A Lectionary Reflection on Matthew 14:22-33
It’s a long time ago now, but the season of my life when my faith metamorphosed from an unquestioning allegiance to a vibrant, freeing, wrestling, all-embracing, life-giving reality still impacts every moment of my existence. It started with a simple question that I hadn’t thought of before, but that brought down the whole structure of what I believed, and took me through a crisis of identity, of calling and of my place in the world. The turning point that both rescued my faith and transformed it into what it is today was the discovery of three books that together gave me a whole new perspective on God and on what it means to be a person of faith. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek gave me a new perspective on the world and the God who made it. Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies showed me that a faith without questions is no faith at all, and gave me the freedom to search, to doubt and to wrestle. Finally, Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing taught me that there are different ways to understand and practice faith, and that all have a place in the spiritual journey we share.
Every life experiences such turning points, and every faith journey needs them to grow, to expand and to know and share life in all its fullness. The night of the storm, after the feeding of the crowd, was, I believe such a turning point for the disciples. Certainly, it is portrayed in that way in Matthew’s Gospel.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the specifics of this event that we miss the significance, and the massive shift in paradigm that Matthew seeks to inspire in his readers. It’s a moment that is shrouded in mystery. The Greek words, as William Barclay explains, are not clear and unambiguous, and the circumstances are so emotional and chaotic that an objective, clinical explanation of the events is impossible. But, the point of the story is to be anything but clinical. There are far greater miracles at stake than people wandering about on the surface of the sea.
Which is not to say that a miracle did not happen. Only that we cannot state with absolute certainty what the nature of the water-walking miracle was. What we can declare without ambivalence, however, is that for Matthew, this narrative drives home his central purpose – that of revealing Jesus as a new Moses come to fulfil the promise of the new covenant in which God’s law is written on human hearts and God’s presence is enjoyed by human individuals and communities. Matthew has already shown Jesus bringing the fulfilment of the law through the Sermon on the Mount. He has shown Jesus as the bringer of the new manna by feeding the crowds in the wilderness (which, of course, John makes even more explicit through his “bread of life” discourse after his telling of these events). And now, he reveals Jesus to be the one who leads his people to freedom and safety through the stormy waters. Moses gave people the Exodus from Egypt. Jesus offers a far greater Exodus from death to God’s unquenchable life.
What is significant, from Jesus’ perspective, is that he has finally found the solitude he was longing for. The crowds have been fed, both physically and spiritually, and they have been sent home. His disciples – experienced, professional fisherman – are sailing back across the lake. And Jesus sets off alone up a mountain to pray and, almost certainly, to grieve the death of his cousin John. But, his time is cut short because the disciples find themselves in trouble, struggling against one of the freak storms that were common on the Sea of Galilee. So, once again, Jesus lays aside his own needs, his own grief, and goes to rescue his friends.
This is the first miracle. The storm at sea is a small reflection of the storm of grief that Jesus and his followers are facing. It is also a small prophecy of the greater storm to come when their faith will be tested beyond anything they have yet known. But, Jesus demonstrates what he will later promise before he leaves them for the final time – his presence is always with them, and even in the worst of storms, he will be there to rescue them.
For the disciples, the experience must have been utterly revolutionary. To begin with there is the humility of finding themselves unable to cope with the sea which they know like their own homes. Then there is the presence of Jesus bringing them to safety. Then there is the encouragement for Peter to emulate Christ in his fearless journey through the water – an attempt which, however, ends in failure.
But, the second miracle is what happens afterward. For Matthew this must have been a moment he was working to in his writing – the moment when he would begin to challenge the way his readers had thought about God, the world and this man called Jesus. For the first time, the disciples worship Jesus – an act that, unless Jesus really is who Matthew is claiming him to be – is blasphemy. This is the crunch. Jesus is not just a “new” Moses. He is superior to Moses. He is Moses’ God – the one does not just reinterpret the law, but who gave the law in the first place. This is the beginning of the shift which will ultimately lead to Peter’s declaration in Matthew 16. But, they do not, and will not, understand what manner of God this Jesus is.
From John’s Gospel we can infer that Jesus compels his disciples and the crowds to leave because there was a revolution brewing. They wanted to make him king. But, Jesus won’t be made king, and he won’t dominate. Rather, he will suffer and die. But, they have a long way to go before they understand this. And Peter will have to experience a far worse failure before he is ready to follow the true Jesus, and not the one he initially thinks he is following. Yet, these failures are exactly what make Peter so effective, in the end, as God’s messenger. I wonder if the difference between Peter and Judas, why one remained to be forgiven while the other was consumed by the weight of his failure, was that Peter had failed before – like this moment when the waves were too much for him to trust Jesus. Peter, in some part of his being, knew that even when he was sinking, the hand that would reach out to rescue him would be Jesus’. Perhaps that’s why Peter was the first to include the Gentiles among the new Christian community. He already knew that God could accept anyone, because, in spite of his failures, he had been accepted again and again.
Which, finally, leads us to ourselves as readers of this story, and seekers after Christ. The challenge and the assurance we find here is that, ultimately, it’s not about us. The whole endeavour of which we are a part – creation, redemption, life, salvation – is all about Jesus. Neither hungry crowds, nor stormy seas, nor rough crosses can deter God’s purpose of bringing all things to wholeness together in Christ. As Paul stated, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ. We will fail, and we will struggle. We will face storms and we will have to endure our own crosses in our own way. But, Christ’s presence and purpose remains. And through it all, the response which God seeks, and which will lead us to safety and to life is worship – the complete abandonment of ourselves to loving, intimate, world-serving relationship with God.