink, and felt the water closing over his head, but it seems reasonable that he would have. I know I would have. Even before Peter’s brush with death, the disciples had been having a pretty rough go of it. Struggling against the wind on a roiling sea, they were exhausted and discouraged… and afraid.

I ran into some weather once… on a fifty-four foot sailboat during a night cruise from the Bahamas to Miami. Fifty-four feet seems like plenty of boat for such a voyage—when it’s tied up to the pier during the day. On a dark, moonless night, however, not so much…. Visibility was limited, causing me to feel as if I was drifting in a bubble in space. Add to that: gale-force winds, and ten to twelve-foot swells, and it didn’t take long for weariness and fear to set in. We were motoring, because we were headed directly into the wind, and I remember how the bow of the boat (which I could barely see) would ride up and over a swell—and then slam down into the following trough with a boom. I’d count to three… and then feel the salt spray on my face. In retrospect, it seems kind of exhilarating, but at the time, it was just plain overwhelming. And it probably seemed so for the disciples, in their little cockleshell of a boat, in the middle of the dark sea—in a gale—without the benefit of a compass or a radio or life preservers. It’s unlikely any of them were even swimmers! And it was Jesus who had sent them out onto the water by themselves in the first place! Why would he do a thing like that?

I wonder if Jesus, as he so often did, was creating a teachable moment. Our Scripture passage today relates that Jesus directed his disciples to take the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He said he was doing this so that he could dismiss the crowd of five thousand or so, who had recently been fed from five loaves and two fishes—y’all remember that story, right? And then he went up the mountain to pray. What was up with that? I’m pretty sure Jesus knew the wind was likely to be contrary and that it was going to be a long, tough slog, but he sent the disciples forth anyway. And they were obedient. And after a long, exhausting night of rowing and bailing, and fighting against an unrelenting sea, Jesus came to them across the water, to find them battered but not broken… together, not scattered… weary, but undiminished in their resolve to stay afloat and complete their voyage. Until they thought that, after all they had gone through, they were now under attack by a denizen of spirit world. That about got ‘em. And then, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” I don’t know about you, but when I read, “it is I,” it makes me think of God, Yahweh (יהוה YHWH) identifying himself as “I am” to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus (vv. 3:13-15).

Imagine yourself sitting in the pews at St. James for a moment. What do you see when you look up? Wooden timbers that call to mind the inside of the hull of a boat, right? An inverted ship: keel, ribs and hull planking. You’ll notice that I rarely, if ever, refer to the building as “the church.” We are the church, and the building in which we gather is properly known as the Parish Nave… from navis, which is the Latin word for ship. There’s all sorts of hidden sign value in ecclesial architecture, believe me. And the reason we have adopted a ship form for our place of worship hearkens back to the very beginning of the Bible, from Genesis, Chapter 1. You remember that “In the beginning . . . the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (v. 2). And that God made “a dome in the midst of the waters… to separate the waters from the waters… and called the dome Sky” (vv. 6-8). It’s easy to think of the dome as just the sky… what we might call the atmosphere… but there’s more to it than that. The Hebrew word used for dome in this case is Raqiya’ which is best translated firmament, connoting an almost visible “arch of the sky,” a (solid) barrier separating our world from the “chaos waters” of the primordial cosmos from which the world was formed, and which still looms about us on all sides. Were it not for God’s Raqiya’, we’d be overwhelmed. Pretty heavy stuff, huh? But our God is God over all of the waters… chaos and otherwise… and so we’ve adopted the form of a boat as a symbol of our faith.

Let’s take a moment and try and imagine the scene, there in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, where the disciples had been sent by Jesus. It’s still dark, though the eastern sky might have been beginning to pale, just a little. And here comes Jesus walking towards them… on the water. I suppose we could be forgiven for visualizing Jesus performing some sort of anti-gravity stunt here, but I wonder if the Gospel writer is pointing us towards something far more profound. According to Matthew scholar M. Eugene Boring,

“To the biblical mind, being on the sea itself is a threat, representing all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of the created order. To be at sea evokes images of death, the active power that threatens the goodness of life. The sea here is a barrier that separates the disciples from Jesus, who represents the presence of God. In the midst of the chaos of the world, they are left alone in the boat [perhaps representing the nascent church of Matthew’s time] with only their fragile craft preserving them from its threat, buffeted by the stormy winds of conflict and persecution.”[1]

And then Jesus comes to the disciples’ rescue walking on the sea. Boring continues:

“Whereas the modern mind thinks of defying the law of gravity, the biblical mind thinks of the one who overcomes the power of chaos (“walking on” = conquest; “sea” = the anti-creation chaos monster).  [In ancient times, it was understood] that no human being could perform this feat, which was reserved for a deity.  In biblical thought, only God walks on the sea ([And there are references to this throughout Scripture] Job 9:8, 38:16; Ps 77:19; Isa 43:16, 51:10-11; Hab 3:8; Sirach 24:5-6, of Divine Wisdom). And precisely in the midst of this symmetrically constructed story, Jesus does what only God can do, and speaks with the voice of God, “it is I…” I am.[2]

So, perhaps Jesus wasn’t merely performing a neat parlor trick for Peter and the disciples, levitating himself over worldly water to elicit oohs and aahs from his bedraggled admirers. Perhaps he was showing them, in a way they could understand, that the anxieties and dark powers, the “chaos water” that threatens the goodness of created order, had no power over him, and that the same could be true for them… if they were faithful. In sending his disciples out on the sea alone and at night, Jesus was teaching them the importance of unity and perseverance, of staying in the boat together, in the face of chaos and danger. And he was also reminding them that, in the end, God was just beside them, would always be just beside them, and that they would never be left to face their perils alone.

I’m reminded of a scene near the end of the movie, The Shack (2017). Some of y’all may have seen it, and for those of you who haven’t, it’s not perfect, but it’s good… certainly worth spending two hours and twelve minutes of your time to watch, if you get the chance. There’s no need for us to delve too deeply into the details of the plot here today. Suffice it to say that the lead character, Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, experienced an unbelievable tragedy, and was transported to a place between the worlds… where he got to spend some quality time with the Holy Trinity. Mack arrived embittered and resistant to God’s healing grace, but his time in the presence of Papa, and Jesus and Sarayu (SARA-you) taught him some things he needed to know about God and about forgiveness. On one particular day, Mack took a small (apparently sound) rowboat out on the lake, and it sprung a leak and foundered. Of course, Jesus walked out from shore on the water to help him, and Mack ended up walking with Jesus the rest of the way across the lake. This was near the beginning of Mack’s healing journey… and a lot more water was to pass beneath the keel of his virtual boat before he would become reconciled with himself and to God. Towards the end of the movie, Mack, now much stronger and more whole, set out to cross the lake on his own and found himself knee deep in the water, before looking back over his shoulder to see Jesus standing on the shore watching him with a smile. “It always works better when we do it together, don’t you think?” Jesus said. And then off they went together across the lake… at a run.

So, what do you think? Do you have difficulty believing that “chaos waters”—anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of the created ordersurround this world, threatening to overwhelm it? Or maybe you believe it, but think you might be better off striking out on your own and looking out for number one? I hope not. I hope you cleave to the church, to your sisters and brothers in Christ, when the clouds roll in and the winds and seas begin to pick up. And most of all, I hope you hold fast to faith in Jesus Messiah, knowing that you’ll never be able to make it on your own, but that your Savior will be just beside you through the fiercest storm… strong to uphold you, no matter the forces of chaos arrayed against you. That’s where you’ll find the peace that passes all understanding. That’s where you’ll find the hope of salvation. And that’s what I think of when I hear Jesus telling Mack, “It always works better when we do it together, don’t you think?”

[1] M. Eugene Boring, Matthew, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 8, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 327-8.

[2] Boring, 328.


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