Gospel for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost 2008: (Matthew 14:22-34)
Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”  And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
This sermon is a follow up on last Sunday’s sermon, The disciples’ Private Picnic. Last week if you recall Jesus and the disciples were tired and wanted to escape to a deserted place to be by themselves. The disciples apparently had packed a little picnic with which to surprise Jesus – 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. But when they got to their wilderness beach retreat the crowds like the paparazzi had guessed where they were headed and beat them to the beach using a land route. So when Jesus and the disciples come ashore at what they think is going to be a deserted place, a large crowd is waiting for them.
The crowd who crashes their private picnic is not like Aunt Sue , Uncle Jim and your four cousins. For it is 5000 men who show up besides the women and children! This is like the first Woodstock, with people coming not for a concert, but to be hear Jesus teach. In the time of Jesus 5000 men plus women and children would have been an entire fair sized town.
And you remember the disciples’ problem – they eventually get hungry and want Jesus to send the crowd away so that the crowd can go buy food for themselves. Meanwhile the disciples are hoping to show Jesus their little surprise – they have brought along a little food, just enough for themselves.
Our Lord Jesus has other ideas and tells the disciples to feed the crowd which makes the disciples incredulous, but that is exactly what happens. Jesus takes the food the disciples brought and by praying over it, miraculously multiplies the food so that everyone has more than enough to eat. And as it turns out it is the disciples who have to distribute the food to the thousands of people sitting there waiting to be served. And so the disciples learn a significant lesson about being leaders in the kingdom of God – their role is to serve the people, to feed and nurture and care for the people of God before they feed themselves.
And they see the sign of the kingdom of God, that it is not by their strength and preparation alone that God’s Kingdom breaks into the world. They realize they also are there to serve their Master. And they learn humility, and generosity and charity all in one lesson.
At the end of the day, there are 12 baskets full of food leftover – just enough for each disciple to get to take one basketful home with him. They are overwhelmed with the abundance, as if they were in Paradise.
Jesus sends the disciples off in their boat, stomachs full and now the boat is full too of all of this blessed food. All in all the day didn’t turn out so bad. They were fed, it didn’t cost them anything, the crowd was very pleased, and they had plenty of food left for the next day. The Kingdom of Heaven is a blessing indeed.
Jesus waves to the disciples as they disembark, and he stays behind to dismiss the crowd. The crowd is an interesting phenomenon itself. 5000 men besides their families came to this wilderness place, all to hear Jesus. They gave up their day’s work and routine to follow Christ. This is not insignificant in a subsistence culture where one has to work every day in order to be fed. But here they give up pursuing the things of this world in order to hear about the Kingdom of God, and for this they are richly rewarded, for Jesus feeds all of them. And he does it purely to give them a sign, a hint about what the Kingdom of God is really like.
And we know Jesus wasn’t mainly a miracle worker, but the Messiah. And we know this because if Jesus was mostly a miracle worker and could so easily feed the masses, he could have opened up a wilderness resort restaurant right on that spot and the masses would have come every day to be fed, not 5000 but 500,000.
But Jesus’ miracle was a sign of the coming Kingdom, a foretaste of God’s blessings. And certainly in Jesus’ own teachings He makes it clear that people should not seek Him just to have their bellies filled with food, but should look beyond the miracle and the food, to what secret and hidden power the miracle refers: The Kingdom of God!
Meanwhile the overfed disciples are having a rough time of it at sea, and that is where we return to them. The wind is blowing hard against them and they can’t make progress toward their destination. It is now past 3am and they are still at sea, and no doubt feeling a lot less secure about this Kingdom of God thing, for what good does it do to have 12 baskets full of food if your boat can’t make it to land, or if the weather threatens to swamp the boat? Worse yet, it is Jesus who sent them off into this storm and He chose not to come with them. And then suddenly their worst fears are realized, for not only is the weather against them, but suddenly they see a ghost walking on water, a sign of sure doom, death is stalking them.
And the fact that the Messiah provided food for them becomes much less important as they realize that despite the signs of the Kingdom, disaster can still strike, and they are not protected from every single threat the world has to offer. They are blessed by God’s Kingdom, but still living in this unpredictable, fallen and hostile world. And in this world they have to work hard to survive – in this world even receiving from God’s hand a banquet does not magically protect one from danger, nor does it mean that we no longer have to work or worry in this world. The Kingdom of God is real, but so are the problems which come with living in a fallen world.
And it turns out it is no ghost stalking them, but it is their Lord and Master walking on the stormy, turbulent sea. He does not stop them from having to work hard, nor from having to worry about threats to their existence. But he once again in an unpredictable way gives them another sign of the Kingdom of heaven. That Kingdom is coming but is not here yet, and Peter wishing to experience the blessedness of that Kingdom is not yet ready to live in it as he is far too threatened by this world.
And in this world of the kingdom of God, Peter is saved even if shaken by the events, and the disciples recognize that Christ is somehow bringing that Kingdom to them, as He enters their boat, they realize the kingdom of God is very different than they might have envisioned it. And the Kingdom of Heaven is not cheap or to be taken lightly, for it is a matter of life and death.
Even when we experience the Kingdom of God breaking into our lives, and when we are filled with the blessed food – the Holy Body and Blood of our Savior – we are not spared the stormy troubles of life. And sometimes Jesus sends us into these storms, and we feel left alone, and sometimes in these storms we are confronted by our worst fears – our demons and ghosts which haunt us. But the blessings of the Kingdom of God are real, as real as the storms of life. We are promised salvation by the Savior, but we are not told that we will be spared the storms of life. And sometimes we walk in faith onto the stormy water, but the storm is more real and threatening than the kingdom of God and we begin to sink and we cry to the Savior for help.
Indeed, at every liturgy, when we say the petitions of the litany and cry, “Lord have mercy!” We are taking on the role of the Apostle Peter in the midst of the storm and asking God’s mercy not just for us in the ship of salvation but for the entire world.