Sunday, August 9, 2020

“We Are the Boat, Tossed by the Sea of Life” (Matthew 14:22-33)

Today, our gospel message comes to us from the 14th chapter of Matthew, beginning with the 22nd verse, “Jesus walking on the sea.”

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:22-33).

Heavenly Father, you sent your Son to reveal your will for our lives and redeem us from sin and death. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, inspire us with confidence that you are with us in the midst of the storms of life, bring peace to our troubled souls, and lead your church throughout the ages. Enable us to live as your redeemed saints, that our lives may witness to our faith. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

“We Are the Boat, Tossed by the Sea of Life”

Only Luke fails to record the story of Jesus walking on water. And in the other three Gospels, this story is told as having occurred immediately following the feeding of the five thousand, which was our lesson last Sunday. Thus, we might derive that the significance of these two stories follow a common theme—the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Inherent in this revelation, is the message that God is not only physically present to us in Jesus, but that through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, Jesus invites us to become children of God’s kingdom. As a result of our faith and baptism, we are joined together as a part of Christ’s Church, disciples of Jesus throughout the ages, who strive to live together in community with one another, according to God’s Word.

With this understanding in mind, I would like to explore this story from Matthew’s Gospel, for it is unique from the other two accounts of Jesus walking on water, in that it is the only Gospel to record Peter’s request to join Jesus on the sea. Just think about this story.

Jesus has just fed the multitude with a few loaves of bread and two small fish. It is now late in the day, and so he tells his disciples to get into a boat and set off for the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he dismisses the crowd and seeks some quiet time for prayer.

As Jesus spent the night in conversation with his heavenly Father, in the quiet of a mountaintop, the disciples, many of whom were seasoned fishermen, found themselves in the middle of a treacherous storm, tossed about in their small boat by large waves and gusty winds. For hours they have rowed against the wind and swirling sea, becoming cold, wet, and exhausted. Blisters began to form in the palms of their hands from the chafing of the oars.

By four in the morning, desperation began to encompass them. They were frightened to death that they would not be able to survive their voyage. Those who had made their living on the sea knew of others who had gone out on the waters and had never returned. Panic began to take hold of their emotions, as they continued to struggle against the wind and waves.

As dawn was about to break, after the disciples spent all their energy rowing, they became even more terrified, as one of them spotted this figure walking toward them on the raging waters. The disciples conclude that this must be a ghost—perhaps it was Neptune or Poseidon, the mythological god of the sea, to usher them into his kingdom’s depths.

While clutching the sides of the boat so tightly that their knuckles turned white, the figure on the water speaks to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Do not be afraid!” After all that the disciples had endured, still frightened of drowning, and then seeing a mysterious figure walking on a dark stormy sea, they are not frightened? That would be enough to make even the most staunch-hearted sailor cringe. I don’t think there is a person reading this who would want to be in that boat at that time.

And if we were in that boat, I can’t believe that anyone of us would have responded to the greeting of this figure that they saw walking on the water, the way that Peter did! Peter called out to the ghost-like figure on the water and said, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  And the response came, “Come!”

There is a real way to test the identity of this figure the disciples saw walking on the stormy sea. Get out of the boat, and walk over to him. If you don’t sink to your death, it must be Jesus.

Yet, according to Matthew, that is what Peter did! He stood up in the rocking boat and stepped into the raging sea—first one step, then another. Peter was walking on water, just like Jesus. And we can imagine his thoughts. “Isn’t this great! What a miracle! What Power! Amid this Wind! What huge waves! I must be nuts! That’s real water swirling around my ankles! I’m sinking. “Lord, save me!”

Of course, Jesus did. He reached out his hand and caught Peter by the arm, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the winds immediately ceased, the waves calmed, and the disciples worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

So, what are we to make of this fantastic story? First of all, I believe that since it directly follows the feeding of the five thousand, it is intended to help us understand that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God. Not only could Jesus multiply the bread and fish to feed the multitude, with plenty to spare, he could also walk on water and still the wind and sea.

According to Michael A. Turner, in his commentary on our text, [Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions Inc., 2008] “That Jesus walks out to them on top of the waves is an indication not only of his love for them but also of his divine power over the forces of nature and chaos. Only God Almighty has such power, so it is not surprising when Jesus announces, “It is I,” The original text reads “ego eimi,” in Greek, which translated literally should be “I am, I am.” Any Jewish reader of Matthew’s Gospel would immediately think back to the story of the burning bush in Exodus when God told Moses God’s name: “I am who I am.” Jesus is none other than the incarnation of the living God, who has dominion over the seas and the storm.” End quote.

There are two other points that Turner makes in his commentary that I would like to share with you, one of which had brought some insight into my struggle to understand why Peter would make such a crazy request to prove the identity of Jesus when he came walking toward them on the sea.

Turner states, “To understand Peter’s request, I think you have to understand a little about the background of Jesus’ world. See, Peter was Jesus’ disciple. When we think of the word disciple, we generally equate it with the word student… A disciple, in its true sense, was someone who strove to know what his master knows.

Thus, a disciple wanted to do what his teacher did. A disciple wanted to talk like his teacher talked. A disciple wanted to walk like his teacher walked. A disciple devoted his entire life to be just like his teacher…” So, if it is Jesus walking on water, Peter asks to do what his master is doing…

But notice that Peter doesn’t just jump out of the boat and start walking. He’s smart enough to know that if he’s going to do something as impossible as walking on water, it would be because Jesus calls him to do it. And if Jesus calls him, then it is understood that Jesus would make the impossible possible. Peter knew that if he hopped into the sea on his own, he would sink to his death. In essence, Peter is saying, “Jesus, call me to do what you are doing. Call me to be like you.” End quote.

The fact that Peter got out of the boat and was actually able to walk on water should be an inspiration to all of us, even though none of us would ever attempt such a feat. And I certainly would not encourage any of you to do so, unless you know how to swim.

But it does tell us that Jesus invites us to walk, what many might call an impossible journey—that of living as children of God’s kingdom, as those opposed to merely acquiescing to our world’s ways and desires. As a result of our baptism, we are a part of a community that is called to reflect, in the way we live our lives, a boldness to follow the will of God, even when the call of God goes against what our society would have us believe to be correct.

And finally, I have learned from Turner’s commentary that the early church came to understand the imagery of the disciples, in a boat tossed by the wind and waves of the sea, to be symbolic of the early church. Drawing on the imagery of Noah’s “ark,” that saving vessel from yore, the church has continued to see itself as a ship amid the changing currents of society. According to Turner, “The Latin word for “ship,” navis (from which we get the words navy and navigate) is also the root of the noun, “nave,” which is the name for the main part of the interior of a church building from the entry to the chancel. It is where the laity sits to worship. Many naves are even architecturally designed to look like ships. Look up into the vaulted ceilings of some churches, and you will see what looks like the hull of an upside-down boat.” End quote. Well, what can we say?

Today, we are in this boat with the disciples. And our boat, the church of Christ, struggles against the waves and winds of a society that would have us believe that we are sinking, that we are irrelevant, and against the forces of nature. But the truth is that to be a disciple of Christ, we must follow and live our lives emulating the one who has demonstrated that he is above the winds and waves of our world. As baptized people of faith, we are called to resist the storms of life, and cling to our faith in God’s Word, manifest in Jesus the Christ.

And it is only through the power of God’s Spirit, at work in his ship, the church, that we are able and empowered to stay the course. Let us all pray that God might grant us the faith to keep his ship afloat and plying the oars, even when we hurt and are scared, for our risen Lord will not leave us to flounder long.

Prayer: Dear God, encourage us, strengthen us, embolden us, and bless us with the promise that you will never let us go. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Sermon contributed by Ronald Harbaugh.
God is not only physically present to us in Jesus, but through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, Jesus invites us to become children of God’s kingdom.

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