Delivered August 10, 2014 (IX Pentecost, Year A – Proper 12D) by the Rev. Bill Wieland
The usual take on the episode in Jesus’ life and ministry found in this week’s gospel lesson—the notion that if Peter had just had a little more faith he could have kept on walking on the water—has never ceased to trouble me, even though I’m afraid I’ve done my share in past sermons to perpetuate it.
So I was relieved when I happened to consult a new commentary on Matthew’s gospel by Richard Swanson, professor of religion, philosophy, and classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, two of whose workshops I was able to attend last week at the Network of Biblical Storytellers gathering. I was relieved to find in Prof. Swanson a kindred spirit, though I wasn’t exactly prepared for the radical approach he proceeds to take in his analysis of this passage.
One of the most intriguing facets of Swanson’s analysis comes at the point where he tries to imagine how Jesus might have begun his walk on the water: Did he start out on top right away or did he wade in and then slowly rise to the surface? Only an academic who uses group improv in his classes would have the audacity to pose such a question!
Where I find Swanson to be the most helpful to my line of inquiry is his suggestion that Jesus may have invited Peter to try to take a walk on the water knowing that he might fail—not to humiliate Peter, but to acquaint him with how far along he was in the process of becoming an apostle and how far he still needed to go. After all, if we are to believe the accounts of the miraculous events recorded in the book of Acts, Jesus’ promise that the disciples would accomplish even greater works than he had accomplished was indeed eventually fulfilled.
Pondering what Prof. Swanson had to say about what we might call the state of Peter’s spiritual development sent me back once again to one of my old standbys, psychotherapist/theologian Fritz Kunkel, whose brilliant psychoanalytical study of Matthew’s Gospel, Creation Continues, I alluded to last Sunday. Not surprisingly, Kunkel would agree with Swanson that Jesus’ seeming reproof of Peter—“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”—is more a realization on Jesus’ part that his disciples are not yet ready to take on the earthly mission and ministry that he suspects he will need to hand over to them before long.
If I read Kunkel rightly, Peter’s unreadiness (and that of the other disciples) is aptly illustrated by their assumption that what they see on the water is a ghost, as well as by Peter’s cautious response to Jesus’ words of reassurance: “Lord, if it is you…”
That the disciples fall all over themselves to worship him and proclaim him the Son of God—once Jesus gets into the boat and the wind dies down—is almost anticlimactic. It is more a collective sigh of relief, say, than a sign of recognition. After all, it will finally take the crucifixion and the resurrection, as well as being mightily filled with the Holy Spirit, to convince these neophytes that whenever they were with Jesus they had been in God’s presence.
If this week’s gospel lesson, picturing as it does a critical juncture in the apprenticeship of Jesus’ disciples, reminds us that the process of attaining spiritual maturity is more often than not long and sometimes tedious, our lesson from Genesis reminds us of how seemingly unpromising the material God is often obliged to work with can be.
Again, I suppose in their desire to offer congregations the broadest possible overview of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob saga, the compilers of the lectionary found themselves forced to present the Joseph portion of the saga in two contrasting installments. This week it’s Joseph before, and next week it’s Joseph after—relying, I guess, on those of us who know the story well enough either from the Bible or from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat to provide the details in between.
Next week in Egypt Joseph will say to his brothers, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.…So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Joseph, ever the dreamer, will have wisely profited from interpreting the dreams of others and, as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, been able to see the land of Egypt safely through a devastating famine.
What Joseph will conveniently fail to mention is the other reason why God let his brothers sell him into slavery. It was for his own good.
As Jacob’s favorite son—vain, arrogant, and utterly devoid of people skills (not only did he brag about his self-aggrandizing dreams, however accurate they turned out to be, but he was a tattletale), Joseph needed to grow up if he was to be of any earthly use. He needed to grow up in more ways than one. And that would take time and effort and persistence.
It is something truly marvelous—God’s persistence—that we see at work in all creation. It’s capable even, to paraphrase the final words of Joseph to his brothers, of bringing something good out of what was intended for evil.
We certainly see it in the patience with which Jesus shepherded his little flock of followers, guiding them from crisis to crisis and acquainting them with the opportunities for learning in those crises.
At times, as we trace their progress, we begin to suspect that the disciples with Peter at the forefront were being initiated into some sort of secret society, only there was nothing secret about it and, thankfully, no question of hazing. They just found themselves having to contend with anything and everything that the world could possibly throw at them, making a storm at sea the least of their worries.
Through their daily association with Jesus, the Christ of God, they were being introduced to a new way of being in the world. “The kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” is what Jesus called it when he was teaching—essentially the way God had always wanted people to run things if only they were willing to try.
It’s the side of Jesus that the disciples were gradually getting to know because, with the help of his Father, Jesus was endeavoring to live this new reality and encouraging others to join him in the effort. St. Paul would later call it “having the mind of Christ.”
Every once in a while, like the episode on the stormy water at night, Jesus would get so far ahead of the disciples living into this new reality that the they simply couldn’t keep up with him. No wonder on that particular night the disciples—or, rather, Peter—couldn’t help but sink when, in a sense, he tried to catch up to Jesus by skipping ahead a few lessons, though to paraphrase New Testament theologian John Shea, one could hardly imagine a finer way to sink!
After all, Jesus’ whole approach to acquainting his disciples (and anyone who had ears to listen) with living into this new reality was for them to do more than just listen to what he said. He wanted them to do what he said. He wanted them to learn by doing.
Sometimes that’s the only way something radically new can be learned, especially if an exceedingly unfamiliar language is involved, resulting, in the words immortalized in the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, in “a failure to communicate.”
That’s what I experienced two weeks ago when I hastily bought an iPhone in hopes of dragging myself a little further into the twenty-first century, only to find that not even a book as explicit (not to mention as insulting) as iPhones and iPads for Senior Dummies could help me set up my voicemail and email, let alone use iTunes to sync the data I needed to sync.
Fortunately, there was a number I could call and a technician I could rely on to walk me through the steps I had to take to get up to speed.
Forgive me for adding what I know will violate the aesthetic sensibilities of everyone within hearing range, but I couldn’t have imagined “a finer way to sync”!
My new friend George didn’t say, “Oh, that’s easy. No problem! Just give me a minute.” He gave me an hour and a half of his time and patiently walked me through it.
I learned by doing, in much the same way as Jesus obliged his disciples to learn.
Little by little, by throwing their lot in with Jesus, the disciples could not help but delve deeper and deeper into the divine mystery which is life in the kingdom.
Fritz Kunkel goes even so far as to contend that the truly rewarding way to read the Gospel According to Matthew is as a step-by-step blueprint for getting as close to the kingdom of heaven on earth as one can possibly get.
Admittedly, Kunkel’s mysticism is showing when he writes,
Matthew forces us to…venture…out…into the unknown. If we fail to do so, we are excluded from all further participation in [our] training. We cannot appreciate Jesus’ statement about fasting, praying, and giving alms unless we fast, pray, and give alms. Nobody can appreciate a textbook for pilots without ever having flown a plane. And we cannot understand [what happens to the disciples on the lake] if we have not yet done what the Sermon on the Mount tells us to do.
Obviously, only something as radical as “the practical application of the Sermon [on the Mount]” can “provide the inner experiences” that Kunkel believes are required to take the next step on our spiritual journey and the next and the next.
But wait a minute!
Isn’t this what carrying out Christ’s ministry in the church is all about?
Isn’t that what we are doing—venturing out into the known and, yes, the unknown in faith, with hope, and in Christian love—every time you and I find ourselves responding to someone in need, whether it be a family member, another member of the body of Christ, or a complete stranger, only to discover that with God all things are possible?
And isn’t it a wondrous thing to know that the same Holy Spirit that led Peter to brave the waves and so much more dwells in each of us and among us, empowering us to do “more than we can ask or imagine,” revealing the reality of God’s gracious rule in every step we take?