notre dame montreal

Sermon for Ordinary 19 Year A

The problem with walking on water

By The Rev Charles Royden

There are all sorts of names for the different parts of traditional churches. The area where the congregation sits is known as the nave. It is named from the Latin word navis, meaning boat. The nave is the ‘barque of Peter’ the boat. Which originates from this idea of the disciples, the people of God in the boat together in the storm.

This is a very ancient metaphor stretching back to this Gospel story from Matthew today, where Jesus comes to the disciples in the boat in the stormy sea. While Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21 also tell this story, Matthew is the only one to include the story of Peter attempting to walk on the water to meet Jesus. The reasons for this might reasonably be that Matthew was writing at a time when Christians are being persecuted. By this time, Peter has most likely been crucified. The storm stories address issues of danger, fear and faith. In both stories, "the boat seems to represent the church, buffeted by temptations, trials and persecutions. Jesus appears as the church's champion, who is strong to save those who call on him in faith.

So the boat represents safety, the sea represents danger. It was thought the sea was a place where evil monsters lived, it was dangerous. The temptation might be to stay in the boat. But, we like Peter have to be prepared to get out of the boat. Jesus encourages Peter out of the boat in the words he uses.

We too have to get out of the boat and take our faith into the stormy seas of life. Many people would actually say that we Christians should keep our religious stuff contained in the boat, that our religion has no place outside of church. We however are obedient to a different master. This world does not need less reminding of the teachings of Jesus it needs more.

So far so good. The message is challenging but we all understand it. However I was thinking about a book entitled ‘If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat.’
Now things start to get complicated, because the problem is that we cannot walk on water, and if we get out of boats we will get very wet.

Max and I went fishing. caught a really big fish and we could not get the net under it. there was only one thing we could do and that was go ashore and net the fish in the shallow water. As we got to shore I tackled the leviathan from the boat whilst Max got out of the boat and made a safe capture. Although we were close to the shore the boat could not get onto the dam wall and so the water was a couple of feet deep. Brave Max jumped overboard, landing net in hand and ignoring all personal comfort and safety scooped the fish into the net.

Nobody can walk on water. We sometimes use this fact as a way of saying somebody is divine, we say footballers can walk on water. Leonardo da Vinci did some drawings of shoes which could be put on to enable a person to walk on water, but no matter how hard we try nobody can ever walk on water. If we go in the water we get wet.

I say this because there is belief that if we get faith, then God suspends reality in miraculous ways. Yet from all of these TV evangelists with their extraordinary claims to be able to cure cancers and change world events, not a single one of them can walk on water. If we are honest miracles are very few and far between.

Some commentators have even wondered whether Jesus himself ever walked on water. The famous William Barclay suggested that the text actually means Jesus walked by the water. This is not a sign of lack of faith. Indeed quite the opposite. It takes much more faith to believe that God is with us when we do not cling to vain imaginings.

O that is was not so. It would make my job so much easier if I could conjure up a bit of magic now and then. People want miracles and some people are either so desperate or gullible that they will believe the worst charlatans who proclaim to have magic powers to allow us to stop our loved ones from dying, or enable us to talk with them when they are dead.

We still have to get out of the boat

So if we cannot walk on water does that mean that we stay in the boat? No!
We know that as Christians we are called to go and reach out to a troubled world. In the week in which the Olympics begins in Beijing, I am reminded of the phrase 'you've got to be in it to win it.' The point is obvious, we will never achieve unless we participate. The flip side is that as well as achievement, we can also fail in our endeavours. Perhaps it is that fear of failure which prevents so many people from making the effort, and trying to make our dreams become reality. This is true of so many things, not least our willingness to serve God, to allow our talents to be used in his service. The Apostle Peter is a real example to us all, he made mistakes, he had failure in his life, yet he was prepared to have a go, and because of that Jesus called him 'the rock' the one he chose upon which to build his church. In the passage from Matthew today, Peter jumps out of the boat to meet Jesus. Whilst walking on water for a time he soon loses confidence and starts to sink. However we have to pay tribute to Peter because at least he had a go. I am reminded of words by Theodore Roosevelt

'It is not the critic who counts; not the one who points out hoe the strong stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly who errs and comes us short again and again; who knows great enthusiasm and great devotion; who spends him/herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who, at worst, if he/she fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So that his/her place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.'

You and I have to be prepared to leave the safety of the boat, knowing that the basic laws of physics will not be suspended. we are subject to the same turmoil in life as everybody else. There will be no spectacular miracles to make our job easier.

The still small voice
This brings me to the story of Elijah. Elijah wanted a miracles. He was persecuted by King Ahab and Jezebel he had reason to be desperate

In times of crisis and disappointment don’t you think God should show up with signs of power and convincing displays?

Where is God when we need him, when countries are at war, when terrorists threaten our lives, when children are kidnapped?

In the face of disaster Elijah hides in a cave and all he gets is a still small voice.
Elijah has achieved a great deal, he has called down fire from heaven and the prophets of Baal have been destroyed. But he has to learn the lesson that God is not found in the big dramatic miracles, God is the still small voice
Elijah had to learn what most of us know only too well, God is present but his voice is imperceptible. You and I have to take our faith into the world, not with magic tricks like walking on water and healing tumors. We have to call people to a faith not based on spectacles and signs of power, but on a relationship of love and trust in God. All we have to listen to is the still small voice of God within.

When we find ourselves withdrawing to a cave of fear, defeat, discouragement or despair, we might draw the conclusion that we are all alone in our struggle. Or, we can make the impossible leap of faith that says, “I believe God is with me, even in the sound of silence.”

The disciples were not doing anything wrong when they got into trouble. They were doing what they were told to do; but that didn’t prevent them from getting caught up in a storm.

There they were in a storm which made them feel separated from Jesus, as we sometimes do.

“tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against them.”

Does that describe situations in which you sometimes find yourself?
There are waves which we all struggle against in our lives
separation from loved ones, death and divorce, loneliness, questions about the meaning of our lives, concerns about family and friends, the church and the world.

We are tempted to ask a question faithful people have always faced: Where is God when I am in need? Where is Jesus in the midst of the storm? Matthew tells us he came to his disciples “during the fourth watch of the night.” What took him so long? We don’t understand the delay, especially considering the intensity of the struggle.

Jesus is not a “Mr. Fix-it.” He does not usually take away the storm, but instead enables us, with him, to walk on the stormy seas. He reprimands his disciples for not trusting his presence and strength. That strength will enable us to persevere

The storms we face will be manageable if we turn to Jesus. We are called to leave the safety of the boat and walk through stormy seas as we become involved in complex issues, as well as family and community need. The waters may not be calm, but we are not alone. We keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and one another. In times of need Jesus reaches out to each of us, his hands are present in one another.

Matthew says that Jesus and Peter got into the boat and the storm died down. The disciples worshipped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus is no ghost. He is the living Lord. And he reaches out with his arms to save the last, the lost and the least. Are you in trouble? Call upon his name.
He is the alpha and the Omega. He will not allow you to walk on water. But if you put your trust in him you shall be safe, even as you leave the safety of the boat.

As Paul reminds us in Romans, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”