Sunday, August 2, 2015

When Walking on Water

A sermon preached at Sts. Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral 
in Nairobi, Kenya on Sunday, August 2, 2015.

Matthew 14:22-34
22Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.  23And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.  Now when evening came, He was alone there.  24But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
25Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.  26And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid.”
28And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”
29So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.  30But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out saying, “Lord, save me!”
31And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  32And when they got into the boat the wind ceased.
33Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”
34When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus had called each one of his disciples to come and follow him.  And they had left their homes and their families and their businesses and their lives – there was something about Jesus: his teaching, the miracles he was doing, his authority over evil spirits, the way he opened wide his arms to people others considered to be ‘sinners’, his ability to heal the lepers and make the blind to see and enable the paralyzed to walk and even raise the dead to life – something about Jesus that enabled each of these men to take that step and leave their lives behind and give themselves instead to Jesus. They enrolled in Jesus’ school, they became his students, his followers, his disciples.   And here in the Gospel passage we just heard read, they have just seen Jesus break a few loaves and divide a few fish and from that handful feed the biggest crowd of people they had seen, more than 5000 souls who had followed Jesus hoping to hear what he was teaching, hoping maybe to see a miracle.  And when everyone had eaten, the disciples had each been given a basket and told to collect the leftovers, which gave them plenty of time to think about what they had just experienced.  Can you imagine?  Twelve baskets full of leftovers, and all from a little boy’s lunch.

Darkness is falling and Jesus dismisses the crowd and he tells the twelve to get into the boat and row across the lake back to Capernaum.  He stays behind because he wants to pray.  So Jesus goes up the escarpment that surrounds the Lake of Galilee.  And the twelve go down to the boat to begin their journey.  It’s not that far, five or six miles.  Not a few of them are fishermen.  This is their lake.  They know what to do with a boat.  This is, as we say today, a piece of cake.  Jesus has finally given us something we can do.

So they climb on board, put up the sail and shove off.  As darkness falls, they are making good time.  And then the wind picks up and starts to blow.  And then it really starts to blow.  And they have to take down the sail.  And the waves are getting big.  And they have to start rowing to keep the boat into the wind so it doesn’t get swamped.  And it’s a struggle.  And they remember the other time they were all in a storm, and Jesus was with them, but he was asleep.  And they had to wake him up and he spoke to the wind and to the waves and they became still.  But this time Jesus isn’t with them.  They are alone.  And the storm keeps blowing, and it just goes on and on.  The minutes turn into hours and it seems like they had been fighting this storm forever.  When suddenly, coming behind them, it looks like a light.  But no it looks like a person.  But that person is walking, he is walking on the waves.  And because people simply don’t walk on the water, the only other explanation is that it must be some kind of spirit.  And they are terrified and start rowing harder.

But then a voice shouts out to them.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s me.  Don’t be afraid.’  They all know that voice; it’s the voice of Jesus.  That’s Jesus! He’s walking on the waves straight towards them.  And Peter shouts back, ‘Lord, if it’s you, give the word and I will come to you on the waves.’  ‘Come on,’ says Jesus.  And almost without thinking, Peter lets himself over the side of the boat and starts walking to Jesus.  But then Peter remembers that this is a lake, and these are waves and this wind is very strong and he becomes afraid and looks away from Jesus and realizes that he is standing in the middle of the Lake of Galilee.  And he starts to go down.  But Jesus comes and grabs his arm and pulls him up and together they walk to the boat and get in.  And as soon as they get in, the storm and the waves and wind vanishes.  And it is calm.  And they are scraping the bottom on the shore at Capernaum. 

Once again Jesus has exploded their categories.  They do not know what to do with him.  What they do know is that they are in the presence of much more than just a man.  Because this man, this Jesus, keeps doing things only the God of Israel can do.  And Matthew the tax collector, who was in that boat with the rest of them, says they worshiped him.

The Fathers and the Church after them have always found this passage to be talking about the boat of the Church in the stormy sea of this world.  But there is a more basic, more fundamental issue going on here.  Because this passage first of all is telling the story of something that really happened.  And Jesus is concerned most of all that his disciples learn something about him.  If all the disciples had was a boat and oars and a sail and their own effort then they might rightly despair.  But Jesus comes and he saves them, he delivers them from the storm, he plucks Peter out of the abyss, he calms the waves and the winds, he brings them safely home.  And we can draw a direct line from there to here.  If all we have is a church building, and a liturgy, and some candles and vestments, if all we have is some singing and some bread and wine, then as the Apostle Paul says, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins, and death will be the end, and we are to be most pitied above all people because we are believing a lie and there is no reality behind anything that we are doing this morning (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).  But Christ Jesus has risen from the dead, and Christ Himself is in our midst, and he is here speaking to you and me right now, and he is feeding us with himself, and he calling us to be in a relationship with him, calling us by name to trust him and to follow him, stretching out his hands to touch us and heal us, meeting our repentance with his forgiveness, transforming everything we give to him into something he can use for good and for love and for blessing.  And so as Jesus comes to us, even in the storm, he shows us more of who he is, and calls us to respond, to trust, even to get out and walk to him.
But St. John Chrysostom reminds us that there is even more going on in this passage.  St. John reminds us that Jesus is not just in the background reacting to his disciples’ distress. But he is allowing this storm to happen to teach them about both him and themselves:

In midsea he permits the storm to arise.  This was all for their training, that they might not look for some easy hope of preservation from any earthly source.  He then allows them to be tossed by the storm all night!  This had the purpose of awakening their stony hearts in a most complete way.  This is how Jesus dealt with the nature of the fear, which the rough weather and the timing had produced.  He cast them directly into a situation in which they would have a greater longing for him and a continual remembrance of him. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50:1/PG 58:504-505/NPNF 1, 10:310)

Are you struggling right now?  Are you in a situation that is about to overwhelm you?  Are you in the middle of a stormy sea, lashed by wind and rain?  Did you, like Peter, respond to the Lord’s call to come to him, to follow him, and now you find yourself standing in the middle of a lake, afraid and sinking and going down? 

It’s been 26 months since I’ve stood here before you.  And I can say that they have been the most difficult, most painful, most challenging months of my entire life.  The wind was blowing and the waves were really rough before I left, but it just kept getting worse and worse and I thought I would never be able to come back.  And I know that I am not the only one who has been struggling, who has been afraid, who has felt lost or abandoned.  Many of us have been in a storm.  Many of us are still in the midst of it.  But I want you to notice this and take it home with you, it’s at this point, in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the darkness and the pain, it’s right here that Jesus comes, walking on the waves, straight towards us.  And he knows you are weary and afraid.  But he calls out to you over the gale, ‘Come!  Come to me!  Come to where I am!’  And many of us have heard Jesus calling us.  Many of us have climbed down from the boat.  Many of us are walking on the water.  But like Peter, it’s all too much.  The winds, the waves, the abyss below, the darkness around.   And we are afraid and we start to sink.  But I am here to say to you that the Lord Jesus who has called you will not let you sink.  He is here, he is grabbing you by the arm as you go down.  He is lifting you up to himself.  Together you are going back to the boat.  Together he is taking you home.

There is so much good news here.  Can you hear it?  Jesus is saving me from the storm.  And we see in our passage, that he can save you as well.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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