Matthew 16:13–20 (NRSV)
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mk 8:27–30; Lk 9:18–20)
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The past couple of weeks we have walked with Jesus into some of the outlying areas of the region. Tyre and Sidon are both on the Mediterranean coast, both of which are in modern Lebanon. Today he walks to the city named Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is located on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is currently near the border of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel in the area we know as Golan Heights. I mention this because it shows us that the tensions we hear about in the region today, the wars in Syria and the various troubles Israel has with neighbors are actually very close. Jesus could walk to these areas, and covered many during his earthly ministry. This is one reason we should have concern for these areas and the people of these regions, although they may not have the same faith as us, their ancestors were connected to those saints of old who have become our spiritual heritage.
This city of Caesarea Philippi has a unique history of its own. Many scholars believe that Mt. Hermon, which is very near this city, is the mountain that Jesus was on during the Transfiguration, since the last place mentioned before this event was approximately seven miles here. Caesarea Philippi was a city dedicated to Caesar by Herod the Great, and a temple was dedicated for emperor worship. Later after the death of Herod, his son Philip was given charge over the area known as Batanaea of which Caesarea was part of, and Philip renamed the city to include his own name. The reason given was to designate it from the other Caesarea which was located on the coast, but I think he just wanted his own city.
If you were to look up Herod the Great’s family you might be confused when you look at the names, mainly because Scripture tells us that Herod Antipas married his brother’s wife and his brother was named Philip. That Philip is most commonly known as Herod II. Herod II, lived in Rome as a private citizen and after his brother married his wife we do not hear anything about him, except he was the father of Samone, who danced for Antipas and requested the head of John the Baptist. While Herod the second was off in Rome, and his brothers and aunt inherited the divided Kingdom of his father. Antipas received Galilee, and Philip received the North-Eastern area Batanaea including Trachonitis (which is mentioned by Josephus), Herod Archelaus received Judah and Samaria, and Samone I received Jamnia.
When Samone died she left her inheritance to Caesar, and Archelaus’ land became unruly and was taken from him to form the province of Judea ruled by a roman governor. Which left only Herod Antipas and Philip as the only survivors of the Herodian Dynasty. A confusing family to say the least, if you didn’t catch it there were two Philips and to make it all worse the Philip of Philippi married his niece Samone, the daughter of Herod II (Philip) which make the whole thing just a bit nauseating.
This is where Jesus is at. The city bearing the name of Caesar and Philip. But this city prior to being named Caesarea Philippi was called Paneas. The reason for this was because when the Alexander the Great came to Judea and claimed it for his followers settled here and found that there was a very interesting cave. They determined that this cave must have been the dwelling place of one of the gods called Pan. Pan was the pagan god of the mountainous wilds, shepherds, flocks, and rustic music. He was also the companion of the Nymphs. Worshipers of this deity did not build temples for him, instead they worshiped him in nature, usually in mountain caves. The area surrounding Mt. Hermon inspired those Greek settlers to remember pan. This mountainous terrain, filled with caves, springs, and good grazing lands filled their hearts with rustic songs and now you know where country music comes from.
Pan, is not exactly the most moral of Greek mythical deities. His depictions usually have him as part man and goat to represent the passions of this deity. And those passions caused him to fall in love with two nymphs, Echo and Pitys. These relationships angered the gods and Echo was punished by never having her own voice, only able to repeat what others say, and Pitys was turned into a pine tree. Again, the reason Pan hangs out in caves is because caves echo.
There is a cave at the base of Mt Hermon that contains a spring. This is Pan’s cave, and is one of the sources of the Jordan river. But before the Greeks came to Paneas, there was another group of people that lived there and this cave was holy site. It was the gateway to the underworld especially because this cave spewed water from it. They would fear what was just outside the light lurking in the darkness, so they would offer sacrifices and participate in religious rites in the mouth of the cave. Even Jewish teachings had legends surrounding this cave. It was the place where the fallen angels were sent.
I tell you all of this because all this history is wrapped up in understanding what Jesus is speaking about when during this journey. Jesus asks the disciples, “who do people say that the son of man is?” They respond by saying some say John the Baptist, but others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Some say John the Baptist. This city is the administrative capital for Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great, the husband/uncle of Samone, the dancer who demanded John’s head.
Some say Elijah. Elijah is often seen as the greatest prophet of Jewish history because he did not taste death but was carried away in a fiery chariot. Elijah called fire down from heaven to prove to the northern kingdom that God was God not Ba’al, and it was from this region where Elijah performed one of his greatest miracles with the widow who never ran out of flour or oil for bread. Ba’al was the god that was worshiped by the pre-Hellenistic inhabitants of this region, it was Ba’al who they were trying to keep in that cave.
Who do they say that I am? Jesus is standing there with the history of Israel stretching out before him. The Jordan river beginning at their feet, the very water that John once used to symbolically wash away the sins of the confessors. The very water that separated the desert wonderers from the land of promise. The land their greatest prophet walked, and the land filled with pagan worship. Right there in that city is a cave considered to be the gateway to hell, and a temple dedicated to Caesar who was considered to be a god.
Who do they say I am? Everything about the world is represented in this one location. We have the worship of a nation, the worship of demons, the embrace of lustful passions and immoral activity. The son of a king that sought to kill the son of David. The location to which the fallen angles was banished. Who do they say I am? All around the disciples were the testimonies of the world the very best that they had to offer, and standing there with them is Jesus their teacher. Who do they say I am?
If we were to ask this question today what answers would you expect to hear? Probably the first thing that pops into your mind is something negative, but all that negativity is not what people think of Jesus it is what they think of the Church. If you were to ask people who they think Jesus is, they would say something like a great teacher or philosopher. Many would even say that they wished they could be like Jesus because he lived a lifestyle of love and compassion. But everything that they say about Jesus leaves one thing out, they see him as just a teacher, just a prophet, just a miracle worker or magician.
Jesus asks the disciples another question, “but who do you say that I am?” Imagine hearing that question while standing there in that place. You can see the temple built to worship the Emperor, and you can hear the water spilling out of the cave. The Emperor represents the greatest military presence in the entire known world. Life depends on the Empire. The economy rises and falls with the empire. Everything they really know is interpreted through this empire which has occupied their land for their entire lives, and that of their ancestors for centuries. There are people within their own religion that proclaim that the Roman occupation is a gift from God because they bring wealth. But there are others that feel that God is cursing the land because of the foreign influences and idolatry accepted within the nation’s boundaries.
You hear again the rushing water, the water that will eventually become that great river of symbolic meaning. You hear the teachings of the baptizer and you look at the idols that are placed around the cave’s entry. Idols that represent the vilest images of lust. You see people attempting to appease a false god, one who is so twisted if he wakes up angry his screams will drive people into a panic, but if he wakes in a pleasant mood then they will enjoy the wildness that nature can offer with a good deal of rustic music. You hear the water, you see the idols, you remember the stories of angels being cast out of heaven and sent to this place. And you hear Jesus ask, “who do you say I am?”
Pan is the god of chaos, of the wilds. Caesar is the god of the empire or the nations. And Jesus is asking who am I? Amid chaos, in the center of nationalistic fervor who is Jesus? Peter answers, “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Do you grasp the significance of this statement?
Caesar was the god of the world. And the current emperor was called the son of god. Rome was the religion of the empire, everything revolved around that, sure they could worship any other god they wanted but they all had to honor Caesar their god of men. Peter is looking at Jesus and saying you are greater than Rome, you are the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah, the one of which the prophets spoke, the one who was promised by God to restore all things to bring the world back into perfection from the chaos that was brought in by the sin of Adam. Peter looked at the world around him; the chaos, the idolatry, the emperor worship, the lustful revelry and he looked at Jesus and said you are the one that can redeem all this.
Peter and the others looked at the world before them, the hopelessness and despair, and what did they see? They saw Jesus. They saw that there was hope through everything. They did not have to sell their souls to Rome, and they did not have to live in fear of the darkness. They saw hope. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
So again, who do they, the people of our world, say Jesus is? I mentioned before that when we ask that question most of us would automatically assume that the world would respond negatively to that question. Why do you think that is? Many within the walls of churches feel as if the world is in greater chaos than ever before and that the darkness is closing in around them, why do you think that is? Jesus said that the gates of Hades or hell will not prevail against it. Has the church stopped looking at Jesus and started looking at the temple of Caesar or the cave of Pan? Have we forgotten where our hope comes from? Who do you say Jesus is? Is he the promised messiah proclaimed by the prophets to redeem the cursed chaotic world, or is he just a good teacher among many? Is he the son of the Living God, the God who hovered over the waters of the preformed universe, who spoke and set the universe in motion while creating all the things seen and unseen on earth and in heaven? Or is he just one more philosophy like many adhered to by the nations of the world? Who do you say that He is? Is he greater than Caesar or Pan? Is he your hope and redemption?
The keys of the kingdom are found in the answer to that one simple question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Our response to that question both in word and action changes everything. Our response can bind things or loosen things. It can inspire or condemn. It can give hope or leave others in despair. Who do you say Jesus is? As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us consider that question. And I pray that we will live fully in our answer.
Matthew 15:10–28 (NRSV)
Things That Defile
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Ancient Israel was not exactly the picture of unity. From the very beginning of their history they divided themselves into tribes. Each member of the family would trace their roots to one of Jacob’s sons. When they traveled though the desert they camped in accordance to their tribes. When they settled the promised land, they settled according to their tribes. And when it came to religion it is not too hard to believe that tribalism was a factor. The tribes only went so far in their minds. They were all children of Israel.
When they faced the inhabitants of the promised land, they faced it not as singular tribes but united together. When they settled in the land we are told that God was their king, and each person lived as they pleased. Eventually this freedom lead to some tensions, and while the tribal infighting occurred invaders entered Phoenicians, Philistines and others. They struggled on their own until eventually one Judge would rise above the others and unite the tribes. As children, we learned about these Judges people like Gideon and Samson. They overcame astronomical odds to be victorious. If we read closely we would even find that some of these Judges were women. As history progressed the tribes demanded a king to rule over them, so the prophet Samuel anointed Saul to rule over all the tribes. But God gave them a warning about this system, and eventually these warnings became realities which led to the division of the kingdom and the eventual decline and exile of both Israel and Judah.
They saw themselves as the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. The people not connected to one of the tribes was an alien, a foreigner, a gentile. The people of God developed such deep feelings against these outsiders. Some of these feeling was based in reality, because the people of Nineveh were very violent and nasty people who wished to devour the nations. Others were just outsiders. When it came to the first century these feelings were festering for generations and some were self-inflicted. The Romans were invited into the land to assist in military protection. There were divisions even within: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Samaritans, and others. These group were all part of the original twelve tribes, yet they all had various ideas as to how best to live their lives and faith. And these divisions ran very deep. For instance, the Samaritans were seen corrupt mixed breeds the vilest of all people because they did not keep their linage pure, and they had the nerve to worship and celebrate the festivals in a place outside of Jerusalem.
All these divisions: Gentile and Jew, Samaritan and Judean, Pharisee and Sadducee lead to something God never intended. Israel was to be the light to the nations, not the nation. The faith of Abraham’s children was to bring hope to all people yet it became a banner of hereditary pride. They had the law but they were required to live under mankind’s interpretation of the law. Which brings us to today’s passage.
After Jesus had walked across the sea and helped his friend back into the boat after a near death experience, Jesus began to teach again on the Judean side of the sea. Just prior to today’s passage Jesus is challenged by some religious leaders about the ritualistic washing before a meal and Jesus basically tells them that their interpretation was nowhere near the intent. And he closes this argument by saying, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
I want us to really reflect on that statement for a moment. It is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out. As we think about that remember the history of our spiritual forefathers, because it is from Israel where our faith’s roots are planted. Their history, in part, is ours. Their struggle is ours, their joys are ours because it is through them our salvation emerged.
Jesus went over the sea and began to teach, the greatest theologians of their day, the most influential teachers, and legal advisors were present listening to the words that Jesus spoke and he said it is not what goes in the mouth that defiles but what comes out of it. The disciples were very concerned. Wait a second Jesus you can’t just go up to these guys and say this sort of thing. Don’t you know that you have offended them? Jesus had just offended the greatest teachers of the land, because he challenged their authority and their teachings.
I will tell you that for people that have spent their lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge it is painful to have your ideas challenged. Especially when the one challenging is of a lower educational class. It hurts, because it strikes right at their heart. Jesus said those words because he knew it would ruffle the feathers. He said those words because those very same religious leaders had assisted in the execution of his cousin and ministry partner. If they did not actively participate they stood aside and let things happen. They had all their interpretations of law yet not one of them challenged the lifestyle or actions of the leader over them, only John. And John lost his head for it. They had the position and the platform to speak, they had the means and the opportunity to speak yet they remained silent.
The disciples were confused as to why Jesus would actively offend these powerful men. So, they asked him. And Jesus responded with a very scientific statement. Food enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is then deposited into the sewer. You cannot be clearer than that. Jesus is concerned with the intent of the law not the interpretation. Why was it important to wash? It was not because of duty but to wash was to point to the matters of the heart. God is holy and I am unclean. God is the giver and sustainer of life, and I honor him by humbling myself before I eat. It is a symbol of a greater reality, not a checkmark to register your personal holiness.
The greater reality lives in the very core of humanity, the heart. The heart is where our true selves live. This is why the ancient psalmists and wisdom writers tell us to guard our hearts, not because our heart is evil, but because our heart is the truest you there is. It is the most vulnerable and if you damage the heart you damage the entire person. Jesus and in turn the church deal with matters of the heart. This is why the discord and lack of unity within the church is so harmful, this is why so many people have left the church is because often the church, like the Pharisees of old, have looked around the greater reality and focused on the symbols or symptoms of heart dis-ease. We injure the heart.
Jesus says, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” He then lists off various evils that can come out of the mouth, evils that reside in the hearts of those that speak them. The evilness of a heart is a result of damage and sin. It is in the heart where sin or goodness takes root. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus leaves these religious leaders to stew over these words for a while and he proceeds with his disciples to Tyre where he met a Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by an evil spirit. Remember the history of Israel, this woman was a descendant of the very people that Israel drove out of the promised land. She was seen and had been see as the enemy for most of Israel’s history. She was a child of everything that God spoke against in the teachings of their lawgiver. Yet here she is asking Jesus, a Jewish teacher, for help. Many wonder as to why this story is included in the gospels. Because it is one story that seems to cast Jesus in a bad light. Jesus ignores the women at first, and seems to only listen when she becomes too annoying. And he tells her, “listen I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He rejects her, and she knelt at his feet and asks him to help her again.
Jesus then insults her saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” If this was the only interaction you had with Jesus you would probably be upset if not appalled. But I want us to look at it in the same light as we did the previous interaction with the religious leaders because it is along the same thought.
Jesus comes across as insulting because languages do not always translate well. There are two words for dogs that are used in scripture, one means a wild dog, a stray that is unwanted and at times dangerous. The other could be translated as puppy, or little dog. This second word is the one that is often used in to describe a household pets. And it is this second word that Jesus used. He is not calling her a stray wild dog, which is the term often used in description to Gentiles by the religious of that day. Which would be equivalent to just about any derogatory slur people would use today. Jesus uses a kinder word, pet. It is not fair to give the children’s food to the pet. The disciples are there with him and they hear the words being spoken. They are thinking wow, Jesus is a nice guy he calls her pet instead of calling her the wild dog she is. Which is what Jesus wants them to think. He wants them to notice in themselves that they have evil intent in their hearts. That they have prejudice and malice, slander, and lies dwelling right in their own hearts. The woman persists and gives probably the greatest comeback of scripture, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus then praises her as a woman of great faith and heals her daughter on the spot to the astonishment of the disciples. This praise is also set to teach the disciples an important truth. He said that Peter had little faith while he sunk into the sea after walking toward his Lord, and this woman in the face of ridicule had great faith. The mysteries of the universe are encapsulated in a mustard seed. Life is more important than anything else.
Today we can gain much from really looking at this passage and letting it saturate our hearts. We might be the most righteous people of the entire nation, yet carry in our hearts the vilest of evil. We might be the most religious of the nations yet we can fail to see the humanity of those around us. What appears to be Jesus ridiculing a woman of a different race or nationality is really Jesus teaching the disciples that the kingdom extends well beyond Israel, the kingdom is all nations. And there is no room for anyone who practices racism and prejudice. Racism, prejudice, and the sin that is associated with them have a similar root a root not just in hate but in fear. Those that practice these things are afraid that someone else will take what little they have, and they fail to see that what really happens is the kingdom expands to accept them. Fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence and violence always leads to suffering. Fear is the opposite of faith and this is why Jesus says this woman has great faith. She looked beyond the fear, she looked beyond the rejection she anticipated and she looked to the hope. She did not let the fear control her, where Peter did. She moved forward where Peter sunk. Her daughter was healed where Peter suffered. God was still present in both instances but one received glory and the other rebuke.
For a week, our nation has been plagued by fear and hate. But God is greater than our fear. The world says we will not be replaced, and Jesus says every plant not planted by my father will be uprooted. When we live by fear our fears will be seen, what happens when we live by faith? We may still see what we fear, but we can still see God there and our fears dwindle in His perfect love. The love and grace given while we were still enemies of God, yet even then Christ died for us. Took onto himself all our evil and sin, and proclaimed from the cross, forgive them for they do not know what they do. Often, we do not know, but we should strive for greater knowledge, and apply that knowledge to our lives as we purify not just our hands but our hearts.
As we enter this time of open worship, let us consider the words of Jesus, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What is coming out of our mouths? Is it fear or faith? Is it despair or hope? Is it hate or is it the love of Christ?
Matthew 14:22–33 (NRSV)
Jesus Walks on the Water
(Mk 6:45–52; Jn 6:15–21)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This past week has been one of great spiritual stress for me. As I sit down for a break at work I begin to read the news articles and I begin to wonder are we on the brink of war? I look at the news for the past few days and I see a city in our nation being ripped apart over things I was taught were resolved over sixty years ago. I have felt as if everything I have every believed has been unraveling at the seams.
This week, as I read these verses many things passed through my mind, and there were several times where I sat to pray where absolutely it seemed as if God and I were just sitting together daring the other to speak. I sat there wondering.
I thought again about the potential emotions that those first century people might have been feeling just after they buried the headless body of their wilderness teacher, John. The man that was beheaded because the spoke boldly against the ruler’s relationship with his brother’s wife. This man spoke when everyone else remained quiet. I thought about that, and I also considered the actual scene where the decision was made to execute the Baptizer. Herod was taking pleasure in watching his step-daughter dance. This turned my stomach a bit, this ruler was enjoying his daughter/niece put on a provocative dance for the men of court, and to top it off his sister-in-law/wife was the one that sent this girl. A man lost his head because he had the nerve to tell a leader of Israel that incest was bad.
This man challenged the accepted cultural behavior and he lost his life. He questioned the accepted religious behavior and the religious leaders put him in chains. They sought to close his mouth but the only thing that kept him from dying long ago was the fact that people considered him to be a prophet. But the lusts of the world eventually dominated any fear of God.
The followers of John buried his body and they told his cousin Jesus who had crossed the sea to mourn the loss. These students along with others followed Jesus into the wilderness and Jesus in his great distress had compassion for them. And he miraculously fed them there on the hillside with a meager lunch equivalent to five slices of bread and a can of sardines. Those people for whom Jesus had compassion were sinners, marginalized people who were not accepted as worthwhile by those in power. They were students of a teacher who challenged conventional wisdom. They were people bound by illnesses. People with sorrow, people that needed hope, people who were lost without a shepherd. Wondering in a world that just seemed to be unraveling all around them. The prophet was just beheaded, and the voice crying in the wilderness they longed to hear was silenced.
Jesus fed the people, and sent them on their way. But just before Jesus sent the crowd away He sent the disciples with them, across the sea each with a basket of bread and fish. They left returning to their homes while Jesus remained there in the isolated place where he could mourn and pray as was his discipline. The crowd disrupted Jesus’ routine, yet as soon as he could reestablish his rhythm Jesus did. This time he even sent his disciples away because when routines are broken it takes greater effort to return.
Imagine the excitement that evening. Jesus had just feed thousands using something so insignificant. Compassion can inspire us to do the impossible. It allows us to get outside of ourselves and ease the burden of others. Compassion is wonderful, but can be dangerous if we allow the emotion to dominate. Jesus sent them away, so he could be alone to pray. Think about that for a moment. I will often be the first to say that service to others is the most important task for a church, but to serve we must make prayer or personal communion with God a priority in our lives. It is in prayer that the holy rhythm gains strength. It is upon a foundation of prayer that true life with God is built. It is in prayer that we repent or return to God. It is in prayer that we as fallen humanity can once again walk with God in the intimacy we were created to enjoy. Jesus withdrew often to pray.
Life continues to move even though we take on a lifestyle of prayer as Jesus prayed. Jesus sent the disciple toward the opposite shore before him. The crowds knew that the disciple left without their teacher. And as Jesus stayed in that wilderness to pray the disciples, the friends he invested so much of his time with, faced challenges of their own. They were sailing on the sea, a sea known for abrupt weather changes. They are sailing and suddenly the wind changes and the waves begin to batter the boat. They are caught out in the middle of a storm. Waves crash, the boat climbs and falls. The disciples, many of which are experienced sailors, struggle to keep the boat on course. Their world is quickly filled with trials. It is saturated with that chaotic fracture of routine. They struggle throughout the night. Nerves are shot, words are probably being exchanged. Patience has worn thin, and off in the distance they see something strange. The see a silhouette of a man.
Can you see that in your mind? You are sitting there on the boat, waves crashing all around you. You are struggling to stand as the deck below your feet suddenly drops out. If you begin to feel dizzy put your head between your knees and breathe. You look up only to see a man coming for you. You try to remember if you are still on the boat or have been swept overboard. The man continues to approach. Is this death coming for you?
So often we feel as if we are caught on that boat, miles from shore. We struggle to stay afloat and our nerves are shot. We are nearly to our breaking point, hope is eroding with each passing challenge. Is this the end?
They see the form of a man walking toward them, this phantom takes one confident step after another un-phased by the cyclical progression of the waves. You struggle and the phantom takes another step. You and your companions begin to scream because your death is sealed. And the ghost speaks to you. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
You are caught in a storm, everything is churning around you, and your stability wains. In your struggle you revert, you secure all you can and you fight with all your might just to keep your heads above water. The storm continues to rage and your energy is not keeping pace. You succumb to the fear. Take heart. Be bold, confident, do not be ruled by anxiety and fear.
Words between leaders of nations are exchanged, threats and counter threats are proposed. The ticker tape progresses across the screen as people passionately speak. Anxiety begins to rise. Another story of a tragedy, another instance of terror, another indication that all is not well and the darkness of fear begins to creep over the light we once reflected. Rocks from space fall through the atmosphere and we wonder if one of them might have a name like wormwood. We look behind us and we see the silhouette creeping closer with each passing minute. Take heart! Do not be afraid.
What exactly are we afraid of? There are several things really, and not to be too harsh but most of those fears are irrational, well except for snakes all snakes are deadly. What are we afraid of? I will tell you, we are afraid of God. We are not afraid of God, but we are afraid that maybe God just might hate us, or maybe even that God does not exist. We are afraid of entrusting everything of our life into the hands of a mysterious entity who may or may not like us, or who may or may not be a figment of our imagination. Take heart.
These men sitting on the boat. Well maybe not sitting, but rattling off the sides of the boat like a pin ball, are afraid that maybe they are entrusting their lives unwisely. They are existing in that place at that moment with twelve baskets of soggy bread and now even saltier fish sliding around at their feet wondering as the wave crash into them, is this real or some fantastical dream? And now a shadow is coming to get them.
Take heart. Do not be afraid. Jesus could take an insignificant basket of food enough for one person, and feed a multitude. Why are we afraid? He can provide for our daily needs, why do we still struggle to trust? Because the next wave we see is bigger than the one that we just struggled with. Sure, God helped with that one but this one is different, this one could kill us and I cannot trust even unto death.
One disciple was bold enough to say something. It was Peter the rock. “If it is truly you, call me out to walk with you.” It is ironic that Peter, the rock, is saying this. Peter the rock, is asking Jesus to tell him to come out on the water with him. I hope he is planning on skipping otherwise a rock will sink. Jesus does call to Peter. And Peter steps over the side. I want us to consider this as much as possible. The boat is still rising and falling in the waves, the wind is still blowing, the boat is still rolling and lurching. I am sure some of the disciples are still contemplating if they wanted to keep the divinely provided supper in their stomach or not. All this is still going on and Peter lifts his leg over the side and steps off onto the water, and begins to walk toward his teacher. Peter is walking on the water.
Think about the moment your feet hit the surface of the water and do not sink. Think about that first timid step as your hand still grasps the edge of the boat. You straighten your back and take another and another. You are walking on the water. Imagine the amazement you would feel. Each step would be a bit quicker, as you approach the one who called you. Think about that, how your response would be. With each step my confidence would rise, yet that is not what happened with Peter. Jesus had just feed a multitude, and now Jesus is right before you walking on the water. You left him alone on the other shore, yet here he is. Take heart it is I, do not be afraid. Peter is walking there toward Jesus on the water, yet even in that moment he is filled with doubt. Trusting but not entrusting. Living in that awkward place in limbo between belief and unbelief. He sees the next wave while he stands on the water and something goes through his mind. “Ok that wave was solid enough, but this one…this one is different, this one may not be of the same quality, my death is certain now. The next step, Peter begins to slip into the deep. As the water engulfs him he cries out. “Lord Save Me.”
Even the disciples who literally walked with the Lord doubt. Even Peter the perceived number two could not walk by faith on his own. There are always distractions challenging our faith. Twelve baskets of food, their lord walking on the water, and Peter standing there with Him, and even then, we see that faith is hard. Yet when Jesus gets to the boat the storm stops. This is the power of God with us. Peter sunk when distracted, yet when the focus was on Christ, he stood firm. Life might occur when the routine is broken but the routine is where we experience God with us. The routine of worship, prayer and service. Distract one area and we begin to sink. Take heart and do not be afraid. Our God fed thousands with one lunch basket. Our God walked on water and calmed a storm. Do not be afraid have faith.
As we enter this time of open worship I want us to consider the fears that we have, not the fears of snakes or spiders, but the ones that prevent us from boldly walking with God. What is at the root of that fear? Confess it and accept the hand of Christ. Take heart and take a step.