A Ghost on the Water (10th Pentecost / Proper 14A)
Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)
22 Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
"A Ghost on the Water: The Surprising Messiah"
10th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14A)
In today’s Gospel reading, we meet up with Jesus and the disciples at a tumultuous time. A few verses earlier, Jesus learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been executed by Herod (Matthew 14:1-13). John was important to Jesus both personally and spiritually.
John was the prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah. He played an integral part in God’s plan for Jesus’ life. But then it seemed to end so suddenly and unjustly. Jesus knew that John was in prison. He was smart enough to realize that his time was short. Nevertheless, when he learned of his beheading, Jesus mourned.
Matthew 14:12-13 reads, “[John’s] disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he winthrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” But then crowds of people find Jesus and want him to heal them and teach them. So out of his compassion, Jesus leaves his time of private prayer and grieving to minister to these people, who were also grieving John’s death.
The scene evolves into the famous “Feeding of the 5000.” Jesus takes a small offering of five loaves and two fishes and multiplies it to feed thousands. Our story begins as this meal was wrapping up.
“22 Immediately, he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came he was there alone.”
Jesus, the human being, needed more time to mourn over his lost cousin. He needed time to talk with his Heavenly Father about the remained of his earthly ministry, to assess his own part to play in John’s death. Like Jacob before him, he needed to wrestle and struggle with God in order to earn the blessing of the name Israel.
But Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, also needed to shepherd and protect his small flock of disciples. They too were in shock over the death of John. They and the crowds may have turned to Jesus thinking he would give a rousing speech about the evils of Herod’s reign, or the illegitimacy of the Roman occupation. They may have expected Jesus to instill in them a sense of Israelite national pride and encouraged them to rebel against the Tetrarch.
So-called Messiahs like this had arisen in recent memory. There was a bit of a script for the whole thing. You preach forcefully about upholding the Law. You perform some miracles. You build an army of dedicated followers. You violently revolt against the Roman overlords to achieve Israel’s social, political, and spiritual liberation. And if you’re God’s True Messiah, you win. If you’re not, you die in battle and you’re remembered fondly in some history book.
But Jesus rejected this paradigm. He would not conform to these expectations of Messiah. Instead, when Herod dealt a blow against the Movement by killing John, Jesus cured sick people and fed them in the desert. A holy man was unjustly murdered by the state, but Jesus would not endorse anyone to fight fire with fire. Jesus’ solution to the political and social turmoil of his day was to throw a big party and make sure everyone was well-fed.
When the meal ended, Jesus got his Twelve disciples out of there. He sent them away on a boat, and said that he would dismiss the crowds himself. It seems that he was concerned that there was still a rebellious streak among the crowds and even the Twelve. So he ensured a peaceful transition and returned to his quiet time of prayer.
But by then, the disciples were caught in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Galilee is really not a sea, but a large freshwater lake. It is big enough to develop its own rough waters during bad weather. When a storm brewed, the waves could get very high and very powerful.
Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen from Galilee, so they knew how to handle a boat in these waters. They knew that you can’t try to steer the boat to shore in the middle of the storm. The large waves mean that you don’t have enough control to avoid obstacles. You might be pushed into rocks that sink the boat.
Nonetheless, being caught on a boat in a storm is a frightening situation. The storm has all the power and influence. We people who are riding on or steering the boat are relatively powerless. Other forces are at work and the best we can do is react to them calmly and wisely.
The storm was a good metaphor for the spiritual and social state of the Jesus Movement at this time. The government was not on their side. Herod beheaded John, and other officials would soon come after Jesus. The disciples were completely out of control. The disciples were being thrown and tossed by the waves of their national life. They could not escape to the shore. The only option left was to ride it out and look to God for strength. And if they were honest, God seemed surprising and unstable to them too. God broke all their expectations through their Rabbi Jesus.
The Twelve were wondering what twist or turn Jesus would take them on next. Some of them even started wondering if Jesus was who he claimed to be. Was he really the Messiah or just another one of those imposters? Would following him mean beheading like John? Were all their trouble and struggles for nothing?
Moments like these on the boat after John’s death may have planted the seeds of doubt that led to Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. This was a crisis for the Jesus Movement, and in this crisis their Rabbi had left them alone.
And that is when a ghostly figure appeared on the lake in the wee hours of the morning. As the Twelve fought the crashing waves and tried their best to stay afloat, Jesus came to them.
They were afraid again. How could their last 24 hours get any worse? Were they all going to be killed by some Creature from the Black Lagoon?
“27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”
Jesus reassures them from afar. But there is still a storm with crashing waves, wind, and rain. The disciples cannot really see Jesus, and can barely hear his voice over the noise of the sea.
So when Peter speaks back and asks to walk toward him on the water, the other Eleven must have been shocked. This was a very dangerous “leap of faith”. If it were not Jesus or he could not make Peter float, then Peter would die.
He makes it for several steps until he reaches Jesus, begins to sink, and cries out for help. Jesus saves him brings him to the boat, and the storm ends. But Jesus’ piercing question remains: “31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
I'm not going to condemn Peter for this. Most of us are not Peter. Peter may make many public errors throughout his life, but that’s only because he puts himself out there. Most of us are the disciples who remain on the boat, afraid of the storm and more afraid of the ghostly figure walking on top of it.
Most of us mistake Jesus for someone or something else. This is the central point of our story. Jesus will not always meet our expectations. He will not act and speak as we think he ought to. He will surprise us again and again. He will appear as a shadowy figure walking on the water in the distance. He will mourn John's death by throwing a big outdoor picnic. He will serve as the host of the repast when we think he should be marching an army on Rome. But he is truly the Son of God!
Jesus is truly the Messiah, the Saving One, despite all of life’s hardships. There may be unexpected and painful twists and turns. We may be caught on a boat in a storm unable to arrive safely to shore. We may see good people taken from us too soon. But God is faithful. God will not leave us nor forsake us. God sends Jesus to be present with us. Jesus reaches out his hand to save us when we begin to sink. Jesus will not abandon us. And the Holy Spirit of Jesus remains with us even today in our hectic country.
No matter what may befall us, God has chosen Jesus, the peaceful Messiah. When domestic terrorists rally for white supremacy and extermination of the masses, we will proclaim that God does not endorse them. And when the drums of war across the Pacific bang louder than ever, we will turn swords and guns into plowshares and shovels. When they slaughter us and our loved ones like sheep, we will hold banquets and invite our enemies to dine with us.
Jesus walked on water to show us a new way of being human. This was a confirmation that his way of peace was God’s true way. The kingdom and reign of God will be marked by this alternative politic. Jesus’ way is the way of life and healing. Have faith in him and you will survive the storm. Amen.
Davis, D. Mark. “A Superfluous Miracle?” Left Behind and Loving It. Blog. Published 6 August 2017. Accessed 12 August 2017. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/08/a-superfluous-miracle.html.