It is such a delight to be here at St Anne’s this morning. When, some months ago, I told David Neelands I planned to visit, he immediately invited me to preach again, as I did last summer. Last year, I had just finished my PhD defense, and I was still a little dazed by it all. Now, I am just on vacation, and dazed in a different sort of way. Only someone who’s a little unbalanced would agree to preach on his first Sunday of vacation. But there you go. David Neelands is hard to resist. But even more so, the opportunity to be back at St. Anne’s.
Some of you who are who are longer term members will remember back to the foggy mists of time when I was an assistant priest here, while Fr. Peter Orme was the rector. In fact, St. Anne’s was the very first parish I served as a deacon and priest after I was ordained. All told, I was here for 2.5 years while I was also a new PhD student at Trinity College. That was about 10 years ago now, but I still have wonderfully fond memories of this great parish. And I thank you.
You know, sometimes, even a lot of times, the life of Christian discipleship takes us to places we might never have expected to go—like an American to Canada for doctoral studies and ministry in all sorts of parishes, or to the little New England parish north of Boston that I serve now. Have you ever found that, that you’ve ended up doing something or sharing an experience with people whom you might never have known or even thought you would or could know? But then you are changed or transformed by those people or experiences? I suspect you probably have, because that’s what happens when you join the church, when you graft your life, your interests and passions on to the life, interests and passions of a community much bigger and more whole than your individual self.
I imagine that for the first community of disciples it was a lot the same. We know that some were fishermen, but Matthew was a tax collector, and others we don’t know much about at all—sometimes just their names. So, maybe there were carpenters like Jesus in the mix, or farmers, or business men. We know that Thomas had a tendency to want proof of things, not just others’ word, before he could believe, while John and James seem to have had quite the competitive streak. Peter really wanted to be a leader, he wanted to excel at discipleship, but often, as in today’s gospel, he stumbled or even sank under the weight of his own questions or fear or uncertainty. Despite the gifts Jesus saw in him, Peter couldn’t really believe in himself.
When you think about it, those first disciples are almost exactly like us. They try to do a good job. They live lives of faith and purpose and meaning, but they stumble and make considerable mistakes much of the time, too. I suppose that’s why their stories are in included in the gospels, so that latter day disciples, like us, can be encouraged and buoyed in our own lives and across our own stormy seas. If we read that Jesus didn’t give up hope on them, then maybe he won’t give up on us either.
Though, I think it’s probably safe to say that Jesus did grow frustrated with his friends sometimes. In fact, in today’s gospel we heard that Jesus sent them away out on a boat by themselves—a mutual “time out” as it were. I don’t think I ever noticed that little detail before—that Jesus actually sent the disciples away, on the boat, so that he could be by himself for a while. In fact, a better translation might even be that he forced or compelled them to get into the boat. Remember, this follows directly on last week’s gospel reading and the feeding of the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and two fish. After that chaos, maybe Jesus was just done with people for a while, the crowds and even his own friends.
Then, of course, we get to the really good stuff—when the storms rage, Jesus walks on water, and Peter does, too, for a moment, before he starts into sink in the deep. It’s one of those stories that never fails to capture the imagination. And it leads us to ask so many questions… Could Jesus really walk on water? Could Peter? Could I, if only I had enough faith? Or could you? How much faith would we need? I remember teaching confirmation class at another parish in the Diocese of Toronto, after I left St Anne’s, and the young boys, especially, were inquisitive about this story and whether it were really possible. There’s nothing that excites young boys like the possibility or hope of having super powers, and really, there’s a very fine line and subtle distinction between miracles and super powers. One boy, in particular, said that if he were Jesus he’d be using his powers all the time and not for boring things, either, like multiplying bread and fish. I had to explain, unfortunately, that the point of Jesus’ miracles is not so much to do cool things (though that might be a side benefit to appeal to the inner kids in all of us), rather they are there to tell us something about God, about ourselves, and about God’s love and care for us.
In the case of today’s miracles, Jesus walking on water and Peter attempting to do so, it is especially easy to get caught up, like my confirmation students, in focusing on the cool or remarkable aspect of Jesus’ extraordinary “powers,” but then lose sight of what the story is really trying to tell us. One rather obvious thing to notice is that the miracle happens on the water, during a storm. So, not a pleasant summer day as the disciples were out sailing. In fact, throughout the Bible, in both the Old Testament and here in the New, the sea is presented as a place of mystery, of chaos and danger, even as the home of monsters, which God alone has the power to control. In the biblical mindset only God would have the ability to walk on the waves themselves, going ahead of God’s people to bring them to safety—whether those people are the ancient 12 tribes of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, or here today, the 12 disciples rocked by waves in their boat.
Second, it’s interesting that Jesus says to the disciples as he walks to them, “Take heart; It is I; do not be afraid.” We often read in the Bible, when something extraordinary happens or is about to happen, that a divine messenger will say “do not be afraid.” In fact, as many as 70 times we hear angels and prophets, Jesus and God himself say “do not be afraid.” To Abraham and Hagar, Joseph and Moses, to Joshua and Ruth, David and Solomon, to Isaiah and Jeremiah. Also to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields, to the disciples on the Transfiguration mountaintop, and finally to the bewildered and grieving women at the empty tomb, the greeting is always the same: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is doing something amazing for you and for the world.
Then, perhaps even more significantly Jesus also says here, “It is I.” That’s actually a bit of a mistranslation. Because what he says in the Greek is “Take heart: I AM; have no fear,” using the same words as God used in the burning bush to reveal the divine name to Moses so long before, calling himself “I AM.” As on the Transfiguration mountaintop, the feast celebrated last week, here too on the stormy sea Jesus reveals himself to be one with God—one in power, one in identity, one in meaning and purpose—an extension of God in human life. It is the revelation and the reminder that God is not locked up in the heavens above, far away, but alive, among us and even in us, right now. We can reach out our hands to touch him, to hold him, and he can even pull us up when we stumble or sink.
Which, of course, leads us to Peter’s attempt to walk on the water himself. As I said earlier, there seems to have been something special, if rather impulsive, about Peter. He had these fantastic moments or glimpses of faith, which impress even Jesus, but then they invariably fade and he ends up saying or doing really stupid things, in this case, even sinking into the sea. In fact, Peter’s a lot like us—both when we are at our faithful best and also when we are at our worst. Like him, sometimes, our faith is strong. We may even believe Jesus when he says that with faith we can do whatever he can do.
But then there are those other times, when we start to wonder if it really is true, if God really could, or would, or does empower us to live the same kind of empowered life that Jesus lived. And like Peter, when we doubt it, often we too say and do stupid things. We engage in wars, we believe that there’s not enough land, or love, or even enough God to go around. We horde it all to ourselves, and weighed down we start to sink into the deeps of our own lives. Or, perhaps we believe that we are not worth much, or that we can’t accomplish much, or that our lives are of little consequence. We believe that we are limited, and then we act like we are limited. But when we have faith—when we reach out and grasp Jesus’ hand, God’s hand—usually we find that once again we are able to walk, full of the power and the life of God, as Peter was, and most especially as Jesus was so long ago.
The truth is, we can’t really know what exactly happened out there on the sea. Whether Peter could really walk on water. We can’t even know how exactly it was that Jesus did so, as the evangelists report. But what we can know is what this story is trying to tell us: that the Jesus whom the disciples followed, and whom we follow today, was and is none other than the embodiment and the extension of God in our midst, the great I AM, who lead the people through the sea to safety. Jesus was filled not only, and even not primarily, with superhero powers, but with God’s power, the power to love, and to heal, and to transform life, reaching out and drawing us ever closer, ever nearer to God’s self. And we learn that as much as this is God’s power so, too, is it our power, or at least it can be, if we accept it, if we believe it, if we believe and trust that we are who Jesus says we are. If we reach out and grasp the hand that is seeking to draw us in and draw us up, to keep us afloat, and to fill us also with the ability to love, and heal, and transform life, whoever we are, where ever we are, in whatever unusual or unsuspected circumstance we may find ourselves—empowered, emboldened, and filled with the life and the presence of God.
So, let us pray:
Give us Lord the grace to walk by faith, through every storm of life to keep our eyes on you. And when we fail to see, or start to sink, stretch out your hand to raise us up. So may we learn to hold to you through good and ill, until we come to the haven where we would be, in everlasting joy and peace. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD