The reading from Matthew 14 which tells the story of Jesus walking across the water is more than an assertion about Jesus capacity to do miracles but is one which symbolises God's commitment to care for the very fabric of the creation.
It would be easy, looking at the reading at face value, to get caught up in thinking that the story revolves simply around Jesus doing something pretty fantastic, which he does. Jesus walks across the water and calms the storm. But as with most of the things that are recorded in the Bible Matthew is not simply telling us about Jesus aquatic acrobatic abilities, he his trying to tell us much more and it is those things that I want to concentrate on today.
First off, I want us to think about the images of the sea and the storm. The sea, which we might think of as the waters or the deep have strong connotations in the Bible. If you were to think of the sea as ‘the deep’ it might bring to mind images of looking into dark and stormy waters. What lies below is unknown, threatening, and maybe even a little chaotic. This is the sea which Jesus is walking on the deep threatening waters that lie below.
Turning our thoughts to the very first story in the Bible, in Genesis, we hear that in the beginning when God created the earth God drew back the waters from the waters. This is highly symbolic language. The waters represent the nothingness of uncreation. The waters also represent the chaos which threatens to break through into the order of God’s creation. The story tells us how God made a space between the waters above and the waters below and that it was in this space, the ‘in between space’, that God makes all things.
So, in the Old Testament we are given an image of God drawing back the waters and holding back these waters, the waters above and the waters below, which threaten to undo the creation. The Bible goes on to remind us of the destructive powers of these waters in the great flood of Noah, the waters wipe the slate clean so things can start again.
Now in Jesus walking on the waters, over the deep, Jesus demonstrates his power over this forces which threaten life and creation itself. The disciples in the boat are exposed to this threat but Jesus is on top of it and Jesus words “It is I” echo words spoken by God long before “I am who I am”. Jesus lordship over the creation and over that which threatens to undo life is affirmed.
To skip ahead to the calming of the storm, the imagery of the storm is connected with the same threat. The storm is the waters above breaking into creation: threatening life and limb, threatening to unmake what God has made. Jesus calming of the storm once again is an affirmation of Jesus power, God’s power, holding back the threat to creation and upholding the existence of all things.
The story of Jesus walking on the water conveys much more potent messages than Jesus can do a cool miracle. There are message about Jesus identity as divine, there are messages about how God holds back the deep and the waters to sustain creation and all life.
Yet whilst this power of God to uphold the creation is present the disciples are still cowering in the boat. The combination of sea and storm could be their undoing. Buying in to the imagery of the story, as Matthew tells it, the predicament of the disciples is a parable which speaks to all of us in the midst of life.
The deep, the waters, the storm are around us and even within us. The waters represent all of those things which confront us with our mortality and threaten our undoing. What is the deep for you and for I?
Maybe it is terrorism and the uncertainty that people feel in our modern world for their safety. Maybe it is the pain of broken relationships, a rift between husband and wife that has become irreconcilable, or between parent and child who have become estranged. Maybe it is the disease within us, slowly unmaking our bodies, destroying our health, our minds, slowing us down. Maybe it is the despair and hopelessness that so many people feel. Maybe it is the despair we feel when we see images of war and violence on our screens and in the news. The deep, the waters, the storm, threaten our existence and like the disciples we might find ourselves hunkering down in the bottom of the boat.
Yet the promise of the good news is that all is not lost, for see coming across the waves and through the storm comes Jesus to bring hope. Here is another significant image of the story; that it is Jesus who comes to those in despair at the time of their greatest need. When hope seems to be running out the door and fear and trembling are all that is left Jesus comes with those words, “Take heart it is I do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus words are words of healing and of hope for those of us who find ourselves threatened by the stormy seas of life. In the boat the disciple Peter wants confirmation of Jesus identity and sets out to test his faith. Jesus’ beckons Peter out on to the waters and we see that Peter at first focussed on Jesus is able to walk on the waters towards Jesus. But then seeing the threat around him begins to sink, he loses focus, and as Jesus indicates his faithlessness betrays him. But even in this moment of failure Peter is able to look and cry out “Lord save me” and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and catches him.
There is an immediacy in Jesus response to Peter’s need that gives us hope and here we might catch the overtones of what Paul wrote to the Romans, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
This is a promise of healing and hope to us all. It is a promise that is born out in Matthew’s retelling of the story when we move from Jesus disembarking from the boat and people flocking to him to be healed. Reaching out and simply touching the hem of his garment brings healing to people’s lives. When the Lord comes near lives are changed.
Now the mystery of life and of faith tells us that there are times when we like Peter reach out and are healed, but we also know that we all die, that in our crying to Jesus “save me” we still experience the depths of pain that life can bring. But as we also know the Scriptures reassures us that death is not the final word; that the deep and the waters, will not overcome. Jesus in his death gives himself over to the waters and the deep; he surrenders to the death which is the very antithesis of God and life. Our greatest hope is found in knowing that Jesus rises from the grave and defeats death to walk over the waters once again.
On this day remember the promises of God to sustain life and not let the creation be destroyed. Remember that those who call upon the Lord will be saved. Remember that Jesus brings healing and hope to peoples lives now. Remember that Jesus has travelled the paths of the dead to return again as our hope and our salvation. The deep of uncreation has been defeated: life goes on!