They were just thrilled, these disciples of Jesus. Smiling, laughing, slapping each other’s backs – overwhelmed by what just happened. Over five thousand people were fed, not to mention all the sick people cured. Theses disciples were part of something transformative, an experience in which the divine was palpable. God was close.
Jesus? Well…Jesus was tired. He was tired before all the feeding and all the healing, now he’s especially tired. He might even be tired of his present company, all these exuberant disciples. All these disciples that keep retelling the story of what just happened and keep asking Jesus questions and Jesus is just…too…tired. He is fully human (not just fully God) after all, and we’ve all been there in some way, shape, or form.
I grew up Baptist and in college and my early twenties I served in student ministry positions within the Baptist church. Every summer we’d take the students to youth camp. If you grew up Baptist or something similar – yall know what I’m talking about when I say camp. Load ‘em up in the church van, spend the rest of the week sleeping on a bunk bed constructed in 1945, going to all the games, events, and revival meetings. You know the type, where the preacher goes for an hour followed by an hour long altar call where they get born again and it doesn’t matter that they were born again last summer – they’re going to get born again this summer too. Then here comes Josh, 16-year-old, has his first pick up, started dating – so he thinks he has a lot to feel guilty about it and he wants to confess. Then, here comes Johnny – he’s about to go to college – and he feels called to become a missionary and next to him is his girlfriend Susie who coincidentally enough feels called to be the wife of a missionary. And you spend the whole week talking to all the youth, listening to them, and helping them navigate the tumultuous world of summer camp romances. Then you load ‘em back on the church van, you’re tired, and all you want to do is put on your headphones and tune them out. But here comes Charlie, there’s always a Charlie, freckle-faced, 8th grade – you had to spend the whole week telling him cheap cologne is not a suitable replacement for showering, and Charlie is going to sit in the passenger seat and for the whole three hour ride home he’s going to talk to you about how he thinks he might be called to be a preacher someday. And I will admit, there were many-a-time I changed the subject or turned up the radio….I just couldn’t listen to Charlie.
So, Jesus told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead of him and the gospel says that after he dismissed the crowds, he went by himself to pray. He’s tired – he needs to be alone; he needs to pray. The kind of prayer George Herbert calls
“…a banquet, angels age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage. The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.”
Isn’t it good to know, even Jesus needed a kind of solitude and prayer that filled his soul – that alone might be the good news of the gospel for all the over-functioners, people pleasers, do-gooders, and ladder climbers. Solitude and prayer.
But what about those disciples sent out ahead on the boat…it’s not looking good. A storm brews up on that sea and the waves start crashing against the side of the boat, the gospel reading says, they were “far from the land, for the wind was against them.” In other words, they are stuck, can’t move, just taking one pounding wave after another. I can’t help but wonder what they were thinking. Gripping the side of the boat were they thinking, “We were just experiencing God like we never have before, we were just part of something good and holy, and now we’re here and alone. Where is God now?” The next thing they know they see something; they think it’s a ghost. Because the sea in Jewish mythology is where all sorts of spirits, ghosts, and frightening creatures resided. So, of course, they think it’s a ghost! But it turns out it’s Jesus – walking on the waves, or through the waves depending on which scholar you read. But here’s something I discovered in prepping for this sermon, there’s a verse in one of the Jewish apocryphal books called Sirach, a book Matthew and his community would have absolutely known, and it’s describing the wisdom of God. And it reads:
I alone encircled the vault of heaven and walked in the depths of the abysses, and in the waves of the sea…
Whether Jesus is walking on or through the waves, he is embodying the wisdom of God and this I think is pointing to some reality in life maybe many of us have experienced. Have you ever been stuck in some difficult life circumstance, just pounded by life’s waves, and the frightening thing you see on the horizon that you think will make matters worse, ends up being the wisdom of God? And one of the things about God’s wisdom is sometimes it’s still frightening and it’s risky to trust it and where Peter finds himself navigating the waves of faith and fear and doubt and certainty is where we all find ourselves at some point.
But this image of Jesus reaching out his hand is so tender is so gracious – I get the image of a parent trying to teach a child to swim who has yet found the confidence and strength to do so. So Jesus’ remark of, “You of little faith…” I don’t interpret as a stinging critique of Peter, but a gentle reminder not only of Jesus’ presence but maybe even more, of his pursuit. It’s customary, especially in our day and age, of religious consumers and spirituality seekers that we are the ones pursuing God but something that continually emerges throughout the Scriptures is that God also pursues us. In fact, one of our Eucharistic prayers points to this when it speaks of God “calling us to return time and time again, through prophets and sages and in the fullness of time through Jesus…”
“The wind ceased,” the gospel says and who was believed to be a ghost on the waves is now proclaimed to be the Son of God on the boat; and the source of fear has now become the source of comfort, and the moment of terror transformed into a time of worship.
Our assigned reading this morning doesn’t include this but it says they continued to sail to the other side where more healings awaited. But I wonder what it was like the rest of that journey to the other side? We don’t know what was said, or who sat where and with who in those hours.
But I like to imagine Jesus sat with Peter, at the front of the boat, listening to Peter talk about how he thinks he might be called to be a preacher someday.