Sermon for Sunday, 7th August 2011 (Seventh Sunday after Trinity/Proper 14)
“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him”. Matthew 14:31
An air force chaplain tells a story of a jet fighter going down in the Mediterranean. As advanced as the technology was, it ended up on the seabed. The pilot had time to eject and floated down on s parachute. On hitting the water, a liferaft inflated and the airman was left adrift, miles and miles from anywhere.
Sending out a radio distress signal, he waited. The sun was burning hot and he didn’t know what other hazards there might be. It was not an experience he would ever wish to repeat.
Eventually, there was the sound of a helicopter sent from an aircraft carrier. The sound of it became deafening as it hovered overhead and the winchman came down to rescue. The hand of the winchman assisted the pilot into a harness and both of them were lifted clear.
Perhaps that was what the pilot had been expecting as he bobbed along in the waves; perhaps he thought that it was just a matter of being patient, certain that his rescuers were on their way.
But perhaps there were other emotions. What if he was still adrift when darkness fell and he was in a shipping lane? A huge container shop or crude oil carrier might not spot a tiny liferaft in the water. What if there was a storm and he capsized? What if he fell into the hands of someone who might think him a worthwhile hostage? What if he could not be found? What if he was adrift for days? What might happen to him?
What went through the disciples minds as their boat is caught in a violent storm? There would be no prospect of any rescuers coming to their assistance; there were no life preservers if the boat should capsize. They would have been in fear of their lives. “The boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them”, says Saint Matthew. In the First Century, sailors had not developed the technique of tacking, sailing a boat into the wind. (At the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii, the roman writer Pliny died, possibly from asthma, because the ship he was on was trapped in a bay by wind it could not sail against). The disciples had simply to run with the wind in the hope that the storm would calm. Saint Matthew’s comment ‘for the wind was against them’, suggests they were being driven further and further from safety.
Every imaginable doubt would have gone through their minds; their lives could come to a sudden and violent end. They would have thought about their loved ones; their homes; their hopes for the future. They would have been in a state of complete terror.
Into this moment of fear, comes Jesus , but rather than being reassured, they are terrified. This is the First Century, they would have been familiar with tales of ghosts and spirits, the ancient superstitions of ancient peoples, and they assume Jesus is the fulfilment of one of those superstitions. Saint Matthew tells us that they cry out in fear, ‘It is a ghost!’
And immediately Jesus speaks to them. The Greek word ‘euthus’, ‘immediately’ occurs twice in a few sentences. It makes the point that God does not play games; he does not put us through experiences just for the sake of doing so. ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,’ says Jesus—a threefold attempt at reassuring his friends.
Then we have Peter speaking the words that no-one else would have dared to speak, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water’. Perhaps it is an example of Peter thinking before speaking, but perhaps it is an example of Peter’s faith going further than the faith of his friends. Who of the others would have dared to ask such a question? Who else would have had confidence to step from the boat?
So Peter goes towards Jesus, like the pilot floating on the liferaft, he would have been filled with initial confidence that his life was safe, that there was no danger in being on the water. But as the moments pass, so the doubts set in. What thoughts might have gone through his mind? Perhaps a sense of disbelief. Perhaps a fear of drowning. Whatever thoughts they were, Peter’s confidence is suddenly gone. As the airman might have felt if his liferaft had suddenly been hit by a wave that might have thrown him into the water, Peter looks around and is overcome with a sense of danger, ‘when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened’.
The confidence is gone completely. Peter has now only a sense of doubt, ‘and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Again, Saint Matthew uses the Greek word for ‘immediately’: ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him’. It always seems a special moment. Like a parent holding out hands to a stumbling child, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches the hand of Peter’.
‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ asks Jesus. We cannot know the tone of voice. Perhaps it was a stern rebuke, but perhaps it was in a tone of a parent saying to a child, ‘there you are, what were you worrying about?’
‘When they got into the boat, the wind ceased’. Haven’t we all had the experience of someone coming and taking control of a situation and suddenly everything being changed? Jesus changes this situation and his power is recognized by his friends, ‘those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.
Sometimes, like the airman, we will be plunged into the unknown without expecting it; have we the confidence that as the winchman came to pull the stranded pilot from the water, so Jesus will be with us to pull us up from where we have been trapped? Sometimes, though, something more is asked of us, sometimes, like Peter, we will be invited to take a conscious step out into the unknown. Having faith means having the confidence to take that step, it means having confidence that the hand of Jesus is always there to catch us if things go wrong. Have we Peter’s faith?
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