Sermons from St Faith's     

Fr Dennis Smith, 10 August, 2014

The human condition being what it is, when we’re really up against it, and all seems hopeless, we long for a miracle. When miracles do happen, we find them hard to believe. Such is life!

There are several different versions of a story that came out of South Africa at the height if the anti-apartheid struggles, but they all have the same punch line. The version that I like best is this.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was out fishing from a boat when President P.W.Botha’s official car pulled up on the lakeside and a message was relayed to the Archbishop that the resident needed to talk to him urgently. Desmond Tutu immediately left the boat and walked across the water in haste to the meeting with the President. Next day, one of the nationalist papers had the headline ‘Desmond Tutu can’t swim’!

What are we to make, then, of the story that formed our Gospel reading for today? Indeed, what would we have made of it had we been one of the more distant disciples who happened not to be with the others that day, but heard the story when they all met up together again later on?  Just to pose these questions suggests that there are different ways that this story is to be received, so let’s see if we can peel back some of the layers in a way that may help us to greater understanding and deeper faith.

The first layer to consider is that of the disciples themselves, and those that heard the story first hand from them. As Matthew sets it all in context, they’ve recently shared a double whammy with Jesus. It began when he was given a massive thumbs down by his own village community, despite the fact that the folk there accepted the amazing things he was doing. No doubt it was partly because of that rejection that they were in the boat when the storm blew up. Then, news came that Herod was putting it about that Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated – the sort of story that would totally undermine Jesus’s ministry if it took hold of the popular imagination.

It’s against that background that Jesus took two loaves and five fish and made it a feast for thousands. Then, with the pressure still on, Jesus sought solitude and sent the disciples across the lake while he climbed higher for a night of contemplation and prayer. With the winds mounting and the boat in trouble, Jesus abandons his vigil and walks towards the disciples, who are terrified when they see him approaching. He bids them be at peace and instils such calm that Peter, true to form, engages mouth before brain and asks for a security check.

Jesus bids him to walk on water, and he did, at least until he noticed that the storm was still raging. When he started to sink, Jesus showed that he had his gold life-saver award and helped him back into the boat. Then the storm died down and the disciples said: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’.

That’s the story they told. Which was the miracle? The transforming of a few loaves and fish into a feast for thousands? Jesus walking on water? Peter, walking on water? The calming of their fears at the height of a storm? Jesus rescuing Peter? Their recognition that Jesus, rejected by his own people, utterly miscast by Herod, ws truly the Son of God? What do we think they thought the real miracle was?

We can only conjecture but, if we’d been where they were, would we have said: ‘Wow, that’s a real miracle’? So, with that in mind, let’s peel back a second layer to look at this story in another way. We can ask the question, ‘To whom was Matthew writing?’ Who were the people he was hopoing would benefit from reading his gospel? It’s broadly accepted that he probably had a mainly Jewish audience in mind, but in this story there’s a particular emphasis which suggests that it may have been intended for established congregations, rather than for use – as we might say – for street evangelism. The story’s interesting because it all happens with only the disciples present, almost as if it’s an ‘in church’ event. The miracle accounts that are all around it as Matthew tells of Jesus’s journey steadily towards Jerusalem are all very public happenings. But this is different. What happened was for the disciples alone. When we think of it this way a somewhat varied picture begins to emerge. The broad background is the same. It’s still set against the double whammy  that Jesus had suffered. But now he has sent them out on to the waters, ostensibly to be ahead of him on the other side but, in reality, to face the dark night crossing without him. True, they were skilled fishermen but by now they were used to being where Jesus was, and on this night he’d left them alone. In fact, they didn’t know exactly where he was.
Then the storm blew up and, to make matters worse, while trying to cope with that, an apparition appears, walking towards them across the water. The pitching boat was bad, but this was enough to turn their stomachs over. The Peter cameo in the middle of it all simply highlights the rest. The apparition was Jesus: thank God for that! What calm it instilled.

‘Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you’ ... ‘Come, Peter.’  Great. That is, until Peter takes his eye off Jesus, and thinks about the surging waters all around him. Then it’s ankles, knees, hips ... how fare did he sink before Jesus caught hold of him? We’re not told. Sufficient that Jesus did catch him, chided him for a lack of faith, and got him back into the boat.

Once again we can ask a question. What’s the miracle which this story, with its cameo of Peter, is intended to encourage within the congregation that heard it? Indeed, what’s the miracle that Matthew will be hoping may result among us as we hear the story afresh today and think about its implications for us?

I want to suggest that this is a story as much for us today as it was for those who first heard it, and for the congregation amongst whom it was shared. They were very much betwixt and between people, just as were Jesus and his disciples in the story. We probably share their feelings, for we too are a betwixt and between people. It’s very clear that we are living in a fast-changing world, but we don’t always find the pace of change easy or the direction always comfortable. We recognise that some of our long-cherished life-support systems are past their sell-by dates, but we distrust the alternatives presented as improvements, still more when they are offered as the only options available.

In our personal lives, many of us are in periods of transition, when the waters we are sailing on are choppy, to say the least. And sometimes it can seem as though the hormone-surging emotions we experienced as teenagers reappear when uncertainty engulfs us and our safe, familiar boundaries slip from view.

In church life, too, tensions between the varied outlooks of different generations can create a very unsettled feeling in congregations, and even within national churches. As the storms mount, our hearts cry out for a miracle. To walk on water?  Probably not. To still the storm.? Don’t think so. To get to the other side, safe and well? Perhaps. To hold fast to the One who sees the need of his peo0ple in the midst of darkness, when the winds are lashing and the waves most turbulent, to the One who comes then to be with us when all seems lost, to the One who brings us to the other side in our right mind to work with Him once again? When betwixt and between, for us to be able to give thanks and praise to the Son of God?

Now that is a miracle!

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