Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017, Proper 14, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.,+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send for the Holy Spirit to encourage and empower us to keep our eyes upon Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Of all that might have caught our attention from this morning’s gospel reading from St. Matthew, there is perhaps one word in particular that seemed to jump out. The word is immediately. Three times we heard it. Curiously, it is a word that could not be more descriptive of the times in which we find ourselves today. We want it now. We want it immediately.
The Blondie comic strip in Friday morning’s Savannah Morning News shows Dagwood and Blondie seated in their den chairs. Blondie says, “Amazon may soon be delivering orders in 30 minutes or less using drones.” Dagwood responds, “I know. I read that too.” Blondie then remarks, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone figured out how to do that with pizza?” Dagwood, as you may know, is a real fiend for pizza, almost any food really. The next frame of the strip shows Dagwood fantasizing. He is standing outside his front door where a drone hovers in front of him, carrying a pizza box.
Immediately, we want it now and every business strives to make that their business, immediately. We will take care of you immediately is the promise. What is immediate in today’s gospel?
As to the use of the word, immediately, we might have thought that Matthew had taken a page out of Mark’s gospel, considered to have been written first. On a quick count, Matthew uses the word “immediately” some 12 times. Mark’s gospel, which is shorter, uses the word “immediately” around 29 times. What is going on? Why does this word appear so preeminently? Does it have special value or is it merely a literary device, used by the authors to create a sense of urgency, enhancing our interest, and drawing us more deeply into the story, as the plot thickens?
In the King James version of the Bible, the Greek word for immediately is eutheos, spelled e-u-t-h-e-o-s—eu-theos. If we break the word down into those two components, “eu” in Greek means good and “theos” means god. Put together we have “good God”. Now, there may be some question as to whether this is indeed the derivation of the Greek word for “immediately”. It is, though, suggestive. The authors, Matthew and Mark, surely would have wanted us to consider that in their use of the word eutheos not only do we hear immediately, as well we hear,” good God”, or God is good.
Where then in this morning’s gospel do we see Matthew using the word, immediately? At the beginning of verse 22 we heard, “Immediately (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat.” Later in verse 27 we heard, “But immediately Jesus spoke to them. . .” Lastly, in verse 31 after Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” we heard, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”
Now, if we were to replace the word, immediately, with “good God”, this is what we would hear in today’s gospel. “Good God, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat.” Then, we would hear, “But good God, Jesus spoke to them.” Lastly, we would hear, “Jesus, good God, reached out his hand and caught Him.” Was God good each of these three times? Well, in the first Jesus is inviting the disciples to get some rest. They had just finished with the feeding of the five thousand—no easy task, we might imagine. In the second, Jesus has assured them that there is no reason for them to be afraid. In the third, Jesus saves Peter from drowning. Indeed, it is very clear that in each of these cases that God has been good, very good.
God is good, but is He immediate? Does God immediately come to our aid? Does God immediately answer our prayers? Does He immediately heal us or someone we love, if at all? Whereas, it might seem that God immediately gives us a parking place, when it comes to the more serious matters of life, maybe God isn’t so immediate. We then find ourselves wondering, “Is He good?” Is this a good God? Then why did my friend die of cancer or my child succumb to addiction? Remember Martha’s words to Jesus in John 11:21: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How can we understand what this immediate, good God is about?
As noted earlier, after having fed the five thousand, Jesus immediately made the disciples get into a boat to go to the other side. This in itself might give us pause. If the disciples took the boat, how then would He get to the other side? Sure, there might have been other boats, but it does pose the question or even anticipate what might soon follow with Him walking on water. From there Jesus went up the mountain to pray alone.
Some commentators like to make a big deal of His spending time alone, suggesting that we should do likewise. Certainly, there may be something to that, but it sounds rather droll. Even more, we might consider that when Jesus was in prayer He was in communion with God, God His Father. Jesus was on top of a mountain which if we think about it might remind us of how Moses would do likewise. There is a difference, though. Moses was a man. Jesus was/is both man and God.
Well, Jesus might have sent the disciples off on a kind of pleasure cruise for a little rest, but it had not turned out that way. They had not gotten stuck at the airport, but the sea had been fighting them, as they attempted to get across the lake. “The boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” In fact, the disciples had made no progress all night along. They had been jostled and bounced about until early in the morning. Were any seasick? This had been something more than just a patch of rough sea.
Whatever the sea was doing or not doing quickly faded in importance when the disciples saw what appeared to be a ghost walking across the water. They were scared to put it mildly. So afraid that, as we heard, “They cried out in fear.” For a man, never mind men, to cry out in fear, well, they would have really had to be afraid. Of course, they had had no sleep in that rocking boat. Fatigue and choppy waters had fueled their anxiety and heightened their imaginations. Immediately, however, “Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
What about Jesus walking on water? How are we to understand this? He should have sunk, right? You or I would. Had Jesus somehow become inflated with air, becoming a sort of water wings or intertube? Was He somehow floating? Some commentators in reflecting upon Jesus walking on water believe we are to be reminded of a much earlier time, going all the way back to Genesis 1:2. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Jesus, like the Spirit, was moving across the face of the waters.
If that comparison does not impress us, then maybe the underlying reality underneath Jesus walking on water or at least appearing to was that He was defying gravity. He was floating alright, but not on the water. How could He do that? Matthew, I suspect, wants us to ask that very question because there really is only one answer to it. Only the one who created gravity in the first place (Jesus, the God/ man) could defy it or at least put it aside. Incidentally, this episode of Jesus walking on water is also found in Mark and John, but does not include Peter walking on water.
John’s gospel concludes this episode in the following way, also suggestive as to Jesus’ deity. “Immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” In other words, with Jesus in the boat both time and space collapsed (who created both in the first place), and they immediately made shore.
Returning to Matthew’s gospel, he does not spend a lot of time explaining Jesus’ divinity, as does John’s gospel. His walking on water, however, says a lot in that respect, but it does not stop there. It would appear that Peter is still not quite certain that this ghost or whatever it was walking across the sea was in fact Jesus. Peter challenges Him. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” We know Peter to brash and quick to speak before thinking, but what was going on with him that he should ask to walk on water? What was he thinking? Was this an acknowledgment of Jesus’ power on the part of Peter? The other two gospels, as mentioned earlier, do not record Peter walking on water. Was there some kind of Biblical antecedent for something that should not float floating on water? There is this curious incident in 2 Kings 6:5-7:
“But as one (of the servants) was felling a log, his ax head fell into the water; he cried out, “Alas, master! It was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God (Elisha) said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7 He said, “Pick it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it.”
Jesus commanded Peter to walk on water, and that is exactly what Peter did. He got out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus. What must the other disciples have been thinking or doing. Did they try to hold Peter back? Did they tell him he was crazy? Were they wishing that they had asked to walk on water? What did it feel like to walk on water? Was it soft, bumpy, or like body-surfing on one’s feet? Regardless, Peter did it. He walked on water. What a feeling? But then something went wrong. He noticed the strong wind. Was it buffeting his face or mussing his hair? Perhaps, his drying eyes began to burn. Regardless, he noticed the strong wind, became frightened, and began to sink.
There is a theological term or at least the meaning of it found in the Old Testament reading for today that is applicable to this scene with Peter. The prophet Elijah has run for his life and is hiding in a cave when the Lord comes to him and says, “Go forth, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13 And it came about when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
In other words, in this passage we hear what the Lord God is not. The theological term here is apophatic, otherwise known as negative theology. It defines God not by what He is, but by what He is not. In this OT passage we just heard that the Lord was not the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Rather, as some translations put it, He is in the small, still voice. And behold, a voice came to Elijah.
Returning to Peter, he had let the elements, the strong wind and the sea, become his god, so to speak. When he took his eyes off of Jesus, the true source of power, indeed power over the sea and wind, he became afraid and began, as we heard, to sink. He should have practiced more negative theology. Having lost his focus, Peter had not lost, however, his mind. He cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me.” Jesus, immediately (there’s that word again, “good God”), reached out His hand and caught Peter. We are not told whether Jesus carried Peter in His arms to the boat or whether they walked hand in hand, but somehow the two of them got into the boat. Jesus, though, had berated Peter, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” If Peter had demonstrated little faith, how must the other disciples have evaluated their faith? At least Peter had had enough faith to get out of the boat and walk on water for a brief period.
In the closing verse of this morning’s reading we hear, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” The twelve disciples were good Jews. As such the only person, the only thing that they would ever worship would be none other than God Himself. Matthew has now told us that not only is Jesus the Son of God. He is God Himself. Jesus is good God.
We all know that God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit does not always and perhaps seldom respond to our cries for help immediately. Heal my mother, my spouse, my child, is often not immediate or perhaps even in this lifetime. We don’t like it, but we know it. So, where does that leave us when the waves are high and the wind is strong, threatening to capsize our boats, our lives? All of us, I suspect, know the feeling and some may be feeling right now.
Certainly, Peter is an example to us. If we keep our eyes on Jesus, regardless of the sea or storm that rages about us (disease, death, failure, or loss), if we keep our focus on Jesus, we will stay afloat. If we begin to sink, become overwhelmed by our circumstances and lose faith, then if we cry out to Jesus, He will save us. While that is easy enough to say, only experience will bear it out. We are then reminded in today’s gospel to keep our focus on Jesus, listen for His voice, and not identify what is not God as God, otherwise we will sink.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.