Archive for August, 2020

Matthew 16: 21-28

Is the search for an explanation of consciousness dependent upon self-denial and a taking up of the cross? Can we escape the limitations of being human or at least perhaps expand the boundaries of limitation? Is self-denial required to take up the one’s cross and is one’s cross the limits of understanding?

I was attending a service recently when the preacher suggested that imagination was the product of a cognitive process; that if we did not think about something it could not be imagined and while I thought this was reductionist of imagination it got me to thinking about the current debate about what consciousness is and how it relates to us as living human beings.

What consciousness is and where it emanates from has stymied great minds in societies across the globe since the dawn of speculation. In today’s world, it’s a realm tackled more and more by physicists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists than it is by theologians. I am reading Karen Kings book about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and am fascinated by the Gnostics of that time. I rightly or wrongly think that the Gnostics were an example of an exploration of consciousness in that time in human history.  Self-denial as part of taking up one’s cross.

There are a few prevailing theories today about consciousness; one of which is that consciousness emanates from matter, in our case, by the firing of neurons inside the brain. But the question remains; what if this is a limited view?

A view more often chosen by traditional theologians is the theory of mind-body dualism. This is perhaps more often recognized in religion or spirituality. In this case consciousness is separate from matter. It is a part of another aspect of the individual, which in religious terms we might call the soul. It might also be claimed that this approach might be the Western approach to life that errs on the side of the left hemisphere obsession that Iain McGilchrist speaks about at the expense of the bigger picture or a more balanced approach, might take. A question here is; Is this dualism view too anthropocentric? Is this not self-denial enough?

I am going to suggest that another way to approach this question might be to see the option of what is called panpsychism as a way the theologians and scientists might debate together. Start with the bigger picture perhaps? The key connection in this approach is that the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness and a handful of scientists are starting to warm to this theory, but it’s still a matter of great debate. Truth be told, panpsychism sounds very much like what the Hindus and Buddhists call the Brahman, the tremendous universal Godhead of which we are all a part. In Buddhism for instance, consciousness is the only thing that exists. But what if this is the ‘More’ that Marcus Borg spoke of or the ‘Mystery’ that Gordon Kaufmann wrote about? It might also be the Serendipitous Creativity of Kaufmann. What I would rather call the more verb-like ‘Serendipitous Creating’, or maybe consciousness is the ‘perhaps’ that Caputo writes of and I would call the ‘Almost in my own bumbling exploration of an evolutionary life that is both noun and verb. This seems more like self-denial and taking up one’s cross to me.

Another approach to this question might be through the famous Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This reminds us as Lloyd Geering has been reminding us for some time, that one must come to the realization that everything we experience is filtered through and interpreted by our mind. Without it, the universe doesn’t exist at all or at least, not without some sort of consciousness observing it. In some physics circles, the prevailing theory is some kind of proto-consciousness field. Some sort of original source of consciousness? I am currently wrestling with the possibility that a shift from theology to theopoetics might be a way of ‘de-westernizing’ this approach. If there is such a word? Some sort of way of entering or exploring the nature of consciousness. The question is I think; Is consciousness derived from an invisible field that inhabits our universe? Or not? Is this really picking up one’s cross?

I am no scientist but I read that in quantum mechanics, particles don’t have a definite shape or specific location, until they are observed or measured. Is this a form of proto-consciousness at play? According to the late scientist and philosopher, John Archibald Wheeler, it might. He’s famous for coining the term, “black hole.” In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field. He called his theory the “participatory anthropic principle,” which posits that a human observer is key to the process. Of this Wheeler said, “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.” In his view, much like the Buddhist one, nothing exists unless there is a consciousness to apprehend it.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is another supporter of panpsychism. Koch says that the only theory we have to date about consciousness is, it’s a level of awareness about one’s self and the world. Biological organisms are conscious because when they approach a new situation, they can change their behaviour in order to navigate it, in this view.

Dr. Koch is if he has not already, attempting to see if he can measure the level of consciousness an organism contains. He planned to run some animal experiments. In one, he planned to wire the brains of two mice together. Will information eventually flow between the two was his question? Will their consciousness at some point become one fused, integrated system? If these experiments are successful, he could plan to wire up the brains of two humans.

U.K. physicist Sir Roger Penrose is yet another supporter of panpsychism. Penrose in the 80’s proposed that consciousness is present at the quantum level and resides in the synapses of the brain. He is famous for linking consciousness with some of the goings on in quantum mechanics. He doesn’t go so far as to call himself a panpsychist. In his view, “The laws of physics produce complex systems, and these complex systems lead to consciousness, which then produces mathematics, which can then encode in a succinct and inspiring way the very underlying laws of physics that gave rise to it.”

Veteran physicist Gregory Matloff of the New York City College of Technology, says he has some preliminary evidence showing that, at the very least, panpsychism isn’t impossible. Dr. Matloff told NBC News, “It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify.”

Theoretical physicist Bernard Haisch, in 2006, suggested that consciousness is produced and transmitted through the quantum vacuum, or empty space. Any system that has sufficient complexity and creates a certain level of energy, could generate or broadcast consciousness.

Dr. Matloff got in touch with the unorthodox, German physicist and proposed an observational study, to test it. What they examined was Parenago’s Discontinuity. This is the observation that cooler stars, like our own sun, revolve around the center of the Milky Way faster than hotter ones. Some scientists attribute this to interactions with gas clouds. Matloff took a different view. He elaborated in a recently published piece, in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research.

Unlike their hotter sisters, cooler stars may move faster due to “the emission of a uni-directional jet.” Such stars emit a jet early on in their creation. Matloff suggests that this could be an instance of the star consciously manipulating itself, in order to gain speed. This has to be taking up one’s cross, or at least for a struggling mind like mine.

Observational data shows a reliable pattern anywhere Parenago’s Discontinuity is witnessed. If it were a matter of interacting with gas clouds, as is the current theory, each cloud should have a different chemical makeup, and so cause the star to operate differently. So why do all of them act in exactly the same way? Dr. Matloff went on to posit that the presence of a proto-consciousness field could serve as a replacement for dark matter, but that is probably another sermon.

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes a slightly different take on panpsychism, called integrated information theory. Here, consciousness is a manifestation with a real, physical location, somewhere in the universe. We just haven’t found it yet. Perhaps this heavenly body radiates out consciousness as our sun radiates light and heat. Dr. Tononi has actually put forth a metric for measuring how much consciousness a thing has. The unit is called phi. This translates into how much control a being can enact over itself or objects around it.

The theory separates intelligence from consciousness, which some people assume are one in the same. Take AI or artificial intelligence, for example. It can already beat humans in all kinds of tasks. But it has no will of its own. A supercomputer which can enact change in the world outside of a programmer’s commands, would therefore be conscious. Many futurists from Ray Kurzweil to Elon Musk believe that day is coming, perhaps in the next decade or so, and that we should prepare. I think our text today might apply here too. Deny self and take up the cross. Amen.

Website – Article by Phillip Berry

You might want to watch the video linked below to here Sir Roger Penrose speak of the above.

Matthew 15:21-28

Living Boldly, to Live a Normal Productive Life

The Election campaigning has begun again. The three-year cycle is here again, The party politic is gearing up into competitive mode and the potential partisan mud-slinging is poised waiting its opportunity. Vote securing is the purpose of the rhetoric. And low and behold we might have Matthew’s story indulging us too.

We might want to deny that politics is not a gospel concern but truth be told one cannot extract politics from text just as one cannot extract context from text. This time we have the politics of some of the early Christianity movements, as heard in Matthew’s story, be it a risky one, which at some points has no other parallel in the rest of the New Testament.

We might back up just a little to put this story in context.

The world we know now is but the walls of limitation

Of you and me and those who love to team

There is no other scheme left to be

But universal love, from timeless dream

Waking to you and I where we be

There is our joy’s invitation.

Change was happening all around Matthew and his small Syrian ‘Jesus Movement’ community. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Judaism was beginning to be reshaped. A bloke called Paul was gaining both Jewish and ‘god-fearers’ converts to his personal “mystical experience” (Wilson 2008:126) Christ Movement.

The Movement as Matthew saw it, expressed in Peter’s then James’ leadership, was having battles on all fronts. And so with an early copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark in front of him, along with some other writings we now call The ‘Q’ Gospel, and maybe
even some comments out of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Matthew sets out to tell his version of the story, some 50 years after the ‘new Moses’, called Jesus, and some 20+ years after Paul.

We walk around on carpets in conference

Of love at large with tree and flower and stream,

Of love within at risk of madness usurper

And list the Tui descant upon our theme,

Heaven’s musical accepted worshipper.

There is our peace in ponderance.

Internal political maneuverings were beginning to take shape. “One branch… aimed its evangelistic efforts at the Judean community in Palestine.  This branch was led by Peter, then later by [the other] James, the brother of Jesus.  Paul, on the other hand, understood his missionary work to be focused on pagans and gentiles” (Funk & Hoover 1993:204).

In the ‘fair dinkum’ department, Paul and Peter did not get on together! For instance, in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the mob of whom Paul says was “perverting the gospel of Christ” (Gal.1:7b), some scholars now suggest, was the Jewish Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. Secondly, Paul’s mission strategy was to visit Roman provincial capital cities
and approach the so-called in-between group, known as “god fearers”, who were pagans, not Jews, but who were attracted to some of the teachings of Judaism.

For Matthew as for his Syrian community in Antioch, this action by Paul was definitely seen as ‘poaching’.  And they resented it. On the other hand, there is also an underside to Matthew.

Matthew wasn’t too fussed about the ‘continuing’ Jews either, and that gets expressed in “undistilled anger and hostility” (Wilson 2008:194) towards Judaism, the Torah, and the Jewish leaders. So, the gospel we call Matthew is, simultaneously “the most ‘pro-Jewish’ gospel we have, as well as the most ‘anti-Jewish’ one.  The former aspect was evident in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses…  The anti-Jewish side, however, comes out in his sustained attack on the Jewish leaders of his time” (Wilson 2008:182).

Perhaps theologian Bill Loader’s comments will help: “A sense that there is an enemy, marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, another, against whom to define ourselves.  This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival…  There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’.  This is the stuff of prejudice.  Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place” (Loader website)

The St David’s Khyber Pass Rd people experienced this first hand need for an enemy during the struggle for control of its decision making in regard to its old buildings. Those who wanted to memorialize the building needed an enemy against whom to mount a campaign and so they created an enemy by painting the congregation as demolitionists seeking to destroy heritage so as to gain sympathy and monetary support for their cause. A ‘them and us’ creation to define themselves against as saviour, protectors and worthy of support.

Our smile outfaces all illness and banishes the old feud

To things beyond and squashed in our truce;

With nature now dearly within us endued

And shame beyond the pondering excuse,

Frowns forgotten and antics subdued,

We kindly grow to be renewed.

Now to this morning’s ‘them’ and ‘us’ story.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew’s story puts Jesus right in the middle of a very tense scene, which portrays Jesus expressing a racist stance, only to abandon it when put under pressure. To add complexity to the risks Matthew is taking, he does what we heard of last week and repeats the designation of ‘Canaanite’, it being a people not heard of for centuries, maybe to safeguard himself or Jesus or as a safe example for what is a them and us, racist story. Canaanites have been a race long ago in history and in fact a defeated race.

The ‘Gentile’ ‘Canaanite’ labeled, woman who was doing all the pestering, was from a group of despised, diminished and dispirited people, much evident in the society of the times. Unfortunately, in our day we too might have used disparaging words… like ‘weirdo’ or foreigner’ or ‘savage’ to describe her. When Matthew’s Jesus does make a response, he uses the word, ‘dogs’.

Again, Bill Loader offers a comment here: “It is hard not to draw the conclusion that [Matthew’s] Jesus… had to make a transition, had to learn” (Loader/web site, 2008). He too is part of the culture, his too are the concepts used to describe difference and he too needs to be aware of what he is saying and doing. So, lets look again at this story, this time as Rex Hunt suggests we might look at it around three issues.

First, this story doesn’t show Jesus in too gracious a light.

Traditionally we have been encouraged to think of Jesus as caring, compassionate, responding and sensitive. And there is not much of that here. We might ask Bill Loader’s question: “Is it embarrassing that Jesus was human, too?  Does it make the gospel any less valid if the historical Jesus also had to struggle to come to terms with the negative in his upbringing? (Loader/web site, 2008). Does he have to be perfect in order to bring hope, understanding and a new way of being?

Secondly, perhaps we can sympathise with Jesus.

The woman was determined to be heard – persisting, pestering, hanging in, bugging. All of us know or have persons like that we would like to avoid, evade. Sometimes we too will try anything not to have to be in their company. When people are desperate to improve or change their lot and get right into your face persistently they cab be hard to take. Does, this make us less human?

Thirdly, the heroine of this story is not Jesus, but the woman.

The persisting, pestering, hanging in, bugging, woman. As one commentator puts it: “The story reminds us that members of despised or oppressed groups must be bold in seeking relief of their misery.  The woman is not content to be ignored, because she is convinced her daughter deserves to be given a chance at living a normal, productive life.  Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who can change things for the better, is rewarded” (D Hare. Commentary on Matthew. Pg: 179. Quoted on B Stoffregen’s CrossMarks web site, 2008).

Perhaps this is why people seeking what we have will risk everything, and continue to try to find a better life, a more just way of living, a more just society? Even if it costs them everything. A student in training for ministry complained because she had to read Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus at Chapel, – all that ‘someone-begat-someone-else’ stuff. ‘What good is all this’, she moaned. Her New Testament professor responded: ‘This is a great story.  Because it shows the best can come out of the worst.  And the worst can come out of the best’. There is another way of looking at this.

Think about it! Perhaps this is also part of how we should ponder this story and our relationships with others, especially those who, are convinced their children, like ours, deserve to be given a chance, any chance, at living a normal, productive life. Maybe this is the tolerance needed for party politics, for competitive party-political campaigning? Listen for the voice seeking justice. Listen for the needs of people with no voice, or the voice that is marginalized, oppressed, hidden by the rhetoric. Amen.

Funk, R. W.; R. Hoover. 1993.  The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan.
Wilson, B. 2008.  How Jesus Became Christian. Canada: Toronto. Random House.

The Authority of Jesus

Posted: August 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

The Authority of Jesus

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Matthew 14:22-33

This week’s readings are about the safekeeping of fallible, wayward, and mortal humanity. In the world of theism, belief and literalism God responds to all who call upon God. Here we have a God who wishes to save persons in distress; and it is in this claim that we can have faith. It is still the case that with this almighty God we must ponder the circuitous routes of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered. We wrestle with the idea that a loving God allows or perpetrates violence that takes the lives of innocents, often through the machinations of religious zealots; young children die of cancer; homes are foreclosed forcing families to depend on the mercy of strangers; and pleas for rescue from domestic violence are unnoticed.

In a world that challenges theism, atheism and a limited understanding of being it is the human who responds to the insistence of God. Here we have a God that acts through human beings to save persons in distress and it is in this insistence that we can have faith. In this the matter of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered more simply. This God is never other than within humanity and the violence that takes the lives of innocents is always within human the imagination, and the yet incomplete human species. The human response to the insistence of God is always within the potential, always ‘Almost’ the revelation of compassion, hope and renewal. The realities of the human species are encompassed within the understanding of an “Almost’ God which is certain to be and always becoming and within the world of human transforming creativity. God and humanity are in a relationship of responsible serendipitous creating of reality as we know it.

When approaching the text for today with the above in mind we are introduced to Jacob and his dysfunctional family which is headed by a narcissistic parent. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel can’t help it; but the child of his later years is his favourite. He treats him with greater affection and gives him more opportunities to shine and grow than his brothers, and they are rightfully angry. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel sees himself in his youngest son; Joseph has an intuitive sense that mirrors his father’s experiences of the Holy and a cocky attitude that mirrors his own youthful self-confidence. To make matters worse, Joseph knows he is the favourite, and lacks the maturity to filter his dream sharing as they relate to his brothers.

The brothers conspire to kill the favoured son. But, they don’t. Selling him into slavery is evil; however, it is preferable to killing Joseph. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that God’s aim in any given situation is the “best for that impasse” and this “best” may not always be very good. Contextually, sometimes our level of previous choices, spiritual maturity and ethical understanding limits our possible courses of action. With a God that is always in charge, always incorruptible no truly good decision is possible; simply the least damaging one. Jacob survives and eventually saves his family. He grows through his experiences and overcomes his alienation. As Paul notes in Romans 8 “In all things God works for good,”. God was moving through this less than optimal decision to bring forth future decisions and actions by Jacob, such that what his brothers aimed for evil, God turned to good. (Genesis 50:20)

This week’s gospel begins with Jesus at prayer. Action leads to contemplation in the rhythm of faith and personal well-being. After transforming – by what means we don’t know – a few loaves and fish into a banquet and a day of preaching and teaching, Jesus retires to a quiet place to commune with God. Our worship involves the private and public aspects of faith. We need to gather as a community and to reach out to the world; we also need to be still and listen for God’s voice in stillness, in the still small voice, as well as maelstrom of daily events. From silence Jesus goes into action, riding the waves to meet his followers. Once again, they are afraid of the storm. Jesus reassures them that all will be well, inspiring Peter to jump out of the boat. As long as Peter looks to Jesus, he can walk on water. The moment he is overcome by fear, he sinks. When he cries out, seeking salvation, Jesus rescues him, without judgment or recrimination. “Help” is sometimes all we need to say to receive the guidance we need.

Today’s readings invite us to look to God for our salvation, deliverance, and wholeness. As followers of the Jesus Way we are entreated to keep our eyes on Jesus, to gain a perspective on life and see the storms and trials of life in terms of God’s movements in our lives. We are never alone. Our prayers touch the heart of God within and transform our response in the midst of life’s often challenging and difficult moments. Opening to this God within gives us faith that a way will be made and that even in situations we cannot change, God is with us and enable transformation of the evils that beset us.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Translation:  “And immediately, he compelled the disciples to cast into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side while he dismissed the crowds.  Dismissing the crowds, he went up into the mountain and by himself to pray.  When evening happened, he was alone there.  But now, the boat was many stadia away from the land, tortured by the waves, for they were against the wind.  But at the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking on the sea.  But the disciples, seeing him walking on the sea, were troubled, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out from fear.  But immediately, Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, I am.  Do not be afraid.'”

Background and situation:  We are in “book four” of Matthew’s gospel, a section which is concerned with the Jesus movement and it’s at times controversial diversity.  (The book of Matthew has five sections, modeled on the five books of Torah.  Throughout Matthew, we are confronted with the authority of Jesus and Jesus is presented as the “new Moses,” an authoritative teacher.)

Book four began with the death of John the Baptist (14:1-13), which was followed by the first feeding story in Matthew (14:14-21).  Our lection follows.  Mark is the source for Matthew 14: 22-27–the parallel is Mark 6: 45-50.  The remainder of the passage is Special Matthew. 

Several Peter stories, which appear nowhere else in the four gospels, are contained in this section.  This seems curious:  In Mark’s gospel, the disciples, and especially Peter, never do anything right.  In Matthew’s gospel, which generally follows Mark quite closely, Peter looks a lot better.  In fact, it is in “book four” of Matthew that Peter is acclaimed the “rock” and given “the keys to the kingdom.”  In the leadership struggles of the early movement, it appears that Matthew has done an about-face from his primary source, Mark, and is promoting a pro-Petrine point of view.

“Walking on the sea”:  In this week’s lection, Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat and go ahead to “the other side.”  Jesus then goes to a mountain, by himself, to pray.  Jesus apparently stayed on the mountain through the night and into the early morning.

One notes a stunning turn of events behind the texts. John the Baptist has been killed.  His head winds up on a silver platter at an extravagant banquet held by Herod Antipas.  The people turn to Jesus for leadership (14: 13-21).  Jesus likewise hosts an extravagant banquet, though a much different one that that provided by Herod–his for the many, Herod’s for the few, not unlike his of love, Herod’s of violence.

The feeding of the many is a paradigm for the new life offered by Jesus, one that is in marked contrast with the old ways of Herod.  The feeding also helps to establish Jesus’ authority in the wake of John’s death.  

Keeping that context in mind, note that three things are mentioned twice in our short lection of 11 verses: (1) dismissing the crowds, (2) praying on the mountain, and (3) walking on the sea.

Dismissing the crowds is an act of authority.  Not just anybody had standing to do so.  That dismissal of the crowds is mentioned twice is a way of underlining the authority of Jesus with the crowds.  He tells them what to do, and they do as he says.  

Mountains are a place of special revelation in Matthew’s gospel.  That Jesus is said to be there twice adds to his mystique as a spiritual leader–he is close to God–and accentuates the particular difficulty of operating in the wake of the death of the Baptist.  Jesus needed time to think and pray.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is said to be in prayer only here and at Gethsemane (26: 36-44).  Both times were fraught with special dangers.

Likewise, the phrase “walking on the sea” is mentioned twice.  This recalls Psalm 77: 19:  “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”  Jesus appears “lordly” and in charge.  Indeed, in the verses immediately following our lection, one could be healed merely by touching the fringe of his coat (14:36).    

Holding the allegory of the Christian movement latter known as the church: In this heavily symbolic story, the disciples are out in the boat when a storm comes up, and they are “tortured”–basanizominon–by the waves.  The boat is a symbol of the movement or church.  (Navis is where we get our word for both “nave”–the sanctuary of a church–and “navy.”)  The boat of the church faces difficulty from evil, which is represented by the tormented sea in the middle of the night.  The church was “sailing against the wind.”

If Matthew was writing AD 80-85–which is the general consensus–that may have been how Matthew saw the situation facing the Jesus movement at that time.  The land was trying to recover from the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  In AD 80, the movement was still rather small and fragile, facing threats both internal and external.  Feeling adrift in the “waters of chaos” would make sense for a nascent movement in that situation.  In AD 80, the church truly was “sailing against the wind.” One has to think of today’s world being a lot like the early days of the movement as decline becomes a prevalent direction.

The image of the restless sea, buffeted by winds and rain, was a rich one in ancient Israel.  The Book of Genesis describes chaos in the beginning of creation–the creation was “without form and void.”  Ancient Israel had a primordial fear of the “waters of chaos” which, they feared, might again engulf the world.  They believed that this chaos was always a threat to return and undo the order that God had imposed upon creation.

During the “fourth watch,” which was from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.–the deepest part of the night, in other words–Jesus came walking on the sea toward the beleaguered church.  

The disciples were “agitated”–etaraxthesan, or “troubled,” “disturbed”–and they believe they’re seeing a ghost–Fantasma estin!  They “screamed because of fear.”  It is at this point, when fear in the face of difficulty threatens to overtake the church, that Jesus lets them know that it is him.  Tharseite–“Take heart,” or perhaps “Have courage,” Jesus says.

Why should they “take heart”?  Because, Jesus says, “Ego eimi“–“I am,” which is the Greek version of the Hebrew tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is the divine name of God (Ex 3: 14).  The Lord God took control of the “waters of chaos.”  By walking on the water, Jesus likewise demonstrates his power over the forces of nature.  The power of Jesus is the same as God’s power.  Therefore, church:  “Do not be afraid.”   

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Translation:  “But Peter answered him, saying, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”   But he said, ‘Come.’  And going down from the boat, Peter walked upon the water and he came to Jesus.   Discerning the mighty wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me.’  And immediately, Jesus stretched forth the hand, taking hold of him, and saying to him, ‘You little faith, why did you doubt?’  And when they went up into the boat, the wind ceased.  The ones in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are son of God.'”

To this point, Matthew has been following Mark (6: 45-50).  Now, he switches to his own source, generally called “Special Matthew,” i.e. the stories only Matthew tells. 

Peter addresses Jesus as “Lord”–kyrie.  Peter wants to be able to do what Jesus does, and he asks to be commanded to do it.  Jesus says simply, “Come.”  Peter climbs down out of the boat, and the text straight-forwardly says that Peter did indeed walk on the water.

Even then, however, it is not quite the same as what Jesus had done.  Peter walks on water–udata–while Jesus walks on the sea–thalassan.  Matthew is being careful to put Peter at least at one remove from what Jesus himself is capable of doing.

Then, in a poetic and insightful phrase, Peter “sees”–blepone–“the mighty wind,” succumbs to fear, and starts to sink.  Allegorically, in the face of difficulty, the Christian becomes afraid, begins to be engulfed, and cries out to Jesus.  (See also 8: 23-27, also a story of a storm on the lake, where, likewise, the disciples cry out, “Lord, save us.”)

Immediately, Jesus “stretched forth the hand,” which is reminiscent of YHWH in Psalm 18: 16–“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters”–and Psalm 144: 7:  “Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters.”

Jesus then calls Peter a “person of little faith,” one who becomes fearful in the face of crisis.  In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are referred to as being “people of little faith” five times. 

Compare that with the story of the Canaanite woman in the next chapter (15: 21-28).  Matthew resurrects the word “Canaanite”–the word had not been used for hundreds of years.  Matthew wants to associate the foreign woman as being an ancient enemy of Israel.  Yet, by the end of the story, Jesus calls her faith “great.”  What a contrast between the “great” faith of the foreign woman and the “little” faith of the church!

When Jesus and Peter get back into the boat, the wind ceased.  Here is the message that all is safe when Jesus is present with his movement in times of difficulty.  The disciples worshipped and said, “Truly, you are son of God.”

When we read the story of Jesus walking on the sea, it is not particularly surprising to us, because Christendom theology calls Jesus the Son of God, a term that in creedal and doctrinal thinking incorporates the idea of divinity. If Jesus is divine, what’s the big deal about him walking on the water? What is surprising in the story is that Peter walks on the water, too, at least for a little while. Peter gets scared when he sees the wind and the waves around him, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves him, then he offers a mild rebuke: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s true that Peter had only a little faith, but the fact of the matter is that his faith was sufficient to get him started in the right direction. While the other disciples were cowering in the boat, Peter went over the side into the deep. Peter may have begun to sink, but only after he took some steps on the surface of the water as though it were dry land. Peter was brash and boastful, hot-tempered and impulsive, but he was also a man who acted on his faith. Sure, he made mistakes under his tutelage with Jesus. He publicly disagreed with Jesus when he began to speak of his impending doom in Jerusalem. He cut off a man’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denied Jesus three times the night before he was crucified. But when we look at those stories again, we see that when Peter argued with Jesus over his determination to go to Jerusalem, he clearly didn’t grasp the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross, but he understood better than the other disciples that Jesus had a great destiny. When Peter cut off the man’s ear, he was acting rashly and against Jesus’ wishes, but at least he was acting, while the other disciples stood around in fear. It’s written that Peter denied Jesus three times, but he was only disciple who dared to enter the courtyard of the temple in order to see what would happen to Jesus. Yes, Peter was imperfect in many ways, but he was also a man of action. He was a person who always had faith, even if it was only a little faith, and he lived his life by acting on his faith. Sometimes he misunderstood God’s will, but he never doubted that God had called him to Jesus’ side, and he was always willing to act according to his best understanding of the situation. After the Day of Pentecost, Peter became one of the main leaders of the fledgling movement. He still made mistakes, as we see in his conflict with Paul at Galatia (told from Paul’s perspective, of course), but over all his ministry was a great success. Under the leadership of Peter and others, the gospel spread from Judea and Galilee to Samaria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and further east and west in Peter’s own lifetime. Ultimately Peter ended up in Rome, where he died after living a life that had many more successes than failures. A good argument for a humble “little faith” like Peter’s!

So, on this storm-tossed night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals himself uniquely as the one endowed with the power of the creator God, the one to whom he has prayed all night, and in whose strength, he now walks on water. Here is the authority Matthew seeks for Jesus and it is none other than the divine power of Matthew’s God who overcomes the chaos of the deep, turbulent waters and is totally unafraid of the raging of the sea. The disciples find themselves in the divine presence, encountering the divine power in all its strength and protection. On one level, the words of Jesus, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’ are the words of a leader taking command. But on another level, the words invoke the divine name of God, the great ‘I am’ creator of the heavens and earth. It is little wonder that the disciples, like the wise men at his birth, respond to Jesus, the one who walks on water, by worshipping him. Exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed, they make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’

But the story doesn’t end there. The evangelist Matthew presses on, introducing something new. Peter asks if he can walk on water too, and Jesus encourages him to try. Leaving the safety of the boat, Peter ventures out on the waves, makes some progress, and then loses his nerve. As he plunges down into the water, he cries out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus stretches out his hand and rescues him. Peter’s action is not just that of an impetuous friend. Rather the evangelist is demonstrating that the divine power revealed in Jesus is not just to be confined to God, but is to be shared by God with those who follow Jesus.

In his inaugural sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, encouraged the church to be like Peter and to get out of the safety of the boat. “We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ.” Archbishop Welby was in no doubt that what Christians need most today is courage: “the present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.”. One could make that claim today as the world wrestles with Covid-19.

With faith and confidence in God, the chaos of life’s stormy ups and downs, the demons of disappointment, setback, injustice and evil, can be overcome. Though as a world we might feel weak, broken and vulnerable, and facing very real dangers, the divine power of God, revealed in Jesus, and available to all, is there for us to draw on. We will flounder, but as Jesus stretches out his hand to rescue Peter, we are reminded that ‘God reached out and took me; I was drawn out of mighty waters. Delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity and was my support. I was brought out into a broad place.

There are times in our lives when we may feel overwhelmed, when we may be out of our depth, when we feel we are drowning under a multitude of problems. The message is don’t lose heart for it is at times like these that walking the Jesus Way will draw us out of our turbulence and calm the storms of our life. As we near the end of our lives, you and I will have to step out from family and friends and walk through the waters of death.

The virtuoso pianist and composer, Franz Lizst, for the most part was not religious. But towards the end of his life, that changed. Lizst was particularly drawn to the story of St Francis of Paolo–a story which in turn was inspired by Jesus walking on the water. St Francis had hoped to get a boat across the Straits of Messina from the coast of Italy to Sicily. But he had no money, and the boatman refused to grant him any favours. Indeed, he taunted him and told him to make his own way across the strait. Francis put his cloak on the water and stepping onto it, began to walk. In 1863, Lizst composed his piano piece, St Francis Walking on the Water–a piece of music that remains a great challenge to any emerging classical pianist. It is a profoundly spiritual work: a strong melodic hymn begins the piece; but then the whole piano is gradually and frighteningly caught up in a ferocious storm, through rushing scales and tremolos. Gradually, tentatively, the hymn of faith fights back, resolutely walking on the waters of this terrible storm and finally emerges in a glorious fortissimo of victory. Faith, justice and love have triumphed over the infernal elements unleashed against them.

Walking on water? A human impossibility. But with faith and courage both as an individual and as Jesus movement, one can ‘move mountains and walk on water’! When the storms of life assail us, we draw ourselves out of the waters that engulf us, and find the safe harbour of love through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Amen.