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Sunday Worship 13 August | Jesus in Boats

Updated: Jan 18

Matthew 8:23-27 | adapted from the Play Along Bible
Jesus and his friends were sailing in a boat. [Say “yo ho!”]
The waves rocked the boat gently. [Rock gently]
Jesus fell asleep. [Close your eyes and snore]
Then the wind blew hard. [Take a deep breath and blow]
And the waves crashed. [Rock faster]
Jesus’ friends were scared. [Shout “Wake up Jesus!"]
So Jesus got up and shushed the wind. [Say “Shush shush shush”]
And told the waves to be still. [Say “Calm down”]
The storm stopped and everyone was safe. [Rock gently again]
The disciples were amazed. [Say "Wow!"]
Dear God, help me to trust you when I'm afraid. Amen.

 

As you may recall if you've been worshipping here over the last few months, we have been taking our readings from the lectionary. Today's gospel reading is actually the story of Jesus walking on the water from Matthew chapter fourteen, which we will hear a little later, but I got my boat stories muddled when I was drafting the preaching schedule, and so I decided to include them both. It seems fitting at any rate, as the two passages are undoubtedly connected, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to  invite the children to help me retell one of their favourite Jesus stories. For reasons too dull to explain, I put the scripture reference for Luke's version of the calming of the storm in the newsheet, but significantly it does also appear in Matthew chapter eight. Both stories appear in Mark too, suggesting that they are not simply different versions of a single event, but recall two distinct occasions.

 

I hope you enjoyed getting involved in the reading, but let's hear how Matthew tells it before we reflect on it together: Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.  The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”  He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

 

Given that several of Jesus' disciples were fishermen, and much of his ministry was conducted around the Sea of Galilee, it should come as little surprise that Jesus spent some time on boats. The presence of water does however have symbolic as well as practical significance. Throughout scripture, water is a chaotic and mysterious element that only God can control. We see that in the waters that covered the earth at the beginning of creation, in the terror and destruction of the flood, in the parting of the sea which allowed the Israelites to escape slavery and then overwhelmed their pursuers, and in the dramatic rescue of Jonah from the depths of the ocean and the stomach of a fish. The fishermen who followed Jesus may have depended on the water for their livelihood, but even for them it was still a place of danger and the unknown. We can then read the story on two levels, as a record of something that really happened, and as an allegory for our own times of crisis and doubt. I see no reason why we should have to choose between the two.

 

Let’s look more closely at the story now. The translators obviously wanted to introduce a bit of variety into their adjectives, and so we had a furious storm followed by complete calm, but in the original Greek it is the same word megas that is used in both places, and so there is a great storm followed by a great calm. Perhaps the repetition seems lazy or unimaginative, which is why it is not reflected in the English, but perhaps it is intentional to draw attention to the word great, in order to contrast it with the little faith of the disciples. It may sound like Jesus is chastising them here, but I think it is subtler and he is gentler than that. Their faith is overwhelmed by the situation they find themselves in, and it makes them afraid, and I think it is that fear which Jesus is responding to, part of a refrain of "do not be afraid" that runs throughout scripture. Elsewhere in the gospels, he embraces that which is small and emerging, as he speaks of faith as small as a mustard seed being able to move mountains, and responds with grace to the man who cries out "help my unbelief". Jesus does not demand a faith that never questions and never falters, but he does want us to have faith enough for our circumstances, so that we can trust in his continued presence, and know calm even in chaos.

 

Because if this story tells us one thing, it is that being with Jesus does not ensure smooth sailing. I truly believe that God desires our flourishing and works for our good in all things, but I also believe that God created us for relationship not control, and that complicates matters because it means that things can go wrong. In thought and word and deed, through negligence and weakness and our own deliberate fault, we hurt ourselves and we hurt others and we are hurt by others in turn. And that’s before we even consider the effects of living in a complex ecosystem, in which disaster and disease are natural consequences. Perhaps God could stop all of that, but not without restricting or denying the freedom of creatures and creation, which would be a very different sort of world and a very different sort of God. And so the promise of faith is not that we will walk through the world untouched by sorrow or stress, but that we do not walk through that sorrow and stress alone. Jesus didn't prevent the storm from happening, but he was with the disciples while it was raging, and in time he brought them through it, even if they may have landed with shaken nerves and a shattered boat. My faith as small as a mustard seed is that he will do the same for us.



Matthew 14:22-33 | NIV
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 

The story of Jesus walking on the water holds a significant place in our shared consciousness. It is referenced in songs and films, and illusionists have sought to recreate it. Even if you have never before picked up a Bible or stepped inside a church, if you have grown up in Western society then you probably know that Jesus walked on water. And of course as well as being a touching point between culture and theology, the story also holds a significant place in the scriptural tradition. It appears in three of the four gospels, and as with the feeding of the five thousand last week, it demands that we understand it as more than just a party trick.

 

Speaking of the feeding of the five thousand, this story follows straight on from that one, with Jesus still seeking the solitude that led him to the mountainside where that earlier miracle took place. Self care may feel like a distinctly modern concept, but I think that is what Jesus is practising here. While he responded with generosity and compassion to the needs of the crowd, he also knew he needed time to himself, and he made sure he got it. Our opening hymn sang of obedience to Jesus, but that doesn't mean unceasing work, it also means following his pattern of rest and renewal. He often withdrew to spend time in prayer, and it is good for us to do likewise, but he also enjoyed spending time with friends, and I think there is a place for less obviously spiritual pursuits too. There are many things that revive and restore us, from a good meal in good company to exercising our creativity to curling up with a book or a boxset, and they are more important than we often allow. As in all things there is a need for balance, and while we are called to serve the needs of others, it is not selfish to pay attention to our own needs too.

 

On with the story now, and we already know that this is the second time Jesus has calmed a storm and encouraged the disciples to have more faith. We don't always learn the first time either, but fortunately God has grace and patience enough to let us get there eventually. Because there is some progression in the response of the disciples, and this is where we benefit from placing the two stories alongside one another. The first ends with the disciples asking who Jesus is, while the second ends with the disciples declaring he is the Son of God. Clearly they have learnt something, even if it took a couple of attempts, and even if there is still more for them to understand. I do think it is interesting that the disciples were already following Jesus, even without a clear understanding of who they thought he was. The church has at times tried to get its theology tightly locked down and neatly parcelled up in doctrinal statements and systematic theologies, but it began with a bunch of people who were puzzling it out as they went along. I think we can take that as permission to hold our questions alongside our beliefs, and to understand faith as something living and organic which shifts and evolves. That might not feel quite as steady, but I find it far more interesting.

 

If this is the second time Jesus has calmed the waves, it also marks the beginning of his second attempt at ministry among the Gentiles. It sounds like the punchline to a terrible joke, but Jesus and the disciples crossed the lake to get to the other side, to get to where there were other people who needed to hear the good news. The boat journey during which the first calming happened took them to the region of the Gardarenes or the Gerasenes, Gardara and Gerasa both being Hellenistic cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee. There Jesus cast demons into a herd of pigs, so badly terrifying the people that they asked him to leave. He did return to his hometown, but then the boat journey during which the second calming happened took him and the disciples back again across the lake to Gennesaret, and then from there to the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon. I'm not sure Jesus planned to be unsuccessful at the first attempt, but perhaps the timing just wasn't right. Because as I heard this week, God works on kairos time not chronos time. In Ancient Greek, chronos is simply clock time, one second or minute or hour after another, while kairos is the right time, the opportune moment. I don’t want to push it as far as to say that every moment is determined, because as I said earlier I don’t believe God is about control, but there is a sense that sometimes things do not work out as we hope or expect, and other times there is a move of the Spirit and suddenly things fall into place. Most of the time we can't predict that move, but we can learn to embrace it and to follow it.

 

Let's get to the heart of the story now though. The traditional reading is that faith requires risk and we need to step out of the boat and keep our eyes on Jesus, but there is an alternative reading which suggests that Peter's mistake was not sinking but stepping out in the first place. Jesus does invite him to come, but only because Peter asked to be invited. The boat was already taking the disciples to where they needed to be, and Jesus was already coming to them, and so he had no need to test Jesus or himself like that. If obedience doesn't mean unceasing work, it doesn't always have to mean hard work either. We don't always have to be walking on the waves, proving we are the most faithful or the most extraordinary, terrified of drowning. Sometimes it is okay for us to stay in the boat, holding the course as best we can, trusting to Jesus for the miracle. There will be times when we have to step into the unknown, but perhaps we need to wait for the invitation. And we can certainly take assurance from the way Jesus lifts Peter above the water, because of course Jesus wasn't going to let him sink to teach him a lesson, but perhaps what some of us really need to hear today is this: You don't have to make things harder for yourself. Stay where you are, knowing Jesus is near. And take courage!

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