Rocking the Boat
Ordinary Sunday 19: 10th August, 2014
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
1 Kings 19:9-13, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:22-33
Elijah, fleeing Jezebel and the Baal worshippers, holes up in a cave. Peter with the disciples crosses the Sea of Galilee in a boat, during a storm, but in safety, in their element — they were fishermen.
The Lord calls to Elijah to go out of the cave and into the tempest of wind, splitting mountains, breaking rocks, and earthquake and fire, and then calm. Peter, seeing the Lord, steps out of the boat and miraculously walks on the water. When he is threatened by a fierce wind, he falters, his faith being unequal to the task, and begins to sink.
Elijah, amidst the storm and destruction, finds a stillness inhabited by the Lord. At the point of the failure of his nerve, Peter calls out: 'Lord, save me!'
The Lord says to Elijah: 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' The Lord says to Peter: 'why did you doubt?'
Here are two stories of safety and security, two stories of tempests and threat, two stories of people leaving places of security to go into the tempest, into danger, two stories of meeting with God in a dangerous place, two stories of God reaching out to the one at risk.
We all know the story of Jesus walking on water. We tend, I think, to overlook Peter's story — even though Peter's walking on water has much more to say to us about where and how we might meet God.
The disciples have set out across Lake Galilee in a storm. They become frightened — not by the storm, they are experienced fishermen — but by the ghost-like appearance of Jesus. At Peter's ever-impetuous instigation, Jesus calls Peter to come to him. Roused to courage by Jesus' voice, Peter climbs out of the safety of the boat and begins, miraculously, to walk on the water.
You cannot miss the metaphor here — Peter's stepping out of the boat is symbolic of his setting aside of the restrictions of his earthly life (like how water works) and in faith doing something that is otherwise humanly impossible. The miracle continues until Peter becomes frightened by the wind, and his water-defying faith begins to falter.
Peter's faith is overcome by his fear, not by unbelief. The opposite of faith is not unbelief, it is fear.
However, Peter rallies this fragile faith and calls to Jesus to save him. He does not, for instance, call for a line to be thrown from the boat which a fisherman would do, wouldn't he? He does not attempt to swim, as I presume he could. Peter, faithful beyond his other limitations and idiosyncracies, calls to his Lord and Jesus reaches out and takes hold of him.
Peter's encounter with Jesus is not in the safety of the boat but in the storm on the sea. Likewise, for Elijah, God is met, not in the safety of the cave, but in the tempest. Peter had to hoist his leg over the gunwale of the boat and do something mind-bendingly foreign, something which defied what we now call the laws of physics. And in doing so he emulated God.
Only God is empowered to defy the natural laws; God is the author of the natural laws. God is met, not in the safety of what we know and where we take comfort: God is met outside of our personal preferences and expectations, outside worldly conventiona.
Nine chapters earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls on us to defy social convention, to oppose the social norms of violence, personal aggression, power, hatred and inequality. He calls on us to live lives of peacefulness, of radical inclusivity and sacrifice. Sacrificial lives because, in living an alternative sociality, we confront the temporal powers, just as Jesus did, with, of course, tragic-wonderful results.
The body of the church is called a nave, as you know: the vaulted ceiling suggesting the keel of an upturned boat, especially where the arch is in the Gothic style.
If we are honest, I believe, we recognize the limitations of this boat, this Church, we are in. It is comfortable, but it can confine us. We are called to get out of this boat. Not to abandon the Church — in the metaphor Peter and Jesus returned to the boat — but to step out into the turmoil that is the world in which we live and to engage with it in a missional way, reflecting the transformation Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount.
We are in the same boat as the disciples. We are the people who have been set apart, who recognize Jesus as Messiah, who recognize the inequity, the violence and the individualism of the world. Like the disciples, we are called to the conversion of the world.
What we cannot do, and where I believe our Church is failing, is see the Church and its community only as a place of solace, a place of personal comfort, and of spiritual nourishment. It certainly is those three things. It is very important that we who are disciples retain the continuity of our community, but that is because we need these supports to strengthen and encourage us for the work in the outside world.
All the complex and beautiful liturgy, all the wonderful music, all the brocade and incense, are for nothing without the work of social justice. The social disjunction that has us here while the homeless are being fed and cared for just through that wall is a powerful symbol and reminder of how we must defy the ambient social expectations of the secular world, and the Church world for that matter.
But the task of changing the world is huge. The world doesn't want so much to be changed, and it will violently oppose those who seek to do it. It is a sacrifice to make the attempt. If you go to the places where mission leads, it confronts you. Some of it is unspeakably horrible. But Jesus did not shy away from the lepers, and nor should we.
Remember, too, that when Peter stepped out of the boat in faith it was to join God in the storm. When Peter's nerve failed, it was to God that he called out. When Peter called out, God heard, God reached out a hand and caught Peter up, into safety.
I hope to see you at the gunwale.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.