Last week we heard about Jesus feeding the 5,000. Today’s passage comes immediately after that miracle.
Do me a favor, would you? Put yourself in the crowd in front of Jesus. Can you imagine sitting there eating the food Jesus had just given you? How would you feel after witnessing the miracle Matthew has just described? How would you react? All that food from two fish and five loaves of bread. Would you shout out loud or sit there stunned and in silence? To be honest with you, I think I wouldn’t know what to say. I think I would be so shocked by Christ’s miracle that I would just have to sit there for a while to process everything. But you would think someone would say something, right? I mean you don’t see miracles every day. However, Matthew doesn’t record if someone did or said something about the miracle they just witnessed. Every gospel reading thus far has shown the disciples approaching Jesus about why he teaches in parables. But Matthew doesn’t mention any of the disciples or the crowed reacting in a certain way to this miracle.
I have to wonder if there was a hushed silence in the air. I have to wonder if both the disciples and the crowd were so shocked by what they had just seen that after they ate, they just sat in awe of Jesus. I wonder if they began to question who they were meant to be because of who Jesus is and what he has done. I imagine and I hope we would have a similar reaction.
Well, if the crowd and the disciples were sitting in silent awe, Jesus quickly breaks the silence by making the disciples get into their boat and sending them to the other side. Verse 22 says, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.” Many of our translations says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat.” The proper translation of “anagkazó,” the Greek verb we typically translate as “made” would be “to force” or “to compel”. Jesus didn’t give the disciples a choice of whether they wanted to get in the boat or not. Jesus compelled them to get into their boat and leave him to dismiss the crowd. Remember how the disciples wanted to send the crowds to the villages to find food for themselves? Jesus sends both the disciples and the crowd away only after meeting their needs. Jesus does not send out empty vessels to be filled. Jesus sends out filled vessels to be poured out.
After Jesus dismisses everyone, he goes up the mountain to be alone and to pray. This is similar to when Moses went up to pray to The Lord for the Israelites he was trying to lead. Matthew is intending for us to remember this Old Testament account as we read what Jesus does in these verses. Jesus went to be alone to pray to his Father and prayed for the whole night. Matthew tells us that it was only a little later that night after the the disciples shoved off in their boat that they began to be tossed around by a storm, but Jesus didn’t come out to them until it was close to dawn. By this time, the disciple’s boat is very far from land. They surely must have felt desperate and helpless. They must have questioned if God was present in their circumstance. They must have asked, “where had Jesus gone?” Much like the Israelites lost in the wilderness, that night must have felt like an eternity to the disciples.
I remember going crabbing in Washington one time with my uncle, my dad, and brother. We had these great big crab pots that weighed about 60 pounds apiece. We had about 6 pots altogether but only two of the 60 pounders. We would bait them, tie buoys to them, then go out in our boat and drop them off. It was really important to have the buoys tied to them, otherwise you’d lose the crab pot to the bottom of the sea. Well, all four of us are in the boat and we are throwing out our baited crab pots. We hurled one after another over the side and let the rope run through our hands as it sank to the bottom, then plop the buoy out on the water. We grabbed one of our 60 pounders, threw it over the side, but realized that there was no rope running through our hands. We forgot to tie it to a buoy! There it was, sinking to the bottom with no way of pulling it back up. Well, my dad being the courageous guy he is, dove into the water before any of us could say a thing.
Now, I was only about 8 years old at the time. I couldn’t believe what just happened. My dad had just jumped into the ocean! All of us in the boat just sat there staring at the water. All we saw was his hat floating gently on the surface. Then all of a sudden, my dad surfaced, splashing for a paddle with the crab pot in hand. It was pretty cool. I already thought my dad was tough, but after that, my dad was the toughest guy on earth to me. For my little 8 year old heart, the time between my dad diving in and coming back to the surface felt like an eternity. I didn’t know what to think! What just happened? Would he be able to make it? What could I do? Should I jump in after him? What would I do if he didn’t come back? All these thoughts made it feel like time stood still.
I think the disciples felt the same way when they were caught in that storm by themselves. They were being tossed around all night long and Jesus seemed to be nowhere to be found! It must have felt like an eternity to them. I’m sure they were asking questions like: “Where is Jesus? Is he coming back? Are we going to make it? Where is God? Will we survive this storm? How much longer will we be able to last?!”
How often do we find ourselves asking these very questions as the church? Where is Jesus? Is he coming back? Are we going to make it? Where is God? Will we survive this storm? How much longer will we be able to last? We as the church exist in the night between Christ ascension and Christ’s return. It’s been a 2,000 year long night! We as the church have been through many storms and we continue to be battered by the wind and the waves. How much longer do we have to wait? Will we have to be in this storm forever? I believe the dawn is coming. Christ will return and calm the wind and the waves and rescue us. We must never lose that hope! It is what keeps us afloat! We can never forget that it was Christ who commanded the disciples into that boat to begin with. It was Jesus who compelled the disciples to embark on the lake. We have been commanded by Christ to embark as his church on the waters of this world and just like Noah’s ark, we are carrying the building blocks for a new world, the kingdom of God.
Being in this boat of the church, we are going to find ourselves far from shore from time to time. We will encounter storms with heavy winds and angry seas, but we shouldn’t see this as unusual. These things happen when you are in a boat in the water. The key isn’t about asking if we will survive the storm. The key is remaining faithful to God through the storm. We must be faithful when we feel far from the shore. We must be faithful when the waters rage and the winds howl. We must be faithful as the church because Christ has commanded us as his disciples to set sail and keep sailing until he returns. We can be assured of the promise that he will return and calm our seas just before the dawn of God’s kingdom being established forever.
Matthew helps us to beg the question, do we as the church always recognize Christ when he is moving among us? Do we let our hope of his return drive us to be faithful to who he really is? As we read on, we see the disciple’s reaction when Jesus is walking towards them on the water. They said, “it’s a ghost!” Why did they jump to that conclusion? Has Jesus not acted and done many unexpected things? Why did they not see Jesus for who he is again? They jumped to this conclusion because of they were terrified. The wind and the waves were battering their boat. They have been there all night and it’s dark all around them. Then just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse, they see this person walking towards them on the water. People don’t walk on water! So in their moment of terror and desperation, they grasped for any explanation that would make their world seem normal. It was the best explanation they could come up with themselves. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
The disciples grasped for an explanation to help themselves understand their situation, but this explanation only served to cause them to be more fearful. The church still gets herself in trouble today because these same fearful explanations. In our mainstream Christian culture, we fear that God is being covered up in our society. We fear that God is being removed from schools, our courthouses, our nation. We fear that God is being ignored and forgotten. While these things may be true, how does mainstream Christian culture handle this fear? How does the church handle being battered by the storm of our culture ignoring God? Does the church choose to be faithful or come up with explanations that make us feel safe? Do we as disciples look for Christ or do we reach for propaganda and political silos to make our world feel normal again?
Well, when mainstream Christianity makes things like “Heaven is for real!” and “God is not dead!” popular in our culture, we do not have to look too far to discover the answer. The very titles themselves sounds like we are trying to prove something. Things such as these become popular not because they present the gospel but because they make us feel nice and safe about what we believe. As the disciples find out in their boat on stormy waters, there is critical importance in the difference between placing our hope in Jesus and placing our trust in how we feel about Jesus. The former is placing Jesus as the center of our story while the latter places ourselves at the center of our story.
Too often, the church spends far too much time and energy explaining to the world what Christ means to them rather than living as Christ in the world. Christians will spend far too much time calling attention to themselves with their explanations rather than calling attention to Christ by being faithful witnesses. If feeling safe about what we believe about Christ is put above being faithful witnesses of Christ, we might as well be calling Christ a ghost. Just like the disciples, explanations often show us how much fear dominates our lives. Jesus will then have to come along and correct our explanations and tell us who he really is as he does with the disciples. A church that lives like Jesus in the world is not a church who has to explain Jesus to the world. When fear dominates our lives, we assume that it’s our job to survive death or to save the church. To worship Jesus means that the fear we experience from being so far from land in the middle of a brutal storm will not dominate our lives. Our job as the church is not to survive, but to be faithful witnesses.
As we see in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will not let the church perish in this storm. The only question is, will we as the church allow Jesus to be our savior or will we cling to our boat as our refuge and our strength? As Jesus did with Peter, he may command some of us to leave the safety of the boat and walk on the water and we all know what happens with Peter. Peter says, “tell me to come to you on the water” and Jesus simply says “come.” Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus, but when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.
Peter does not begin to sink and then become frightened. No, Peter became frightened and so he begins to sink. He became fearful of the wind and lost sight of Jesus. Fear of the storm dominated him, and he took his eyes off Jesus. “Losing sight of Jesus means that Peter, like all of us, cannot help but become frightened, which means we cannot survive.” Peter is often criticized for his actions here. People will say, “he was impulsive,” “He had little faith,” or he doubted.” But we can’t forget that Peter asks Jesus to command him to come. Peter began his journey on the water with the recognition that walking on the water is not something he can do on his own. He asks Jesus to command him to come. Peter does this because he knew that “he has no ability to come to Jesus unless his ability to come to Jesus comes from Jesus.” Peter’s faith might be little, but he is at least beginning to recognize that faith is obedience.
We sympathize with Peter because we have our moments of doubt too. We understand Peter because we doubt when we get frightened. When we get frighted like Peter did, we don’t allow our fears to be governed by our fear of God. We too often fear other things more than we fear God. For Peter it was the wind and the waves. For us, we often fear the perspectives of others more than we fear God. We fear the opinions others have about God, the opinions others have about politics; you name the issue, we fear the opinions of others more than we fear God. In evangelical circles, we fear not having enough time to set others straight about these things more than we fear not living as God’s holy people.
When we do this, we sink beneath the burden of having to get the world right with God. The weight of our desires to conquer the world becomes our identity rather than the surrender to the freedom found in being conquered by Jesus. The truth is, the desire to conquer the world is the normal, boring, stereotypical desire of the world, but we are followers of Jesus. We are a people who believe in miracles. We are a people who live in a world where Jesus walks on the water. We are not normal. We need to own that identity and boldly worship, as the disciples did, this Jesus who they eventually recognize as the Son of God.
Our people need to be invited into a reality beyond the wind and waves of our world, especially the wind and waves they create for themselves. We love to talk about God’s goodness, but we have a very difficult time living into a reverent fear of God and submitting to Christ as Lord over our lives. This is not a new problem, but an old persistent one. When we begin to practice a reverent fear of God through Christ Jesus as a body of disciples, something incredible happens. We begin to see the wind and the waves from our boat in light of God’s faithfulness, rather than question God’s faithfulness in light of the wind and the waves. This perspective becomes our new normal.
 Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Press, 2015 pg. 141.
 Hauerwas, 141.