Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Into the Boat: a sermon (Matthew 14:22-33)

There are a number of old jokes about our gospel lesson today.  The basic one sounds a bit like this:

There was a group of clergy in one suburb that went fishing together once a month.  There was a Catholic priest, an Anglican vicar, a Uniting Church minister, a rabbi, and an imam that went every month.  This time, another minister went as well, a pastor from one of the newer "evangelical" churches.

Anyway, they were out in this boat and, periodically, the pastor noticed that whenever one of his colleagues needed anything on shore:  they’d just walk over the water to get it:  coffee, lunch, a bit more bait; they’d just walk over to the shore to get it.

Towards the end of the day, the pastor was thinking to himself, “If these guys can walk across the water like this, so should I.”  So he quickly asked his colleagues, “Who wants some ice cream?” 

Before anyone could answer, he jumped out of the boat and went “splash” into the water!

As the pastor was swimming back to the boat, the vicar turned to the rabbi and said, “I think we forgot to tell him where the rocks were.”   

I told you it was an old one.

Anyway, our gospel lesson includes the story of Jesus walking on the water.  It’s found in three of the gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and John.  We don’t know why Luke doesn’t include this story.

All three versions of the story have the disciples in a boat as they see Jesus walking.  All three versions have the story take place during rough weather on the lake.

Both Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of the story have the rough weather cease once Jesus entered the boat.  John’s version of the story doesn’t have Jesus enter the boat, although the disciples wanted him to get into the boat.  Instead, John’s version of the story has the boat immediately reaching land once Jesus gets close enough to speak to the disciples.

Only Matthew’s version of the story, the one we’ve heard today, has Peter leaving the boat to join Jesus on the water.

After the disciples saw Jesus walking on the lake, they speculated as to whether or not they were seeing a ghost.  They cried out in fear.

Jesus said, “Take heart.  It is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter then called out, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus said, “Come.”

Matthew tells us that Peter walked a bit, lost his confidence, and began to sink.  Peter called out for help.  Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  They both got into the boat, and the wind ceased.

The key to this story is not in the physics of what happened or didn’t happen.  The really important thing is in a very different aspect of the story.

I see the boat as being very important here.  When Peter called out for help, Jesus didn’t perform an individual rescue effort, without reference to the others in the boat.  Instead, Jesus brought Peter to the boat, where the other disciples were. 

The boat – the place where the community was gathered – was the place of security, not some personalised individual refuge.  And it’s no accident that one of the early symbols for the Christian church over the centuries was a boat (and that the boat has remained the symbol of the ecumenical movement since then).

Jesus brought Peter to the boat, where the other disciples were. 

And Jesus does this today as well.  Jesus calls people to faith and calls people into community.  And he does both at the one time.  Jesus does not call individuals to faith without calling the same people into community.  It’s a package deal.  

This runs counter to much of what we see in our culture, where issues of spirituality are treated as highly individualistic questions.   Our culture does not usually associate the call to faith with the call to community.  Spirituality and community are treated by our culture as two separate – and often quite contradictory - concerns. 

For example, when I was serving a previous congregation, I was once contacted by a Year 12 student from a local secondary college. She was doing photography as one of her subjects and the main assignment for the year was for each student to do a series of photos based on a single word.  Each student was to randomly draw a piece of paper with a single word out of a box.  The word this student picked out was “religion”.

She arranged to do a photo shoot at the church, along with another girl who served as her model.  She took a number of photos of this other girl by herself in the church
·        kneeling in prayer … by herself,
·        reading a Bible … by herself,
·        sitting and pondering the meaning of existence … by herself:
all very respectful, sensitive - but radically solitary - photographs. 

I suggested to her that she may want to come and get a few photos on a Sunday, when there was a congregation present.  She said she didn’t need to, as she wanted to convey the idea of religion as a very individual thing.

But this was not the case with Jesus.  His call to faith also involved a call to community.  It was a package deal.  Jesus did not offer his followers the luxury of an individualised spirituality.  Jesus never called his followers to a spirituality marked
·        by the anonymity of the suburban “New Age” shop,
·        by the consumer mentality of the “post-denominational” church-hopper, or
·        by the spectator mentality of the showbiz-style mega-church.

Instead of this, Jesus brought Peter to the boat, to the boat where the others were.  At the point of Peter’s spiritual need, Jesus brought Peter to the community, for it is in community where this need will be most authentically addressed.  

And for us, as a congregation, we need to be aware that we encounter the living Christ as effectively in our weekday lunch gatherings as we do in our gatherings for worship, study, and prayer.  Jesus, who led Peter to the boat, calls us into community as an essential part of his call to faith.

The meal which we will soon share is a sign of this.  When we as Christians are doing the most important thing the church ever does, and the most distinctively Christian thing the church ever does – celebrating Holy Communion – we are engaged in sharing food.  At the single holiest moment of our worship, we are doing something that is not an individual act, but an act of community.

In the midst of the storms and high winds of our world and our culture, we still see Jesus travelling ahead of us.  This same Jesus, who brought Peter back to the boat, calls us into community as an essential part of his call to faith.  Jesus never offers his call to faith without a call to community.  He keeps leading us all, like Peter, out of the sea of individualism into the boat of community. 

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.