Today’s gospel talks a lot about water; but not just water … darkness and wind are part of the story too. It is a story which, if you want to take it seriously, absolutely cannot be taken as a factual, literal event – it’s just too weird! This idea that the Bible is 100% factual is really a belief which has only been around for about 150 years – it’s not how we’ve viewed scripture for most of Christian history. I think there are some things we need to take literally – that whole “love your enemies” thing … there just isn’t any real way to see that as a metaphor! But the problem is when we take everything as literal – like the Bible is some kind of newspaper account. That’s a problem because the weird stories leave us with only two options. The first is we must completely turn off our knowledge of physics and science. Somehow Jesus, and Peter (at least for a few minutes), become magically able to suspend the laws of gravity and not plunge into the water. Somehow the laws of nature and physics don’t apply to Jesus. If that’s true, it would stand to reason he could have suspended natural law in any number of other situations – like when he was on the cross, he could have just not died. This also contradicts what Paul said about Christ in his letter to the Philippians – “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Jesus was Son of God – but he was a flesh and blood human being … the laws of physics still apply!
The second problem in taking this as a factual account is that we cannot ignore science and so we discount this story as some kind of Christian fairy tale. This could lead to the thinking that if this story isn’t “true” (meaning factual), then nothing in the Bible is “true” and we can discount the whole of the Christian faith. Both of these conclusions are the result of having a literal/factual interpretation of the Bible.
I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally all the time. So today, instead of shutting off our brains and ignoring science or discounting the Gospel text as a fairy tale, let’s look at a third way – that of image and metaphor where water, darkness, and wind tell us more about a much deeper truth.
The story follows on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000 (which we heard last week) and it’s a story where the original language of Greek is more colorful than our translations can render. Jesus compels his disciples to get into a boat and go to the “other side” of the lake – or as the Greek says he tells them to go “into the beyond.” “Go into the beyond!” – sounds like the Gospel according to Buzz Lightyear, doesn’t it? The “beyond” he is referring to is Gentile territory – where the known comfort of a world bound by Jewish rules and customs gives way to the unknown world of … bacon eaters. The “beyond” already sets the stage for a rising anxiety of facing the unknown.
The disciples set out, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes off to pray, he comes back down to find the boat a long way off shore and the disciples being battered by waves and opposed by the wind. The Greek gets kind of colorful here: the disciples were “tormented by the waves” and “opposed by the wind” which carries a note of hostility in it – they are opposed by a hostile wind! Notice that fear isn’t in the equation at this point in the story – but water, darkness, and a hostile wind are.
In the Biblical imagery, water, darkness and wind have deep symbolic meaning. Water and darkness are the twin powers of chaos and calamity – the two deep things we fear. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “wind” is also the word for “spirit” or “breath” (we have three words, they have one!). These three words take us back to the beginning … as in the first creation story in the Book of Genesis (and yes, there are two stories that don’t match … so much for factual accounts!). Genesis 1:1-2 reads:
“At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters …” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses). Notice the language from this Jewish translation: darkness, waters and “rushing-spirit of God” – or “wind” or “breath” of God. When these elements are coming together in a Biblical story, it is a sign of God’s power and presence – we call that a “theophany” or a revealing encounter with God. In this Gospel text, God is moving over the face of the water in the darkness again in the person of Jesus. The imagery is that of the chaos being under the feet of Jesus – God in Christ claims dominion over the chaotic waters in the middle of darkness and in spite of a hostile wind/spirit. A powerful image to Matthew’s community being persecuted in Antioch!
The disciples now become frightened when mistake Jesus for an apparition. His response was to tell them: “Have courage! I am. Fear not!” The words recorded in Greek are highly symbolic too. Whenever “I am” shows up in the Bible, it is reaching back to the voice which came out of the burning bush to Moses on Mt. Sinai when God said, “I am who I am.” Jesus, who claims dominion over the chaos and calamity, essentially says, “have courage, God is here, don’t be afraid.”
Now Peter, being who he was, shouts back a challenge: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds “Come” – and Peter steps out onto the chaos of the dark water himself. And notice that just for one brief shining moment, the chaos and calamity are beneath his feet too! Not because of his own strength and might, but because he had his focus on Christ. But then he saw the hostile wind/spirit and was distracted from his focus on God’s dominion over the forces of chaos and he begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord save me!” knowing full well his salvation didn’t come from his own ability. Jesus picks him up and doesn’t really rebuke him – he chides him a little “O you of little faith! Why did you doubt?” – doubt also means “hesitate” here. Why did you hesitate?
Peter hesitated for the same reason we do when we venture “into the beyond.” Sometimes we get thrown into the chaos of the beyond against our will – illness, job loss, death … there is a lot beyond our control. But even when we embark on something that we know is good and feels very right, we are still facing the chaos of the unknown which can make us hesitate. Ask any married couple if they had the pre-marital “cold feet” … “I know I want to spend the rest of my life with him/her … but what if I’m making a mistake?” And what about getting that great job offer … isn’t there hesitation when you want to say yes but you still have nagging doubts? Anytime we personally head “into the beyond” we can get distracted by the anxiety of the unknown. I confess I had that moment with our Food Forest project – on Rogation Sunday. When I stepped outside the kitchen with my coffee I thought, “How cool!” and then “Oh my God! What have we done??!! What if nobody shows up to help? Art’s gonna kill me. Where will we get plants? What if I’ve snapped my cap?” We all hesitate and have moments where the chaos gets more of our attention than it should get.
In those moments, I go back to Jesus’ words: “Take courage! I am. Fear not.” The Holy One who claims dominion over all the chaos of our lives and this world invites us to venture into the beyond in spite of our hesitation and fear and tells us we are covered by God’s grace. When re remember those instructions, there really is nothing for us to fear.