The following is a sermon delivered at Church in the City and Church in the Beach on Sunday, August 7, 2011.
Out To Sea: A Sermon On Matthew 14:22-33.
One Thing: When Jesus sends us out to sea do we trust and have faith or do we doubt?
Read Matthew 14:22-33
We’re beach people. We like life on the beach. Life on the beach is great. We can set up a volleyball net and play a game or two, or three?! We can break out the BBQ and enjoy a few beverages! We can soak up the sun by day and have bonfires by night. The beach is nice. The beach is safe and comfortable. And boy, do we like comfort. Occasionally we feel daring. So, we’ll get in the boat. We’ll even drift off the shore a bit but as soon as we start to feel unsure we head back for the safety of the sand. Ground to stand on. But Jesus, he sends us out into the sea. In the evening as the sun is going down. During a storm. By ourselves!
There begins todays gospel reading. “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side…” So, after witnessing Jesus feed over 5,000 people with a couple of fish and some bread, the disciples hop in a boat and begin to row across the Sea of Galilee by themselves. Next thing the disciples know they are miles off shore and the sun has set. It’s dark. It’s easy to miss the significance of this moment for the disciples. In the ancient near-eastern world the night time was terrifying. Remember, there was no electricity. No street lights. No neon Dundas Squares. The night was pure blackness. Dark. Menacing. On top of this, popular belief held that the sea was the home of evil spirits. Here then are the poor disciples wondering what in the world Jesus has done. He sent them out ahead of him and there they are in the middle of the sea, in the darkness, alone. Absolutely terrifying. And as if that wasn’t enough, Matthew wants his readers to know that they were also in the midst of a storm. Their boat (and we’re not talking about a cruise liner here, we’re talking about a small row boat) was being pummeled, literally ‘harassed’, by the waves. Battered: “for the wind was against them.” And this lasted all night.
Do we ever feel like this as a church? Because here we are in the 21st C. anticipating Christ’s return. All is not well. Do we ever feel battered? Lost in the dark? Wet and cold? Alone? If not, perhaps it’s because when Jesus sent us on ahead into the sea we chose to set up camp on the beach instead. God forbid that He would ask us to do something that may seem risky, or costly, or futile. We often take conflict, opposition, and hardship as signs that we’re doing something wrong. That perhaps we’re not where we’re meant to be because God promises us safety and security. Yet, here are the disciples, in a boat in the middle of the sea. In the middle of a storm. In the middle of the night. Alone. Because Jesus sent them on ahead.
Where is Jesus? Well, Jesus himself is alone. He’s up on the hillside praying. I wonder what he was praying about. I think he was praying for his disciples, perhaps like he did in the gospel of John, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world,” (17:11ff). Just as Jesus sent his disciples out into the sea ahead of him so too the church has been sent out by Jesus into the world as a foretaste of the life that is to come, as a sign-post pointing towards the truth of all reality that has burst forth in Christ Jesus. The outer edges of God’s mission are, for us, always penetrating into the dark, cold, and lonely unknown. And just as Jesus was there interceding and praying for the terrified disciples at sea so too he lives to intercede for us now as we await his return. Furthermore, we have been given a gift, the gift of the Spirit who also intercedes for us. See, the mission that Jesus has sent us on is his mission. Thus, when and where he beckons us to join him he intercedes for us, on our behalf, because the success of the mission of God does not rest with us, it rests ultimately with Jesus.
As the disciples set out to sea that evening, sent by Jesus, surely they were expecting him to be along soon. But Matthew writes that, “early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.” The disciples were out there in that rickety old boat, in the darkness and the storm, cold and wet, all night. It wasn’t until morning that Jesus came out to meet them. When we as God’s pilgrim people face difficulties there is no telling how long we may have to endure. Jesus may not be there to meet us right away at the first sign of a storm. So, the question is, how much to we trust Jesus? Do we trust him fully? Do we trust that it was indeed he who sent us, and that we are therefore in the right place?
When the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea you’d think perhaps they would be overwhelmingly glad. “Finally! We were wondering when you’d show up!” But, according to the gospel writers they were terrified. They cried out in fear: “It is a ghost!” Seeing Jesus walk out to you on the sea, in the midst of a storm can involve what Eugene Peterson calls a “dizzying reorientation” of our assumptions. Everything we think we know about Jesus and how his grace appears to us must be held lightly because at any moment he could show up in ways we may never have imagined, in confusing ways where he is hard to recognize. In terrifying ways. As the church we should be slow to presume what Jesus looks like and how he may think or act. Because the grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus is surprising and there can be no telling in advance how it might appear to us. It may appear to us strange, ungodly even! What would Jesus do? Probably something that I’d never even think of! As the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar said, “There can be intimacy with God, but no getting used to Him.” And this is true even more so when we’re truly living as sent people out on the edges of God’s mission where it can be dark and stormy.
Immediately, there in the midst of their fear, Jesus reveals himself to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” “It is I”. This was more than a simple self-identification. To Matthew’s readers, particularly the Jewish ones, this would hearken them back to the Hebrew Scriptures, to the One who appears in the bush that burns but is not consumed: “I Am”. In Jesus, God is uniquely present. We see this even in the act of Jesus walking on the sea. The sea, the place of chaos and confusion where evil spirits reside, is mastered by the Son of God, the One in whom and through whom all things were made and hold together.
Peter here is like us, a paradox, an example of both faith and lack of faith. Peter calls out to the ghostly figure, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So, Jesus calls him, “Come.” Peter is convinced. He gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water towards Jesus. This to me is fascinating. I mean, you have to believe that Peter was rather unexperienced when it came to the art of walking on water. This wasn’t a weekend hobby of Peter’s: “Hey Andrew, I’ll see you later. I’m just going to go for a little stroll…on the water.” Yet, for some crazy reason Peter figured that if Jesus called him out on the sea that he could really do it. Physically, it is impossible for Peter to walk on water. But his lack of water-walking skills is not what defines Peter in this moment. In this moment, the truest thing about Peter is the word that Jesus speaks to him: “Come”. The Church, the pilgrim people of God, we often get a bad rap, and rightly so much of the time. Far from being trained professionals we’re simply a bunch of uncoordinated fools stumbling through life. Yet we’re entrusted with this enormously beautiful task that comes with much responsibility. Live faithfully to God in the midst of an unfaithful world. “Oh, alright, no big deal.” Live in such a way as to reveal the beauty of the gospel. “Easy enough.” But we know all too well that the sort of people we actually are is a far cry from the sort of people we’re ideally supposed to be. Be that as it may, in the midst of our uncoordinated Tom Foolery (and often outright unfaithfulness) there is a word that is spoken to us, about us, and for us, and this is the truest word. This is the word that defines us and calls us into being. This is the word that shapes us and sustains us. The word that God speaks to us and about us in Christ Jesus is truer even than what we say and think about ourselves. Regardless of whether or not Peter thought he could really walk on water the fact that Jesus called him out onto the sea meant that he was able. The question then becomes, what is our response? Do we doubt his word or do we trust it?
Matthew tells us that Peter “noticed the strong wind.” As Peter is walking on the water out to Jesus he stops noticing Jesus. He begins, instead, to notice the wind and the waves all around him. For Peter, the word that Jesus spoke to him ceases to be his reality and the storm takes over as ultimate reality. And Peter became frightened and began to sink. As he was sinking in the stormy sea his only reaction was to cry out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Do we find ourselves in places where our only cry is a desperate, “Lord, save me!”? If not, perhaps we have forgotten that we are a people sent out into the chaos and unpredictability of the sea. Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that we needn’t really paddle all that far off the shore. Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re really a people called to set up camp on the safety of the beach. After all, there are barbecues and games on the beach. And immediately, at the very moment that the cry for help was on Peter’s lips Jesus was there, reaching out his hand and grabbing Peter. Pulling him up out of the sea where he was sinking. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Who did Peter doubt? I don’t think Peter doubted Jesus. After all, he stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water out to Jesus after a simple, “Come.” No, I think Peter doubted himself. Or, perhaps he doubted that the word which Jesus spoke to him was really true. Can I really walk on the water to Jesus? I mean, look at these waves. Look at this wind. Jesus spoke truth to Peter, truth about Peter, about what he was really capable of, yet Peter doubted it. He doubted that this was really true of him. He doubted that he was really able. Peter and Jesus then get into the boat and the storm ceased. Then, all those in the boat saw Jesus for who he really was and worshipped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
And so, here we are. The Church, the pilgrim people of God, waiting around for the return of Jesus. Waiting for the time when he will come to set things right. It’s a tumultuous time. You’d think Jesus might have us build a sanctuary for us to take shelter in. A place we can gather to sing nice songs that make us feel good about ourselves to forget about the storm that is happening outside. But no. What does Jesus do? He sends us out, like the disciples, in a rickety old boat into the middle of the stormy sea. We, the Church, are a sent people. And when I say that we’re a sent people I don’t necessarily mean to some distant land. Here we are, each of us in Toronto, Ontario. God has us here. God has sent us here out into our city, into our neighbourhoods. This is where we live. Outside these doors, these are our people and they are experiencing all sorts of storms. What would it look like if we understood ourselves as a sent people right here in the St. Lawrence Market/Beach? How would it radically shift our life as a church if we could look at our neighbours and see people that we are sent to?
Towards the end of the film ‘No Country For Old Men’ an overwhelmed local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell goes to visit his father Ellis, who turns to him at one point and says, “You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” I love that line. To be sure, as people on mission we’ll make all sorts of mistakes. But the good news is this. It’s not our mission. See, we’re sent. We’re commanded to go on ahead. And the one who sends us is no less than the Son of God. The one who demonstrates his command of the sea by walking on it. So, while we’re sent to join in on God’s mission in and for the world, in and for our city and neighbourhood, the good news is that the success of this mission does not lie with us. It is not us that guarantees the success of God’s mission, it is Jesus and his kingdom is bursting through all around us. “You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.”
May we understand that we are a people sent on a mission. There is no guarantee of safety or security but the one who sent us is the one who will see it all through. And when we venture into the unknown and the storms come and we’re cold, wet and feeling alone, may we know that we are able to do the seemingly impossible because it’s ultimately His mission, and He’ll see it through. And may we find the courage the trust and have faith.