Sermon for August 9, 2020 Matthew 14:22-33
If ever we had ample reason to compare our lives to a wild storm on the sea, now we have reason to do so. There are genuine reasons to be afraid these days. The coronavirus is so very contagious, can wreak such havoc in our lives, we still so know little about all the ways it affects the human body and still some leaders would like to sweep it under the rug and pretend it is not there. and there is no clear path forward out of the economic collapse, millions of out of work Americans are still waiting for the government to decide on some relief- and while the President put some executive orders out, that’s not the way our three-branch government is set up so who knows if and when that relief will come. Some leaders are advancing dubious cures while questioning the best science we do have. On top of whatever else is going on in your life- oh yeah figuring out how school works now- It can feel like a stormy sea that may never calm.
Around the year 80 c.e. young Christian communities were buffeted by many contrary winds- the division between the Jewish community and the followers of Jesus was becoming pronounced, as in, the Jesus followers, the one who called him Christ, were thrown out of the synagogues. Jerusalem had been destroyed by romans a decade before. the overtakers claimed allegiance to emperors like Domitian who claimed to represent the gods andruled over not just nation but the land and sea as well. And said their god was the one who had power over creation, who could control the elements of wind and rain.
Around the year 80 the gospel of Matthew was first taken from its oral form, the stories people told one another in certain communities, over and over, and was put into written form.
Those early Christian communities had ample reason to hold onto this story of Jesus walking on water right through the storm to where the disciples were, I think so do we.
Fear is a human reaction, one of the most primal and automatic reactions we can have. There are legitimate reasons to fear in this life, right now there are many I think legitimate reasons! and fear can lead us to react in ways that help our chances for survival in certain situations, like fight or flight. But fear can also lead us to postures of suspicion and other behaviors that really are not helpful for the circumstances we are in.
Jesus after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 plus we heard about last week, makes a second attempt at some alone time, sending his disciples away in the boat and going himself up a mountain. Remember that Jesus especially in Matthew’s gospel kind of reenacts the story of Moses, who would go up on the mountain to talk directly to God. The feeding of the 5000 can remind us of the appearance of manna in the desert and later quail also- how God provided when the people were hungry. Jesus walking on the water early the next morning might remind us of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea for the people to walk across.
The disciples, though, were in the boat, had the wind against them and the waves were rocking, but it was not the storm they were afraid of. Remember several of them were fishermen so a stormy sea was to be reckoned with, but something else caused them to be afraid: They saw a figure coming toward them, walking on water. They thought it was a ghost, and they cried out in fear. I think I would too. People don’t walk on water.
But immediately Jesus responds, take courage, it is I.
English is a little awkward to translate this phrase but the Greek and the Hebrew before it, more easily express, ego eimi, yahveh, in Spanish, soy yo. I am.
You might remember that in the first encounter of Moses with God through the strange medium of a burning bush that is not consumed, Moses asks for the identity of this being speaking to him, and God answers, my name is, I am who I am. And in the Hebrew with its limited verb tenses it could be brought into English as : I have been who I have been or I will be who I will be. The response Jesus gives is a simple letting them know it is him, but at the same time he pronounces for himself this ancient unspeakable name of God, I AM.
Take courage, it is God, it is I, your friend and leader, it is I and I am, I always have been I always will be I saved people from slavery by leading them through parted waters I am saving now, take courage, do not be afraid.
Peter, hearing this, asks for proof, asks for an experience of the miracle, questions- if it is really you- if you are really divine, the son of God- tell me to come join you.
I read a couple of really good commentaries online this week and one is from Debie Thomas on Journey with Jesus- she points out that this questioning of Jesus’ identity is very similar to the voice of the tempter that Jesus faced in the desert in chapter 4. Remember he keeps saying to Jesus, if you are truly the son of God- and makes him put his own identity into question. Peter from his place of fear, puts into doubt if it is truly Jesus.
But Jesus says come, and so Peter steps out onto the water, the waves still crashing the wind still raging, and then he fears a second time, with Jesus the living God there in front of him turns his attention to how the wind and waves still move and he sinks. But he cries out a second time in his fear, Lord save me!
Jesus does. And then they join the others on the boat and Jesus asks why Peter doubted. I always thought of Peter’s doubt being that moment when he started to sink in the water. But Debie points out, Peter’s doubt is when he asked Jesus to prove it was really him. He doubted then, that who they had thought was a ghost was Jesus, or that Jesus is the I AM of eternity, or both. From a place of fear he let his suspicious nature take over, even after Jesus called out, take heart, it’s me! Don’t be afraid.
Take heart or take courage- the word courage comes from a Latin root for heart- Karoline Lewis in a commentary from a few years ago- brings out what is important about Jesus saying this- you know Peter, and other disciples, deep in your heart you know who I am, you know me, trust that heart knowledge. Let your heart lead, trust in the truth you know about me, don’t let your suspicious fear be what leads you.
Then they are all in the boat together and the winds calm. And they worship him. Truly you are the Son of God. The one with power over the elements, the one we have known, the great I AM present in a human body.
In the year 80 the Christian communities clung to this story of Jesus coming to them, of Jesus being the true son of God when they were cast out of spaces that had been a part of their identity, when they were told that Emperor Domitian was the one with power over water and wind, when there was so much to be uncertain about and so much to fear- Jesus as the Great I AM would walk on water to come near to them. Jesus would come when there seemed to be no hope. Jesus would keep coming even if their faith faltered. Jesus would continue to encourage them to take heart, to trust in what they knew deep within, and let that be what led them, not fear or suspicion.
In the year 2020 we can cling to this story- even though I can’t wrap my mind around just how Jesus could do it, could physically walk on water- I can still cling to this story where the storm is not any reason to keep Jesus away, he comes walking right though it to where we are. We cry out in our fear and Jesus reassures, take heart, it is I! do not be afraid. Let your heart truth lead you, you know me, Jesus reminds us. We test and ask God, where are you, why are we in a time of so much suffering? We let our fears and suspicious let us think we have been left alone. Or worse that we are under attack. But no. It is Jesus, and God in Jesus, coming right to us., right where we are, with all of our fears, God comes to us still.
In the friend making a call. In the neighbor asking how we are. In the funny text that makes us smile. In the ministry being carried out through gift bags and backpacks. Over the zoom meetings. In the family making room for those needing a place. In all the reasons for hope.
God continues to cross through whatever kind of storm we’re in, to come to us. Take heart my friends, it is Jesus coming right to us, even now.