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. 

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