Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Last Sunday, we heard Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand after Jesus learned of the murder of John the Baptist. Today’s story picks up immediately following the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus has asked the disciples to go on ahead of him while he dismissed the crowds. But then Jesus didn’t immediately go to join his disciples, once the people had dispersed. The time frame is a little confusing but Matthew wants us to think that Jesus spent as long as 24 hours alone in prayer while the disciples waited, increasingly afraid, on a boat in a harsh wind, as each hour ticked by.
And then. Matthew says, there was another miracle. Jesus walked out to the boat over the water. How many jokes have you heard in which Jesus walking on water is part of the punch line? A number of them, I bet. Rivaled only by jokes about Peter at the pearly gates, walking on water just seems to be ripe for humor. So once again, as we did last week, let us dispense with the magical aspects of the story and dig a little deeper for its more important meaning. This story isn’t about what magic Jesus could do. It’s about what Peter, and by extension we struggle to do.
When I wrote my doctoral thesis years ago, I was interested in whether and how parishioners recognized the trustworthiness of their parish pastors. How does someone know if a pastor can be trusted? Is it that the pastor communicates something in a subconscious way or is it more about what the parishioner brings to the relationship? Beneath the exploration of the trust dynamic between pastor and parishioner was my question about trust and trustworthiness in general. I devoted one entire chapter to what the Gospels have to say about trust, in particular, looking to the relationship between Jesus and his disciples for clues. It was the most difficult chapter to write since there is not one single word in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John that translates into trust or trustworthiness. Instead, there are abundant stories like this one, often centered on the relationship between Peter and Jesus. And most often, they are stories that involve Peter’s failure to trust Jesus. You can see how this didn’t help my thesis any.
It was Peter who wouldn’t accept that Jesus would have to be crucified, Peter who disavowed any knowledge of Jesus after the crucifixion because he was afraid, and Peter, who in today’s story, sank into the troubled water when he looked down and noticed that what he was engaged in what would be considered “high-risk behavior”. He lost his nerve, and down he went.
What does Peter’s experience mean for us? If we think it’s about having faith enough to walk on water, you know, perform our own little miracle, we will have settled for the lowest common denominator. There’s been a lot of that in our public political life lately so it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s as far as we went with this story, but I think we can do better.
Let’s begin by remembering Matthew’s context of this story. Jesus’ radical, threatening movement to empower the powerless was gaining public attention. John the Baptist had been murdered in a slimy deal at the highest levels of government. Jesus kept going off alone to pray, leaving the disciples to deal with the crowds of his followers who, after all, hadn’t come to hear them preach. And now, here the disciples found themselves, alone again on a storm-tossed boat, while Jesus was off praying. It was windy, and for the moment, let’s assume it had been twenty-four hours since Jesus sent them ahead to wait. That was a long night of noise and high waves, of little sleep and a fairly high level of anxiety. I’ve had nights that, haven’t you? Finally, morning light reveals Jesus walking across the water toward them. They were afraid and maybe just a little irked that he hadn’t been with them, that here he was now, casually going on as if there were no dangers about to swamp them.
Have any of you ever spent long, sleepless nights worried about, well, life? Maybe it’s your son or daughter who’s in crisis. Maybe you’ve lost your job or are about to. Maybe you’ve gone into debt just beyond what you can manage with your monthly paychecks. Maybe you’re waiting for the results of some medical tests. Maybe you think the country has actually gone to hell in a handbasket. (By the way, I’m always interested in the origins of phrases like hell in a handbasket. As near as I can tell, it comes from the use of large baskets into which decapitated heads fell at the guillotine.) Whatever the cause of your anxious night-time sleeplessness, your fears contain some truth – enough truth so as not to be dismissed as just the wild imaginings of a bad dream. This is where Matthew’s story has its greatest meaning.
The threat to the disciples because of Jesus’ actions and teachings were real. The stakes were getting higher and higher. With the murder of John the Baptist, the disciples and the followers could see that they were doing dangerous work. And Christian discipleship is dangerous, make no mistake. Giving power and strength to the hated, bringing down the mighty from their thrones, sharing wealth, seeing to it that all are fed, even those who don’t deserve to be, forgiving law-breakers, loving your enemies, putting away your swords and studying war no more, ceasing to blame everyone else for the mess you’re in, resisting the temptation to settle for what you know is wrong, accepting responsibility, holding yourself accountable to the same standard to which you hold others, refusing to accept tyranny in all its forms, especially when it’s dressed up to resemble democracy, all these things make for turbulent, wind-tossed, angry waters. And there is Jesus, walking over the raging turmoil as calm as you please, as if there is nothing to fear.
Peter was right, there is a lot to fear. Peter was wrong, there is nothing to fear. How can both be true? Such is the challenge of the Christian faith. Authentic discipleship to Christ incites violence because it threatens privilege. It incites revolt because it empowers the powerless. It incites rage because it makes everyone equal – equally worthy, equally valued, equally loved.
I think Peter sank into the roiling waters of fear there for a few moments because he looked down to guage the danger he was in, rather than keeping his eyes on his Savior who he could trust. So is this a story about walking on water? No, it’s a story about keeping the raging waters of fear and threat beneath our feet and our eyes lifted up to our Savior. If we can do that – well, that’s the real miracle. Amen.