The Reverend Kathleen Killian
The Real Miracle
In the gradual hymn we just sang (Episcopal Hymnal 398), we lauded the almighty power of God and the goodness of the Lord in ordaining all of creation—mountains, moon and stars—the humble flowers and lofty skies—and that even when the tempest blows—thou, O God, art present.
While reassuring, and true, its rather upbeat air isn’t quite in tune with the absolute danger and fear that permeates our gospel passage; and that Jesus calls his disciples into the tempest, not out of it.
Our text says that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat, or as Greek is more accurately translated, he forced or compelled them to get into the boat and leave him alone with the crowds. And I think here a little background is helpful.
Matthew’s chapter 14 opens with the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner and cousin. When Jesus received this news, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But the crowds who had been following him figured out where he was going and went there on foot. So when Jesus came ashore, a huge assembly had gathered and was waiting for me. Despite his own sorrow and grief, he had compassion upon them, and healed them. His disciples arrived by the evening, and as it was late, wanted to send the crowds away. But Jesus insisted that the disciples give them something to eat, which becomes what we know as the miraculous feeding of the 5000 plus (Matthew 14:1-21).
It is after this that Jesus makes his disciples get into the boat; he sends them away first, and then sends the crowds away. Finally he is alone and retreats to the mountain to pray.
Meanwhile a fearsome storm has arisen and the disciples’ boat is being tossed and battered by the waves, or as the Greek basanizo actually means tortured or tormented. The disciples are tormented by the storm and in severe distress. In the previous “calming of the storm” miracle in Matthew 8:23-27, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples, albeit asleep, when a storm threatened to drown them. But this time the disciples are alone. Jesus is not with them. He’s also alone, up on the mountain praying. The disciples are terrified, and afraid. It was not until the 4th watch of the night, sometime between 3-6am, while it was still dark, that Jesus finally comes to them, walking upon the churning waters.
I would imagine that most of us can relate; that we’re sailing along smoothly on a sunny cloudless day, when suddenly a storm hits. Maybe it’s a storm of a diagnosis or death; or a storm of oppression by life denying forces that like the waves batter and torment us; a relationship falls apart; finances fail; or societal and political brokenness threaten our way of life. Storms can be global and collective as well as personal and individual.
There are many things in life that cause us to fear, big or small, real or imagined, it matters not. And though Jesus tells us often not to be not afraid we are. Sometimes a healthy does of fear is exactly the right response, but for good or bad, fear is part of our human experience, which means Jesus, fully human himself, knew something personally of fear. Think of the onslaught of temptations upon him, the alienation of his unique path, his aloneness, the pushback and persecutions against him, not to mention the cross. Maybe this is why he speaks to us so often about fear and anxiety.
And so when the disciples in their exhausted state mistake the Lord of creation walking towards them on the raging sea for a ghost and are afraid, he understands and calls to them: Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.
A better translation would be: Take heart, I am, do not be afraid. I am is the name and language of God (Exodus 3:14) and a self-revelation by Jesus of his source of power.
Much has been made about Peter’s test, when he calls out to Jesus—if you are the Lord, command me to come to you on the water. He must have been half crazy from lack of sleep and too much stress or on some level had an inkling that this phantom really was Jesus! Dear impulsive Peter. I don’t think the lesson here is to take crazy dangerous risks but neither is it to stay safely becalmed ashore. Here in the church we ourselves are sitting in the nave or the boat, where we empowered by God’s word and sacrament to go back out into the storm of the world—not to walk on water—but to walk on the earth with goodness, kindness, humility, and peace.
Yesterday in our vestry meeting, our worship included a quote from the Thich Nhat Hann, the late Buddhist monk, peace activist, and author. He said: People say that walking on water is a miracle, but to me, walking peacefully on the earth is the real miracle. I think Jesus would agree; that the miracle of his life lived on this earth was indeed that he walked peacefully among the sick, the outcasts and forgotten, among sinners and the righteous, among enemies and friends, among great crowds and utterly alone, he walked in peace all the way to the cross.
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15; Isaiah 52:7).
I would bet that in hindsight Peter didn’t think as much about the miracle of how he walked on water for a few fleeting seconds, as he did about how he was saved. Sinking down down down into the tumultuous waters, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, and pulled him up to safety.
After his rescue, Jesus’ words to Peter—you of little faith, why did you doubt—are often interpreted as an admonishment, in that if Peter had had more faith, he wouldn’t have doubted and begun to sink. Or sometimes it is taken to be a gentle chide like: ahh, why did you doubt? You had it! Perhaps though Jesus meant that Peter’s “little faith” was actually enough; that as God said to St. Paul and we read in 2 Corinthians: My grace is sufficient for you; for for my power is made perfect in weakness. Maybe we need not doubt what little faith we have.
The eventual calming of the sea ends with the recognition and declaration from the disciples: Truly you are the Son of God.
I can tell you that in my own life I have cried out more than once in abject feat and powerlessness. And though my anguished cry was great, my faith was not, but the size of a mustard seed, maybe even smaller. That’s all I had—and yet it was enough. As surely as I am standing before you today, I can tell you that the saving power of Jesus is real. It’s not that we will never fear or suffer again, or that life will magically be perfect, but that when we call, Jesus comes. Jesus comes in the chaos of troubled circumstances and the tempest of a body or soul in pain. He comes bearing new life beyond our understanding; he comes in the dark bearing the light of Christ, bearing hope, trust, and the salvation of God’s mercy and love.
As hard it might be to understand, and accept, Jesus sometimes calls us into the storm. Had he not compelled the disciples to get into the boat and embark on an uncertain journey, they would have missed the revelation of God in their midst, the deepening of their faith and life in Christ.
Today and throughout the gospel, Jesus assures us of God’s presence and provision in the worst of fearful times. For God, for the Holy One, our fear turns the perfect terrible storm into a channel of God’s presence, power, provision, and promise; that Jesus is with us always, now, and forever (adapted from a sermon by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE).