FOR THE Ninth Sunday after Pentecost we hear once again from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. In the reading our spoken witness provides us with a word portrait of our Lord and his power over all creation…
Then he (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them.
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.”
So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This text was likely written by Matthew’s church in Antioch of Syria within in the eighth decade of the first century. The script faithfully repeats a story told decades earlier in the Markan gospel. That earlier witness was penned in Alexandria, Egypt. We consider then, that Mark’s writing was likely one of the sources used by our Matthean writer. The story was also found as penned at the cusp of the next century in brief account in the Gospel According to Saint John. Somewhat startlingly, however, is that the account does not appear in Luke’s gospel. This is so, even though Luke is believed to be written during the same decade as Matthew’s gospel, and that Lucan writer seemingly used much the same resources. Thus, we might rightly ask, “Why was this wonderful historical tradition included in Matthew and not in Luke?”
I believe the answer to this question is found only when we consider the community of the writings. Was a conflict or consensus present that made Matthew include this section and the following story? Did it address an issue that was not important for the emergent churches of Luke?
While it may have been a simple practicality that made Luke omit the account, possibly because of space limitations in the parchment they had available… in my opinion it seems more likely that there was an issue of authority challenge going on in Matthew’s audience. This issue was seemingly not important for Lukan communities, but was far more important for Matthew. The population of the church in ancient Syria was challenged far more by traditional Hebrew politics and theology than Luke’s communities. Here we see that the text we examine today, not found in Luke, does firmly establish the authority of Jesus over all of creation.
We read in this story echoed from the Markan tradition, how Jesus went “alone” to the mountain to pray. Meanwhile the disciples rowed a good distance out from the seashore on their own. To me this sounds uncomfortably a lot like any church population that leaves the sanctuary on any given Sunday. But we know that here, in somewhat prophetic fashion for any person or church trying to go it alone, the waves described in the story became very violent. We may ask, “How violent?” I say.., “Very violent!”
Look closely and compare from the story in Mark (Mark 6:45-52). We note a slight change of text for the writing of the Matthean church! In Mark the church made their way “painfully” as the waves flowed “against” them. Here in Matthew, however, we note with emphasis that they were “beaten” by the waves. Though this linguistic difference seems subtle, I think it is surely significant for us as we consider this text. We can ask, “Was Matthew’s church beginning to encounter a greater storm in later decades than their earlier counterparts found within Mark’s church in Egypt?” For our initial purpose here, let us assume so.
We follow this assumption with the fact that in both accounts the environment portrayed was “dark”, so much so that it was the DARKEST… the fourth watch of the night. It was during this time of deep mystical uncertainty that our Lord came to them… striding as Master upon the turbulent water. Jesus thus demonstrated his power over the natural forces of creation… even those that cause death. Note here, that Matthew does not relate that he immediately calmed the waters. The gospel writer instead tells us that the disciples first thought that he was a fearful ghost (Greek - phantasma). Indeed of such horrid ghastly were phenomena, like mermaids, who would lure and drag pre-scientific souls from the nave of their boat into the realm of the sea dragon.
However, in answer to their cry, Jesus walked upon the turbulent water. He drew near and his words echoed perfectly… repeated exactly from Mark’s gospel. Our Lord stated to the Matthean church community going through a dark time of authoritative uncertainty… “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
We note with great importance here… that the second part of the story was read initially only to the Matthean church of the late first century. It was written during a time when waves of stress and persecution were growing high for those early Christians. The reading gives credence to my thoughts that this is why the second scene, not found in the other gospels, related the story of Peter’s watery walk. It was told to a church who had inherited the traditions and stories of that great disciple. Matthew told his church of the startling and miraculous event. He wrote about how blessed Peter got out of the boat… and surprisingly walked on water in faith. But consider the mind of the hearer! Even the one upon whom Jesus told he would build his church, soon found the watery tempest is a bit more than his belief could handle.
Yes! Consider now that they were told that even blessed Peter sank and began to drown, but in rather baptismal representation he was rescued from the water by our Lord. Peter, in being bold, found that indeed the Lord is not a vaporous entity, a ghost… but was, and yet still is for them and us… very real and very God. Jesus is not a phantom that lures to death, but is the Son of God who shall soon give the Holy Spirit (Greek - hagios pneumatikos) to those who dare believe. The Holy Spirit is the divine Spirit that is not harmful, but is very God who hovered over the waters of creation at the beginning of all things. The Spirit that Christ Jesus sends is the Spirit that provides those in the church with life eternal through baptism. The story tells each of us, therefore, to hold tightly to the hand of God who comes to us walking on baptismal water! This is the message of Matthew written using the seafaring imagery familiar with the Greco-Roman culture to whom the early church witnessed. The Matthean writer clearly stated that Jesus Christ is Lord over all of creation… even to the point of mastery over nature, drowning, demons, dragons and death. The writer related to us so long ago about our having faith today over against doubt. We then reflect as people who walk in the footsteps of the disciples and know that whenever we think we are failing due to fear, we are called to receive heart and forever proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. My readers, I offer that of such is the miracle related by Matthew… and it is very good to be found in the nave.”