In the Nave
| Matthew 14:22-33
||Sun, August 11, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” This is a story within a story. It is a story about the church, it is about me and it is about you. From the very beginning the church has been a ship at sea. It is no accident that the latin word for a sanctuary is “nave” from which we get “navy” and which means, quite literally, “ship”. To step into this worship space is to get into the boat that is the church. Hence these banners from the worship tent of the 6th Assembly of the World Council of Churches portray the ecumenical church - the global church - as a boat with a cross for a mast. When Jesus compels his disciples - his students - to get into the boat and go ahead to the other side we are meant to include ourselves in their number. We are passengers on that same storm-tossed boat.
We have been here before. Earlier in the story - back in the eighth chapter of Matthew (8:23-27) - Jesus accompanies his students across the lake through a gale. On that occasion Jesus sleeps through the danger before waking in time to save from certain disaster. This time he remains behind and goes “up the mountain by himself to pray.” If we are not paying attention we suppose that Jesus just needs some quiet rest and relaxation. But the fourteenth chapter of Matthew will permit no such reading. It begins with the report of Herod’s violent beheading of Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist, and of Herod’s fear that Jesus is actually John, “raised from the dead”. In feeding the crowds of thousands with five loaves and two fish Jesus’ fame spreads. At the same time, the threats to his life grow as the powers and principalities seek ways to destroy him. When Jesus first hears the news about Herod he withdraws from the crowds to be alone, only to be discovered by the masses. Now, once more, he seeks time alone in the face of the looming trouble.
At the same time, his students find themselves in deep trouble, far from land, in the midst of a storm at sea. The sea ... the heart of chaos in the Bible. This seething storm is the home of great sea monsters. It is the chaos of the sea that God brings under control at the creation of the land, making the earth “very good”. This is a story about the followers of Jesus, compelled by him to be together in the nave that is the church. This little community of disciples finds itself caught in a terrifying storm with Jesus nowhere in sight. Do you see? Matthew intends his community to recognize this scene ... to realize that the chaos facing the early church is no different than this storm that faces Peter and his crew. And the chaos that faces the contemporary church is as frightening and confounding and troubling. The crew does not know what to do. Jesus seems nowhere to be found. There is much shouting, much fear, much wondering if we should head back. The wind is against the church, allowing it to make no headway towards its destination on the other side. This is not just an ancient tale. This is the story of the contemporary church.
“And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.” Early in the morning is right. According to the Greek text it is four o’clock in the morning. We don’t call that early in the morning. We call that the middle of the night. No wonder the storm-tossed church imagines that it is seeing an apparition. If it were daylight and we were on the shore we might expect a miracle. But in the middle of the nightmare we see a figure approaching and imagine the worst. That is what Bill Taylor shows so well in the painting that decorated our calendars during Easter this year. Unlike so many traditional portraits of this scene Bill’s does not provide a close-up rendering of Jesus walking on the water. Instead, his painting is dominated by the storm and leaves the viewer straining to make out the boat and the one who comes towards it. This is what it is like for us. In the midst of the trouble in the world, the trouble in the city, the trouble at home we don’t know what to make of good news when it approaches. We are so accustomed to despair that the miraculous presence of One who can save us from the chaos is unbelievable. At the height of the storm, in the middle of the night we dare not believe that we are to be saved. It seems impossible.
“But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.” This is good news in the midst of the danger: “Have courage. I am here. Do not fear.” This is what the frightened child longs to hear in the dark of night. This is what we each long to hear when it is our turn to face the valley of the shadow of death. It is what a world terrified by looming terror needs to hear now. We are not alone in our longing for the re-assuring presence of One who has power to see us across to the other side. We long to place our trust in a Saviour. Sometimes, like Peter, we dare to step out in faith and to trust the promise to be true: “It is I; do not be afraid.” We dare to let go of trusty possessions and ways of life. We dare to share another’s burden. We dare to step into uncharted territory. But it is hard to keep focus, to live in faith, when the wind is howling at gale force and common sense says that such a storm inevitably leads to drowning. The text reports that Peter walks on water until, noticing the ferocity of the wind, he becomes frightened and begins to sink, crying out: “Lord, save me.” The text says he doubts. The Greek word for doubt suggests “going in two directions at once.” It is not that Peter does not trust Jesus. He does. It is that he both trusts Jesus and fears the storm at the same time. Even with Jesus close at hand Peter cannot deny the howling wind and its ominous threat of death. Even in our believing we wrestle with demons of despair ... and even Peter - the first Pope of the church - sinks ... as do we.
Jesus’ first response to Peter’s cry is compassion. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” In the midst of his own struggle with the powers that Herod unleashes to kill him, Jesus saves. This is the good news. In Jesus Christ we meet one with power to save when even the seaworthy ship of the church is at risk. Yet his is no simple search and rescue mission. In Jesus we are met by one who, on Good Friday, is himself drowned by the forces of death. On the cross Christ is overtaken by the chaos, and on Saturday he is submerged in the tomb, dead and gone. His power is more than that of a miracle man who uses sleight of hand trickery to walk on water. This is one in whom the power of Almighty God to bring order out of chaos and life out of death is revealed and made real in the Resurrection of Sunday morning.
This is our story. It is when the storm overtakes us and triumphs that we are saved. As one of you said of this congregation’s near death experience fifteen years ago, when it seemed certain that the congregation was sinking fast: “I think that we have been saved for something, but I don’t think we know what we have been saved for yet.” Perhaps that is true not only of all y’all but also of each of you. Like Peter you are, even now, being saved from the chaos of despair ... saved for life as a deckhand on the ship with a cruciform mast ... saved as a student of the One who answers all who cry: “Lord, save me!” ... saved to live to tell about it, to worship the one who is surely the Son of God and to arrive safely on the other side.