Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14:22-33

Adrift on the Sea


We momentarily depart from the trail on which we were following the patriarchs. We do so to consider the event depicted in the gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day. But before we do, let us remind ourselves that patriarchs refer to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are our fathers in the faith. And from them the nation of Israel originated. In fact, after Jacob wrestled with God, as we saw last time, God renamed him Israel. The word means to struggle or contend with. The people of Israel become known as the people who struggle or contend with God. Jacob’s story continues in the person of his son Joseph, whom we will hopefully have occasion to consider later.


But today we leap over twenty centuries to the time of Jesus and his disciples. We are on the Sea of Galilee, which is a very beautiful lake, incidentally. It is a warm, inland body of fresh water that sits 628 feet below sea level, at the bottom of the Jordan Valley. It is surrounded by scenic mountains. Last February I actually went out on the Sea of Galilee with a charter. The boat was a wooden replica of the kind of fishing boat from which Peter and James and John fished in the first century.


No doubt it was into this kind of boat that Jesus orders the disciples before sending them across the lake. He wants to retreat to a mountain to pray. Remember that in the prior episode it was his intent to go to a deserted place to recharge, to have time apart to pray. But the crowds followed him, and when he saw all the people in their need, he had compassion on them, healed their sick, and then catered a rather large meal. Having now dismissed them, he can now make good on his original intent.    


That makes sense enough. But what’s this about sending the disciples ahead of him? Nothing is said about how he’s going to catch up with them later. Their boat is his mode of transport too. Nor are we to imagine that there are any late-night ferryboats to conduct him across later. How confusing all this must have been to the disciples!


But they dutifully obey, and launch out to sea. But before long it goes badly for them. Gale winds begin to blow and stir up the waves, which batter the boat. The storm prevents the disciples from crossing to the other side.


The disciples’ ordeal speaks profoundly of an experience that’s not only common to their generation, but also to every generation following theirs, including our own. I refer to the sense of being adrift at sea. Of course, that can mean literally “adrift at sea,” as in the episode recounted in our lesson. But it can also be used as a figure of speech. Then it means to be adrift in life, without a set of navigational tools, and therefore without a destination, or at least one within reach. 


What does it feel like to be adrift? Let us for a moment reflect on this question. At first, we set out with a destination, a firm purpose, but later the winds came and blew us off course. Soon our focus shifted from our destination to our immediate circumstances. Far from asking about moving forward in life, our only thought was about keeping our boat from capsizing. Lifestyle coaches today tell their clients that before all else they should find their purpose. Otherwise, if a person asks them what they do, and they reply, “surviving,” that person is likely to lose interest in the conversation. And who can blame them? But in severe storms our destination can disappear from view. And we can become so desperate that we give up all hope of arriving there. Our focus then indeed becomes only on survival.


In our prayer of confession earlier this morning, we confessed our habit of living out our daily struggles as if we if we are on our own, left to our own devices, left to figure things out on our own. This is how the disciples must have felt adrift at sea. But are they not right to feel this way? After all, Jesus is absent from them. Many times, we struggle while believing we have no divine support. Our efforts to keep our heads above water exhaust us. Fear overtakes us.


But the fact remains that Jesus isn’t in the boat with them. He decided instead to withdraw to a mountainside to pray, as we have already mentioned. What are we to make of this spectacle of a praying Jesus? Of Jesus Christ we have learned that he is our intercessor before God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews proclaims that he forever lives to intercede for us. To intercede for someone means to pray for them. In those moments in life when it does not feel as if our God is present with us, it is good for us to remember that Jesus Christ is our intercessor.


Of course, ultimately Jesus does not leave the disciples alone. He comes to them. Only to them he appears as a ghost. Is that all that he is to us as Christians? Or is that all that he can be for us—a vision, a comforting illusion that we conjure up in our own imaginations whenever we are afraid? Perhaps in their fear the disciples projected the illusion of a savior coming to rescue them, just as the thirsty man in the desert projects the illusion of a cool oasis where he can quench his thirst. But this gives to the disciples no comfort.  Perhaps on one level they sense that their situation has become so dire that they are seeing things.


As Jesus draws closer, he sees their fear. He calms them with his words. “Take courage.  It is I. Do not be afraid.” We should pause momentarily and let these words penetrate our own hearts. The Bible scholar Dale Bruner believes these words should be inscribed over the front entrance of every church in the world. Interestingly, in the original language the words “it is I” render only two words that literally read “I am.” Here and elsewhere in the gospels, these words connect Jesus to the God of Israel. Remember that when Moses asks God in the burning bush for his name, God says that his name is “I am.”


That means however great that which terrifies us is, the one who utters these words is infinitely greater.


Here Peter enters the scene and announces himself. In Peter’s words, we can discern that he wants to confirm two things: first, that it is indeed Jesus, and second, that he does in fact have faith.


Peter is known as the impetuous disciple, but here it seems that his instincts are sound. Ordeals such as the one he has undergone can paralyze us. There was a man who was in a bad car accident, and afterward he had difficulties even riding in a car as a passenger, even with a careful and trustworthy driver. But Peter wants to face his fears, and the sooner the better. Peter wants to prove that his faith is stronger than his fears. That is why he steps out of the boat. That is why he wants to trample upon the sea with Jesus. Note that as long as he keeps his eyes focused on Jesus, he can overcome his fears, he can ride upon the waves. But when he casts a sidelong glance at these fears, he begins to sink.


Jesus knows this. He does not let him drown in his fears, but lifts him above them. Peter experiences the saving hand of God in Jesus personally. Nevertheless, Jesus chides him for his little faith, for succumbing to doubt. But let us not be too hard on Peter. How does faith grow, unless one steps out of the boat? Perhaps we are facing a challenge, as an individual, or as a family, or even as a church. It requires faith. But fear is there too. Can we exercise the little faith we have? Or will we prefer to cling for dear life to whatever we can find tied down in the boat?


The lesson in faith is ended and Jesus and Peter step into the boat. The wind ceases. Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord of creation. He alone is the one who can calm the storm; he is the one who is present even when it feels like he is absent.


But above all Jesus is the one who knows the destination. And not only does he know it, but he also has the power to bring his disciples there. That power is what prompts them to worship him. With Jesus in the boat the disciples are safe. And with him they are able to reach the other side.


Many of us feel adrift today. Probably insofar as the pandemic has disrupted our routines, derailed our plans, and deprived us of contact with friends and family, we all feel adrift. One psychologist relates that during the pandemic she has seen more clients who are asking about death and the meaning of life. That is understandable in times like these. When we ask those questions, we are really asking about our destination. That is why the church and the message God has entrusted to it remain essential even and especially now. The church provides an essential service, and those of us who work in the church are essential workers, despite the fact that the pandemic has succeeded in sidelining us too, as we all here have experienced.


In this regard, it is significant that boat is a symbol of the church. From the earliest times, the church has been depicted as a boat. What is it about a boat that suggests itself as a symbol of the church? From the earliest origins of Christianity, the church has been compared to the ark of Noah, in which Noah and his family were saved in the days of the flood. The church has been called the ark of salvation in a world that is perishing.


In our epistle lesson, the Apostle Paul tells us about this salvation. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”


All who make this confession get into the boat with Jesus. And despite the storms that batter them and set them adrift at sea, they do make it to their destination on the other side. Amen.    

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