by Linda McMillan
On the last leg of my recent summer vacation I visited a city called Sanya, on the island of Hinan. The beaches there are so beautiful that people call it “The Hawaii of China,” and you’d believe that too, if you’d never been to the actual Hawaii. Hinan is a long way from Hawaii, literally and figuratively too, but the beaches are nice and I was looking forward to paddle boarding, snorkeling, and being in the warm beach air before the onset of what will surely be a dreary winter in the city where I live.
The second day of my time in Hainan, though, a typhoon rolled in off the South China Sea and put the kibosh on my plans for the rest of the week. On the plus side, there was a nice breeze, but the storm clouds carried rain, and thunder. It was not a serious typhoon, but it was ugly and it ruined more than a few holidays.
Our gospel reading for this morning is full of storms. Sure, there’s the one that’s explicitly mentioned, but let’s not be quite so literal that we can’t see the other storm in the story. The juxtaposition of these two storms is instructive about storms that we encounter in our own lives. I don’t means typhoons that ruin beach vacations. I mean the storms of life; those times when nothing makes sense, maybe you can’t see through the clouds and the wind or rain threaten your very safety. There are all kinds of storms.
The lectionary often gives us a very narrow band of scripture to work with, but I don’t think anybody will mind if we back up a little bit to get a handle on the verses we are given. The first 12 verses of Matthew’s chapter 14 recount the death of John The Baptist. Then…
John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.
Storm clouds gathering
Jesus did what most of us would have done, he went off by himself to think things over, to pray, and to wrap his head around what had happened to John and what it might mean for him, but he was unable to work through things because the crowd had followed him.
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.
Thunderheads move in and lightning claps.
Jesus must have had a million things on his mind. His head must have been a swirling mass of storm clouds at this point, but he had compassion on the crowds and healed them and fed them. There were well over 5000 people there. Imagine! And, still, Jesus had not gotten the down-time he craved.
It begins raining and wind speed increases.
Jesus told his disciples to leave him alone. It wasn’t a mere suggestion. The disciples would have had no doubt as they got into the boat. Jesus wanted to be alone.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side,…
Finally, Jesus was able to go up onto the mountain and confront the storm which was by now raging in his head and heart. He must have tried to make sense of it all, speaking to God, listening, waiting until, like Elijah before him, he found calm in the midst of raging storms. Maybe Jesus prayed from his own prayer book, the Psalter:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me…
We can’t know exactly what happened up on the mountain between Jesus and God, and it’s likely that we don’t really know what is going on in our very own prayer lives either, but at some point, somehow, Jesus came into some kind of peace.
While Jesus had been battling his storm, the disciples had encountered a storm of their own. It wasn’t unusual for a small squall to pop up on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples would have known what to do, but this storm seems to have been especially severe. They were scared. Every school child knows what happened next: Jesus went out walking on the water. There’s even a song about it.
When the writer places Jesus on the water, above the waves, unaffected by the chaos of the storm, he is letting us know that Jesus has mastered the storms of his own life. In fact, Jesus is shown to be Lord of created order, master of that which is formless and void. This is what enables Jesus to enter our own lives and calm the raging seas in which we so often find ourselves.
It would have been a lovely story if Jesus had merely entered the boat and calmed the storm for the disciples. But, there was fear, and ego, and… Well, Peter.
The disciples would have heard stories about ghosts at sea. They had probably grown up believing in ghosts, demons, and the like. Maybe they thought Jesus was Lilith, whose reputation has risen and fallen and risen again over the centuries. Think about it, even with our more scientific ways of thinking it’s hard to say which is more reasonable: to see a ghost or to see someone walking on water. I have some compassion for the disciples on this point.
They really couldn’t take time to discuss it, though. Whether it was Jesus, Lilith, or something else, there was still the matter of the storm to deal with. They would have been rowing, and bailing, battening hatches. It would have been an “all hands on deck” type situation. But, instead of doing his part Peter addressed the apparition, got out of the boat, away from those who were doing the actual work, so that he could have his very own encounter with Jesus there on the water.
Imagine what the other disciples must have thought. “There goes Peter… Showboating when he should be rowing.” “Special Peter.” But, Peter didn’t walk on the water. He sank. Oh, sure, Jesus saved him, but he sank. Some people say that he sank because he took his eyes off Jesus, some may say that he let fear get the better of him. Here’s another idea: Maybe the reason Peter sank is because he left the community, went his own way, put his own needs above the needs of the group?
In literature a boat can be used as a stand-in for the church. Our term nave is from the Latin word navis which means ship or boat. If you look at the architectural lines in the nave of your own church you may be able to discern the outline of a boat. So, it’s fair to draw some equivalencies between the boat and the church, the disciples and the gathered community, Peter and… well, that one. There’s one in every congregation.
Let’s just assume the best about Peter and get to the point. Peter has been too much of a distraction for too long. Peter is not the point. This is not a story about walking on water. I know those are pretty compelling story lines, but the point of all this, the reason someone wrote it down, is that Jesus comes to us in the midst of storms, small squalls, giant hurricanes, thunderstorms, earthquakes, and all, I do mean all, of the trials of life.
Jesus has mastered his own storms. He is Lord and King of chaos. Jesus rules the seas, not Neptune, nor his Greek equivalent Poseidon. Jesus.
When storms threaten to ravage our own lives we will not look to the gods that culture offer us. Neptune and Poseidon have been replaced with consumerism and envy, the desire to be a little better than everybody else, showboating… Those are not our Gods any more than Neptune was a God for Peter. Only by allowing the one who has mastered all the sea’s storms to come into our boats, to go down with us into the deep waters can we find our own peace.
We might remember these words from Psalm 107:
Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the LORD, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end. Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise
We are all out sailing on the sea of life. As you consider your own journey, the storms you’ve passed through, or the storms you may be in the midst of, may God bring you out of your distress. Even when you are knocked down and are staggering like a drunk man because of life’s gale-force winds, call out to God. God will come to you, right to the boat. You don’t have to go out walking on water. That’s a fool’s game. God comes to us in our distress and he will — please God, soon — bring us to a safe haven.
Linda McMillan lives in YangZhong, China — Home of the Pufferfish.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You can hear Here Comes Jesus, Walking On The Water here.
You can read about Lilith here. This is a Wikipedia article which may not be completely accurate, though the first couple of paragraphs look pretty good.
All about the nave. I really enjoyed this article. I recommend it. I don’t think the article makes the connection between nave and the navy… that would be an easy way to remember what nave means.