Homily for Pentecost 10
August 10, 2014
There’s a well-known book called If You Want To Walk on Water You Have To Get Out of the Boat. In this book, obviously based on today’s Gospel, John Ortberg suggests that Christians are called to be “water walkers.” Like many things, it sounds appealing in many ways, but it’s more difficult than it might sound.
In a similar way, a few years ago, Leonard Sweet tried to persuade Christians to see the Church in a new light and adopt a more flexible and fluid approach by suggesting the metaphor of Aqua Church (in a book of the same title), using an ancient image of the Church as a sailing ship to navigate the unknown and unpredictable waters of the post-modern era.
Water is not an easy medium to work with. A number of years ago, I had an experience on Waterton Lake in southwestern Alberta, which helps me identify with the fearful disciples in the boat. We were trying out a new canoe which turned out to be very tippy and top-heavy with us in it. Typical of Waterton Lake, the wind came up suddenly and within a couple of minutes we were pitched out of the canoe into the ice-cold water, some of the deepest, coldest lake water in North America. Waterton is so cold that even in summer, hypothermia is a threat, and neither of us even had a life jacket! As I plunged through the surface into the cold, dark water, I thought to myself, “This is how people drown.” Despite the wind working against us, we didn’t panic, and we eventually managed to swim the canoe to the shore, after which I went into the cabin and simply collapsed into a chair exhausted, and it took a few hours to recover.
Falling into water in the middle of the day was bad enough – to do so in the middle of the night would be terrifying. The Gospel provides us with a metaphor which provides a direct tap into deep unconscious dread. For many, even the possibility of that happening would prevent them ever getting into the boat in the first place, much less launching into deep water. It’s a good image of the Church today, because it’s no longer an easy or idyllic cruise.
The Gospel reading today is obviously symbolic. In some religious traditions, crossing water is a metaphor of salvation; it can be a metaphor for passing from this life to the next; it can represent wisdom and transformation. For Jews, water at times represented danger, the unknown and death. For Christians, water primarily became a symbol of new life, and the Church was often pictured as a boat. Jesus became a symbol of living water, and fulfilled Isaiah’s promise “When you pass through deep waters, I will go with you” (Isa. 4:3). Modern psychologists often see water as a symbol of the human unconscious and suggest that in our dreams, we find ourselves immersed in water in the middle of the night, much like the disciples.
For Matthew, Peter is the emerging leader of the new Church, and his courage and spontaneity are obviously key qualities as Matthew shapes this parable and tells this story. Matthew adds this account of Peter’s response, whereas the other Gospels do not mention it. Today’s Gospel is clearly meant to highlight the importance of faith and as usual Peter is a prime example of one who lets faith rather than certainty guide him – Peter believed with his heart, that is, his whole being.
In Aqua Church, Leonard Sweet suggests our two primary modern day saints should be Noah and Peter. Today’s reading not only reveals Peter’s deep faith but might suggest to us that it is leadership based on willingness to step out in faith that will enable us to navigate the rough waters of the post-modern era, and to step out of the boat when necessary. It is leadership which speaks not of institutional stability or credibility but of the power of Christ to inspire us to transcend our fears and limitations and enable true transformation. Many Christians never get there, because their sense of what the faith is supposed to be about no longer matches up with the reality of the world around them.
Annie Dillard accuses modern Christians of not being “sufficiently sensible of the conditions” as a way of saying that we have the wrong expectation if we think the journey of faith is primarily about acquiring a safe and secure place – a placid afternoon in a rowboat on a little pond. On the contrary, it is about taking risks and stepping out into the unknowns and uncertainties – it is about going past our usual sense of limits. It is not just relying on logic or certainties or formulas; it is about trying to connect with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ. She says we should be issuing church people with crash helmets. Perhaps to honour this week’s Gospel, we should consider issuing life jackets to people who come to church.
It is about living the questions, embracing the uncertainty, rather than seeking satisfaction in merely being within the institution. The image of a flock in a pen is a much different image than a group of frightened people in a boat in a heavy storm. We need to become more aware of the biblical stories that speak to our situation.
Peter’s act of stepping out of the boat is virtually incomprehensible to us, so we tend to dismiss this parable entirely, and deprive ourselves of its wisdom. But we have all been there at one point or another: recognizing some compelling goal in front of us, but hesitant and anxious about what would happen if we stepped outside our comfort zone – our safe and secure place.
Remember that Matthew’s Gospel is the one in which Jesus says to his disciples “YOU are the light of the world.” Today’s Gospel reveals that same deep spiritual truth: we can be where Jesus is; to some degree we can be what he is. But a tremendous amount of faith is required to get there – faith of the magnitude of a Peter, or a Noah.
The moment Peter loses contact with Jesus, he begins to sink. The Gospel very powerfully makes the point that Christian Faith is based on a relationship, not on a structure or formula or an institution. At an earlier stage of their journey, Jesus is portrayed as being with them in the boat and calming the storm for them. Now, in the midst of the storm, Jesus appears from outside the structure, and Matthew portrays Peter as the one who demonstrates that the Christian’s Number One priority must be to get to where Jesus is. The Gospel makes the point that being with Christ is such a compelling objective that Peter is willing to risk his life to try to be where Christ is.
Peter demonstrates that the Church is not primarily about the well-being of its members – it must look primarily to Christ for its direction, its purpose – disciples are expected to have courage and an intrepid attitude.
Reflecting on this Gospel, Leonard Sweet suggests that “Jesus stood in the midst of the world and invited his disciples to join him there” (Aqua Church, p. 96). People today typically aren’t looking for God inside the institutions – they have no experience or expectation of finding God there. They are outside the boat, many of them immersed in various forms of spirituality – many of them living in faith at rather profound depths; some of them over their heads in traditions and practices they barely comprehend.
The Church in our era seems to be in a similar predicament – facing rough water, many upheavals, and much uncertainty about whether we’ll make it or not. The temptation is to want to cling to the boat instead of embracing the challenge of being on the water. And to make things even more confusing: what is the water we are supposed to be walking on? We’re certainly not going to take the story literally and start attempting to walk from the mainland to Vancouver Island, even if it would mean saving on ferry fees.
If water represents the unconscious, or perhaps our soul life, then the passage may suggests that Peter’s impetuous act of faith enabled him to begin to experience the depths and to get past merely bobbing around on the surface. Peter reminds us to push the limits of reality and assumptions and experience.
Jesus says emphatically “Do not be afraid!” It’s not a reassurance, it’s an order. In a naval battle, sailors who start to cringe and whimper at every threat are useless – gentle reassurances such as you would give a child are of no use. So he commands them to “Stop being afraid!” as if it’s a really bad habit he’s trying to break, and in a way it is. Often, timidity is a quality that dominates church life – as someone once suggested, in practical terms many Christians act as though there is no God, and the prevailing wisdom becomes, “Don’t rock the boat.”
He asks: “Why did you doubt?” This is a very appropriate question, because in our time, so often the emphasis is much more on the negative side: it’s OK if we’re cynical, negative, or dismissive of traditional belief, but believing or being confident in Christ is frowned on. Jesus accusingly asked Peter why he doubted; in our era we accusingly ask people “Why do you believe?”
The Gospel proclaims that, in the darkness of their despair, in the midst of their worst fears, Jesus became present and was near them, but he did not come to them in a reassuring form – it says they thought he was a ghost. It’s a way of saying that the Jesus you expect and ask for may not be the Jesus who shows up to guide you through the storm.
In the rough waters we face, the image of Jesus we see emerging may indeed be troubling – not necessarily the gentle and reassuring Jesus we might want to quell our fear, but instead a calling, challenging, storm-walking Jesus, who calls us out from our safe and secure places into some new way of navigating the voyage of faith.
Like Matthew, we continue to explore the powerful image of walking on water, so we might discern what it is supposed to mean to us in our own time, and how we are meant to respond to the ongoing call to deeper faith.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers
Matthew 14:22-33 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”