Talk given by Lonn Taylor on Aug. 10, 2014

When it is my turn to give a homily, I always try to write it on Thursday. Then I can rewrite it in Friday and start all over again on Saturday and revise that draft in the car as Dedie drives us to church on Sunday morning. I must have gone to bed thinking about today’s gospel on Wednesday night, because in the small hours of Thursday morning I dreamed that I was in a boat on the Sea of Galilee with the disciples and Jesus walked out across the water and handed each of us a silver bullet. I had forgotten the dream when I woke up Thursday morning, but then later in the day, listening to Symphony Hall on satellite radio, I heard the William Tell Overture and it suddenly came back to me with great clarity. I have been told that an intellectual is someone who can hear the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger, but what does it mean if you hear it and think of Jesus walking on the water?

The story of Jesus walking on the water is one of the best-known of all Bible stories. It is so well-known that its words have passed into common speech. How often have you heard someone say, “His wife thinks he walks on water,” or, “He thinks his boss walks on water.” Few Biblical passages have the kind of power that turns them into everyday idioms.

The story that Matthew tells in today’s Gospel appears in almost identical form in the Gospels of Mark and John. But there is one important difference. In Matthew’s version, Peter steps out of the boat and starts across the water toward Jesus, but he loses his nerve and sinks, and Jesus reaches out his hand and rescues him. This is consistent with Peter’s impulsive nature and his penchant for inappropriate action, and it is so symbolic of the relationship between Jesus and humankind that one wonders why it is not in the other Gospels.

I am always amazed by how much there is to ponder and reflect on in some very short passages in the Bible. It seems to me that today’s Gospel can lead us down three very long avenues of thought. First, it is about the nature of discipleship. The disciples were obeying Jesus’s instructions and they got into trouble on the water Jesus came to rescue them. When they were afraid, he reassured them, saying “be of good cheer, be not afraid,” and when one of them put himself in mortal danger Jesus saved him. The teacher-disciple relationship is one of obedience, love, loyalty, and mutual responsibility.

Second, it is about faith. Peter commits an act that is contrary to natural law. Before he puts his foot out of the boat he asks for Jesus’s help – “Lord, bid me come unto thee on the water”; Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter begins stepping across the water. But the wind comes up and Peter becomes frightened, his faith fails, and he starts to sink, a familiar situation to most Christians. Why did Peter’s faith fail? Because he took his eyes off Christ and looked at the storm instead. Faith requires complete belief. Jesus said to Peter, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” but He will help even doubters.

Third, it is about divinity. Divinity is in a different realm from the laws of physics. The Lord rolled the Red Sea back so that the Moses could lead the Hebrews fleeing Egypt through it, and he did the same thing to the Jordan River when they reached its banks. Many Biblical scholars think that this passage was included in the Gospel of Matthew to show the divinity of Jesus. Walking on water was an attribute of divinity in the ancient world. The Greek god Poseidon had that ability, and it was even attributed to powerful human monarchs such as Xerxes and Alexander the Great.

Some Biblical scholars have tried to explain this incident in non-miraculous terms. Albert Schweitzer argued that Jesus was actually walking on the shore and the disciples were confused by the wind and the waves; others have proposed that he was walking in the surf or on a sand bar. Doron Nof, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University, has suggested in a scholarly article that Jesus was standing on a floating sheet of ice created by a peculiar combination of atmospheric conditions that Nof calculated could occur only once every thousand years over the past twelve millennia. That occurrence would be a miracle in itself.

Where does this leave us? Aside from being a demonstration of how much can be teased out of a Biblical passage, what does Jesus walking on water in Galilee two thousand years ago mean for us today? For me, this passage is not so much about Jesus as it is about Peter and his failure to keep his eyes on Jesus. I frequently feel that, like Peter, I am surrounded by a storm and sinking. When I read that the deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament says that people in Gaza should be placed in concentration camps, I feel that I am sinking. When I read that Ukrainian separatists want to register Jews so that their property can be confiscated, I feel that I am sinking. When I read about American mothers greeting busloads of little children with signs saying “Go Home, We Don’t Want You” I feel like I am sinking. The other day I read some words that that lifted me. They were in an article in Time about the Catholic Charities Center in McAllen, Texas that has been providing assistance to immigrant families. The article quoted one of the nuns there as saying, “Jesus did not say ‘I was hungry and you asked for my papers.’” If we don’t look at the storm, as Peter did, but look at Jesus, and do what he told us to do, love our neighbor, we will stop sinking. As the old hymn says

When through the deep waters I call thee to go
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

AMEN

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