A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 9 August 2020 by the Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for this address: Matthew 14. 22-33
When was the last time you were really afraid?
We all feel afraid from time to time… Clinical anxiety is a disease but what we are talking about this morning here is slightly different. Situational fear affects everyone and occasionally we have moments of such extreme fear it becomes something else. It becomes terror.
Terror affects our whole being. It goes beyond fight or flight to the point where we our muscles seize up and we are frozen to the spot. It might feel as if things are happening around us that we have no agency in… maybe happening even in slow motion as our senses start working in hyper time.
Adrenaline kicks in, making your heart pound and you might feel breathless. You may be unable to speak or when you do speak words tumble out stilted, without fluency. Something unexpected happens and perhaps you scream or cry out saying things that haven’t quite gone through your brain.
Terror is all consuming. The focus of our terror becomes the only thing that matters in the world at that moment. Help feels far away or running out or not enough
In some senses terror is temporary idolatry – in that moment it is something temporal that defines everything about you. It reduces who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are old or young, male or female, it doesn’t care about your nationality, ethnicity or class. At that moment you are just terrified.
The Bible has a lot in it about fear. In fact you could say it’s primarily a response to human beings who are afraid. The most common command in both the Old and New Testaments is “Do not fear”, “Don’t be afraid”, “Take courage”. There is a place for scared people in God’s story and God has something to say to us in that moment.
This passage in particular highlights how God, in Jesus responds to people who are afraid. The disciples are terrified. They cry out in fear. Peter’s muscles seize up so he is unable to swim, unable to move. The Greek shows that the things they say in this story sound as if they are breathless and don’t have the proper grammar they have elsewhere.
They are tormented by the waves and the wind is against them.
You’d think from the way this is put that the waters and the elements have a personality. That is how the Jewish people saw it. The sea (which includes rivers, lakes as well as oceans – anything with enough water to drown you) was an unpredictable and menacing force.
Far out from the shore, too far to get to land either forward or backward, a storm swirls up. The wind blows the little sail boat to and fro. The waves get higher and higher, crashing onto the fragile hold of the boat.
They’d heard enough stories of this kind of storm. Fishermen who went out and never returned. It didn’t matter that they were fishermen. One thing defined them at that moment. They were afraid. All they could see was impending doom.
But Jesus is coming towards them in their fear.
Jesus is coming towards them but all they can see is their reality of impending death and so they make sense of Jesus walking towards them in light of their fear, not the other way around.
How could this person be alive in middle of the great, destructive power of the storm?
They cry out “It’s a ghost”
Then Jesus says something that changes everything. Like a change in focus the centre of this story changes for them.
For those caught in terror the only focus, the only all defining reality is the thing that is about to destroy them. But now Jesus speaks and creates a new reality. He says two very small words. (One word in Hebrew, two words in Greek,One word in English).
Matthew, in how he tells this story, emphasises it even more… He places 99 Greek words before this phrase and 99 Greek words after this phrase. Jesus words also frame this phrase in two almost identical phrases either side “Take courage!” and “Don’t be afraid!”. At the heart of these commands is the thing that makes them possible.
How can we take courage? How can we not be afraid? What can we hinge our lives on in the middle of the greatest, most life threatening storms of our lives?
Jesus says “I AM”
This story is really about him. This person who is coming towards them is the GREAT I AM. This is not a story about death. This is not even a story about Peter and the disciples. All this has been upstaged. Jesus calls himself the name that had been given to the God of their forefathers.
When the Jewish people (the disciples forefathers) were stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. When they were in slavery in Egypt and about to be faced with having to cross the river Jordan. God spoke through Moses to them in words that are identical to the ones Jesus uses here.
“How are we going to do this?” Moses said
“I will be with you… Tell them I AM has sent you” said God.
I AM, Yahweh, translated THE LORD in our English Bibles out of respect for Orthodox Jewish tradition, is the whole of the first person singular verb “To Be” – past, present and future – I am, I was, I will be.
God is not just the creator, God is BEING – God didn’t just magic the universe into being – God birthed it – Everything comes from God – God is the source of all that is. There is nothing that is that is not in God.
God is Essence of all Existence.
- The sea and wind and all their molecules were brought into being by God and are held in existence because God exists.
- You and I exist were brought into being by God and are held in existence because of God’s existence.
- Just like the moon doesn’t have it’s own light but is light because it reflects the sun, or a park bench is warm to sit on, not because it has it’s own warmth but because the Sun has radiated warmth into it, everything that is, has existence because God radiates being into it… constantly. God’s name is I AM.
- God doesn’t merely have influence over who gets to exist. God is the heart of all existence.
If the heart of all Being is here, how could this story be about anyone or anything else?
This story is about God. Every story is about God. God is the essence of all that exists.
Jesus is a lot bigger than they thought.
And Jesus is moving towards them.
This, even this, could be quite scary.
The force of the winds and the waves are attacking you and threatening to destroy you but a greater force, Almighty God, the source of all being, is moving towards you.
This story is still about impersonal forces.
Except for what happens next.
Peter has an idea.
I suspect Peter hadn’t thought it through. As we said earlier, when you are scared words come out that tend to come from your gut not your brain.
The thing I want us to note is that Peter has an individual thought. This isn’t something all the disciples do. None of the other disciples do it and there’s no problem with that in this story. There is space for different people to respond differently to God.
This is just something Peter feels like doing.
“Lord, if it’s you, Command me to come to you”
And Jesus responds to Peter’s idea.
Let’s think about that for a second. The LORD OF ALL THE UNIVERSE runs with Peter’s idea for being together and gives power for it to happen
“OK, Come on!”
“Sure, why not? Come on out here.”
This story is about Jesus but Jesus makes room for human ideas.
Jesus’ commitment to be with the disciples has space to incorporate Peter wanting to move towards him. The star of the production has room for some improvisation from an extra.
Jesus isn’t just a force that is happening to them. Jesus holds space for human impulses and ideas and adapts to include them.
…There’s also room for something else about Peter in Jesus’ story.
Peter starts off full of faith, he steps out of the boat and starts WALKING ON THE WATER.
In that moment he is defined by Christ. He is a disciple of Christ and is walking towards his Lord.
But then he looks at all the things that defined him before… the terrifying force of the wind and waves that are trying to destroy him, and he starts to be defined by them again.
He starts to sink.
There is room in Jesus’ story, not just for Peter’s faith, but for Peter’s failures…
“Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him” again Jesus changes what he does in response to Peter – this time it’s responding to the urgency of the situation.
There are now two protagonists in this story. Jesus holds space for the particularity of his disciples.
Jesus carves out space for Peter’s faith and Peter’s failures in his story.
There is space for you in Jesus’ story… you, you not just “generic disciple”. There is space for your ideas, your faith and space for your failures in Jesus’ story.
Jesus is responsive to you.
Jesus is moving towards us not as a force but as a friend.
Isaiah 43.4 “Fear not for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you.”
Whatever you face that makes you afraid. Whatever the storms in your life are:
Jesus is moving towards you. Whether you are Peter, quick to believe, full of faith jumping out readily to move towards Christ or whether you are one of the other disciples, frozen in fear, unable to move, Jesus is moving towards you and will save you.
But, if you’d like to, we have the opportunity to join in, to step onto the stage and play a part in the Gospel story around us… to come up with our own ideas of what it might look like for Jesus to be with humanity. And to fail in those ideas knowing we will be caught.
Jesus is the source of all being. As the source of all creation, God can and will recreate, resurrect all that has been, battered by the wind and tormented by the waves. All that is swallowed up by sea or death.
Jesus is moving towards us. The source of being is coming.
Jesus holds space for you (you as a particular person… your faith and your failures, your personality).
Jesus is coming towards humanity as we are battered by the storms, as you are battered by your fears,
not as a fiend or as a force,
Jesus, BEING itself, comes to us, as a friend.