Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Reign of God: Walking On Water

For over a month now the Church’s liturgy has been using Jesus’ fascinating parables and miracle stories in Matthew 13-14 to think about Jesus as the embodiment, the manifestation, the revealing of the reign/rule of God, the “kingdom”. The real miracle in last Sunday’s story of the feeding of the 5000 isn’t the multiplication, but rather the fact that Jesus demonstrates in his person what God’s reign looks like, namely, that people are raised above their oppression, their hurts, their suffering, and then begin themselves to share, through love and compassion, what they have, much or little, without leaving anyone in need. Today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 14:22-33) reinforces that theme with another beautiful story, whose setting is the Sea of Galilee.
The feeding apparently took place somewhere around Bethsaida, on the northeast corner of the Sea. Jesus asks the disciples to take the boat and go ahead to “the other side”, presumably to Ginnesar/Gennesaret, while he sends the crowd on their way. After this, Jesus climbs back up into the silence of the hills, alone, where he’d been praying after he’d gotten news of his cousin, John the Baptizer’s execution, and before the hungry crowd had arrived.
Matthew notes that, in the meantime, the disciples were having a rough go of it out on the Sea of Galilee, for severe winds had whipped up unexpectedly, as they often did, and they were being “battered by the
waves”. Somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 AM (“the fourth watch of the night”) Jesus suddenly approaches the boat, “walking toward them on the sea”. The disciples reaction: “they were terrified, saying, ‘It’s a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear…
It’s about at this point that preachers will look out and, perhaps, notice a faint smile or two among the faces of an educated, sophisticated congregation, maybe some even rolling their eyes! Before that happens, however, let’s be reminded that for the writers of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures there’s never a doubt that the Lord of nature and history can perform “mighty acts” and outward signs of power. “In both cases, Exodus and Resurrection, God acted from outside human history, and yet within its framework...It is only with this understanding of the God of Israel as an active, all-powerful God of history that we can go on to discuss the miracles with any meaning. For the biblical writers, miracles are interventions by divine power in the affairs of men, especially when considered as the means by which God declared [Godself] and [God’s] purposes to men.” (W. F. Albright & C. S. Mann, Matthew) As this applies to today’s nature miracle in the Gospel, where both Jesus and St. Peter walk on water, the miracle isn’t primarily a sort of external guarantee of the coming of the kingdom. It isn’t an appendage, a “verifying after-thought”, but rather as Jesus conveys, a sign and reality intimately bound up with the announcing of and the presence of the reign of God, “a demonstration of the order of God’s dominion against the darkness and chaos which can and does threaten man…” (Albright & Mann)
In the very opening lines of the Bible, in Genesis 1:1, we’re introduced to the most common mythological depiction of chaos: a turbulent sea. “...the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters…”  The anthropologist, René Girard, views that image of chaotic and turbulent waters as due to the swirl of desires created in our lives.
In Matthew’s story, Jesus comes walking right over that swirl of desires, saying “It is I..Don’t be afraid.” How reminiscent of the “I am” sayings all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospel of John, especially, attesting to Jesus’ divine nature. Jesus embodies in himself God’s loving desire that you and I may rise above the chaos of our experiences. Note that St. Peter is sustained in the midst of the unruly sea so long as he keeps his eyes fixed on Jesus. The minute he looks back to the swirling waters, he begins to sink again. What are the swirling waters of desires that distratct us and pull you and me under as we struggle in our walk towards the Lord? 
Perhaps the key verse in Matthew’s story is verse 31: "Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and caught him, saying to him, 'You of little faith, [literally, “little-faith-person”] why did you doubt?'" Note that Jesus "immediately" reaches out with loving support to save Peter, and only then reminds him that what’s wrong is his weak faith, instead of first rubbing it in about faith, and then reaching out, perhaps reluctantly, to save Peter.
Some may say that Peter, being a fisherman, ought to have known better and was extremely foolish in asking Jesus to have him come to Jesus on the water. Though, perhaps, it wasn’t a terribly bright idea, nevertheless, could it be that Peter risked leaving the boat in eagerness to come closer to Jesus, even though he could’ve chosen the safer course of staying on the boat with the other disciples? 
Jesus’ presence undoubtedly gave Peter the chance to take a risk. Even Peter’s hesitancy and bumbling gives us an unforgettably honest image  of what true faith looks like. Who of us can count the number of improbable directions and significant chances you and I have taken on our journey towards Jesus, and the many times we’ve acted even more stupidly and foolishly than the leader of the Apostles? God constantly invites us to “walk on water”, to leave behind the security of the known, and to venture out into the unknown, the chaotic: to walk in faith, by the Spirit.
The Letter to the Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, and encourages us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” Faith emerges when you and I are in over our heads. When Jesus refers to Peter as a “little-faith-person”, he wasn’t demeaning Peter as a failure. The only real failure would be to give in to the fearfulness which holds you and me back in the boat, the fear which keeps us from keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, even in the midst of the swirling waters of our darkness. 
Once he connects with Jesus by being caught, Peter comes back, not so much to the security of the boat, as to the security of Christ’s heart of love, the security of the reign, the kingdom, of God. There the noisy and turbulent winds cease, and Peter can acknowledge: “Truly you are the Son of God.
The miracle of love, of Jesus catching us, saving us, from the fearsome and battering winds and waters of our experiences is happening all around us, every day, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. A touching NBC TV story recently, about the tragic situation of 11.3 starving people in the Horn of Africa, told of a small infant boy who was left by the side of the road because his mother had collapsed and died. A woman among the crowds, also travelling the road with her own five children, thin and hungry picked up the child, without hesitation, and brought him to the refugee camp. There she cleaned him up, gave him milk, nurtured and caressed him, and spoke quietly and humbly, telling a reporter that she was making this child one of her own.   
Brother Tolbert McCarroll, in his book Notes From the Song of Life (p. 59), suggests something on which you and I might reflect during the coming week: 
Storms accompany all bornings. It is in the wild turbulence that we learn the skills for our growth.

As you travel along your path there must be many seasons. Without the cold and barren winter there can be no spring beauty...There are only two roads in life, growing and dying. The bud must go through the discomfort of unfolding or it will shrivel…

You must not remain in the pain. It is only the vestibule of change. Suppose that on a hot August afternoon you come upon a cool lake. You can make two good choices. You can suffer the discomfort and insecurity of jumping in[to] the lake. Or you can move away and come back to the lake another day. If you choose to remain fixed on the edge you will destroy yourself. There is no way of avoiding the shock of the plunge. No matter how clever you are the decision will always be the same -- leap or turn away. If you will not make the choice your strength will fade away. Most of your sorrow in life comes from trying not to choose or from taking a half step... 

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