by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 14: 22-33
As you well know, the political-social context in which we live affects our spiritual-personal lives. Stressors or supports in the larger society can either increase or decrease the anxiety individuals feel. And maybe the reverse is true. Maybe an individual’s inner peace can reduce the agitation or despair within a small group or the larger culture. Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew depicts Jesus walking upon the Sea of Galilee from both a wide-angle and a narrow-angle lens. By that I mean that the writer of Matthew seems interested in both the geo-political-social context for this story as well as its very personal, intimate dimension. As you and I are witnessing frightening political and social changes, this story may suggest ways we can stay above the chaos swirling in our culture by accessing an inner peace that might also lesson the anxiety in our society.
First, let me be clear that I’m not suggesting we all just take a chill pill and ignore serious problems. Our nation’s entrenched racism and inept response to the novel coronavirus, for instance, deserve the outrage of our citizens. But societal problems need more than prophetic voices that expose unjust policies and incompetent leaders. They also require a steadiness from those who can draw upon personal reserves of calm, compassion, and courage. And perhaps not only elected officials but also individual citizens can use those inner resources for the greater good. One nonanxious presence in a storm can make a difference.
But before we dive into today’s story of Jesus walking on water, we need to back up to the beginning of Matthew’s 14th chapter with the beheading of John the Baptist and then the feeding of the 5,000 in order to grasp the political context. The gruesome murder of John was the result of political intrigue within a royal family playing with the lives of the disempowered. King Herod being served John the Baptist’s head on a platter at a royal banquet starkly contrasts the story that immediately follows. Jesus feeding the poor in anticipation of the heavenly banquet implicitly denounces the King’s “meal” in contrast with the people’s meal Jesus provided. Jesus, having heard of his kinsman’s ghastly death, tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the crowds for prayer and rest. But the people persisted. So he met their need with a miraculous meal in which, it was said, five loaves and two fish fed a crowd that numbered well over 5,000. These two vignettes reveal both a political and spiritual reality: the earthly Empire consumes the people; the Kingdom of Heaven feeds the people.
We move now to the third scene in Matthew 14, today’s Gospel lection, in which this world’s ways and aims are again contrasted with God’s. Jesus’s attempts to find solitude so that he might grieve John’s death and rest from the persistent crowds had been thwarted. But at last, as the disciples leave in a boat while Jesus remains on shore, he is finally alone and able to climb the mountain “by himself to pray,” perhaps to do what we now call “self-care” because socio-political settings can eat people up, and Jesus needs to continue feeding others. Matthew may be connecting Jesus’s climb up a mountain to Moses’ climb up Mount Sinai to receive the commandments. But after a night alone on the mountain as the disciples drift farther away from the shore, Jesus returns to his followers–without new stone tablets bearing commandments.
Yet commandments are given. As Jesus walks across the water to the boat bearing the disciples, Peter requests a personal command. In the early morning dimness, Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
It’s unusual to ASK someone to command you to do something, isn’t it? Have you ever asked God to give you a command? Well, perhaps, Open Table, that is precisely what we have done when we have engaged in prayerful group discernment. And like the pattern Jesus demonstrated of engaging in the work of healing and justice and then withdrawing for prayer, we as a church have combined action and reflection. We have looked outside the safety of our little boat (1), the church, and have seen the dangerous waters of the Empire and found work to do for the Kin*dom (2). And in that process of identifying injustices, we have tried to discern how the Spirit of Jesus would then lead us to resist Empire and build up God’s Kin*dom. That very process resulted in the creation of Prism United. I am challenged by Peter’s bold request for a command. Maybe the Church of Jesus needs to be regularly requesting and seeking our next command.
I began by asserting that political and social turmoil can very easily affect our personal circumstances and inner lives. But I end by speculating and hoping that our private lives and spiritual selves just might be able to impact the larger world in which we live. If we can remain centered, calm, hopeful, and daring, we can tamp down at least a little of the anxious tremors that vibrate through our wider social circles, that get amplified on social media, and that wear and tear the psyche of an entire people. If we can be patiently persistent, humble, and disciplined, we can help eradicate racism and COVID-19 and other biological and social ills.
Let us be attentive to all injustices, wary of irresponsible leaders, and quick to admit and correct the harm we ourselves perpetuate. But let us also take time for private prayer that can gentle our spirits and reduce anxiety. There is a back and forth, an ebb and flow, that allows us to fight injustice and center ourselves in Christ’s peace.
The 14th chapter of Matthew ends as Peter and Jesus get back into the boat and the winds cease and all the disciples acknowledge Jesus as “the Son of God.” Friends, this boat that we sail together, this little ark, this vessel that carries us through rough seas the Empire seems to control is ultimately under the control of God, not whoever happens to be playing the role of Caesar on a particular day on a particular part of the planet. I thank God for your good minds that read this troubled world rightly and for your good hearts that treat this troubled worldly kindly.
(1) An early symbol of the church was a boat, an ark like Noah’s that saved God’s people. The architectural term for the main body of a medieval church is the nave, from the Latin, “navis,” which means ship. (It’s the same word from which we get “navy”). That’s because the arched beams make the ceiling of a cathedral look like the inside of an upside down ship’s hull.
(2) If the mountain represents a place for a God encounter, the sea represents the Empire’s domain. During this period, the Roman Empire regulated the Sea of Galilee and taxed the fishing industry. So Jesus’s walk across the water signifies that the God he serves and the kingdom he announces is superior to Caesar’s empire.