Friday, March 25, 2011

Matthew 14:27-33 - "But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.'"

I've noticed that people like to rag on Peter. He's such an easy target. He's bold and enthusiastic. He puts his foot in his mouth and falls on his face. This is another one of those passages in which Peter becomes an object of disdain to every preacher who preaches on it. "Once more we see Peter eating humble pie." "Peter's pride gets him in trouble again." "What a dumb, impulsive thing Peter did." Etc. Peter tries to walk on water and seems to be doing well, but when his faith totters and he starts to sink, Jesus grabs hold of him and rebukes him with "Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

But before you use this passage as an excuse to jump all over Peter for his folly, you have to also acknowledge what a remarkable person he is, how dogged and loyal and eager and naive he is in his love for Jesus. He's like a puppy dog that comes barking and rolling and tumbling at you, then in his eagerness he overshoots his mark so that he has to turn around, scramble and come right back at you again. There's something lovable about that clumsiness, that haplessness. I can't imagine that Jesus despised Peter as much as some of us do. Maybe the reason we enjoy seeing Peter's boldness get him in trouble is that we are hoping that lends some merit to our own cowardice and cold love.

Peter hops out of the boat because he wants to go to Jesus. The disciples are just recovering from the shock of thinking they are seeing a ghost, and when Peter hears Jesus' reassuring voice, "Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid," his impulse is to run to him. "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." I used to think Peter just wanted a chance to take part in the cute little magic trick he saw Jesus performing, but looking at this passage again I don't think it was such a trivial request. Peter says, "if it is you," which means he is still uncertain about whether this is Jesus. Yet if the Lord commanded him to come, Peter knows Jesus would surely give him the ability to meet him safely on the water, then Peter would know that this really was his teacher and friend. Peter is simply hungering for that assurance. He's the "jump out and run to Jesus with open arms" type, not the "wait around for Jesus to make it all the way into the boat before seeing if it's really him" type.

When Peter is focused on Jesus and on his eagerness to be with him, he walks miraculously on the water. But as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus, noticing the wind, growing anxious about his surroundings, his faith leaks out and he begins to sink. The moment he stops trusting and starts calculating, he's done for. But not quite. Even when his faith fails, Jesus reaches out with his hand and saves him. There are a lot of Christians today who think their faith is what saves them, and when things go wrong they blame weak faith as the cause. But faith is always weak; it totters and shakes the moment we take our eyes off Jesus. It is Jesus who saves you, not your faith. He saves you in spite of your little faith; he saves you from your little faith. If you feel yourself losing a grip on him, you can cry to him to save you from yourself, from all your doubts and folly, and he will reach out a hand to prevent you from sinking.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Matthew 14:24-27 - "But the boat was already many stadia away from the land..."

After an emotionally and physically exhausting day, the disciples finally escape on a boat away from the crowds, even away from Jesus who has decided to spend the night praying up in a mountain. At last they have their rest. But some hours later the wind picks up and waves begin to batter the boat. Then in the dead of night they see someone walking toward them over the surface of the water. They are terrified. They think it is a ghost.

Skeptics have tried to explain away the miracle of Jesus walking on water. I heard one explanation that Jesus was actually walking along a sand bar that extended out to sea, and the disciples were fooled into thinking Jesus was doing something miraculous. But the disciples' boat would have had to be relatively close to the shoreline for that to be possible, and the text says that they were already "many stadia away from the land" and had been sailing for half the night. This suggests they were probably about a mile or two from shore. As far as I know, no sandbar stretches out that far.

What's more the fact that the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost adds a note of credibility to this account, it seems to me. If this story were made up, you would write it so that the disciples gaze out into the sea and immediately recognize that Jesus is walking on water. "Wow, look, it's a miracle! Jesus, you truly are the Son of God!" Worship, worship, worship. Right? But instead the disciples behave much more realistically than that. In order to understand this, imagine for a moment how it would be if you were to see someone walking on the sea with only the faint light of the moon and stars to help you discern what you were looking at. Seriously, put your imagination to work and try to be there with the disciples. You know that water cannot hold the weight of a flesh and blood human body, so when you see that thing coming toward you your mind would leap to the immediate assumption that this being must not be flesh and blood, but a weightless spirit. That's why the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost. It wasn't because he looked particularly white or transparent or made spooky noises; it was a primal reaction to the freakiness of the whole scene, because the human mind is programmed to interpret everything it perceives through the natural laws of physics. If you see someone walking on water in very dim light, of course you're going to react with "ghost!" and not "hmm, maybe someone is miraculously walking on water." But this is not the sort of detail you would know to put in a story that is fabricated. Because the only way you could know that you'd react this way is if it actually happened.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Matthew 14:22-23 - "And immediately he made the disciples get into the boat..."

Just a brief comment about this very brief passage before we move on to the story of Jesus walking on water. Back in verse 13 Jesus seeks to have some alone time because he hears the news of John the Baptist's gruesome execution. Yet he can't catch a break because the multitudes come clamoring after him, so he gets to work healing them and tending to their needs. It is the disciples' complaints that draw attention to how weary they all are. "Send the multitudes away," they plead. They're tired too, not just physically but emotionally they are reeling from John's death. Yet instead of turning the crowds away, Jesus pushes his already exhausted disciples to dig deep and find the faith to do the impossible: feed these five thousand men, plus the women and children.

After the multitudes are fed, all the leftovers are picked up, and the multitudes are finally sent home, Jesus puts his disciples in a boat and sends them off to the solitude they so desperately desire. Then he himself withdraws to a mountain top to pray by himself. Jesus and the disciples have long craved this down time, but it came to them only after they had reached the end of their strength. They were called upon to muster still more, so they mustered, running on fumes, and at last they are rewarded with rest.

I've had many days similar to this. The day was a rough one and I thought I was done. I'm ready to turn in but then in the eleventh hour I'm called upon to tend to some need, some emergency. One of the kids just shattered a glass full of milk on the floor. My daughter suddenly remembers a homework assignment she hasn't finished, and of course she needs my help on it. I understand that I have to be a servant, but aren't there limits to one's strength and sanity? Why is God dumping this stuff on me? He knows how tired I am, and now I'm off to serve him all cranky and resentful and irritable. Interestingly, I usually discover that I do have a second wind hidden somewhere in my reserves that comes mysteriously out of nowhere.

Why does God call you to serve him right when you feel the last of your strength ebbing away at the close of the day? I don't know, really, but I know he does that sort of thing. And I find it comforting to see that he also called upon Jesus and his disciples to serve when they were spent. Maybe it is because too often we serve him in our own strength and secretly give ourselves the credit for it. Calling upon us when we feel we have nothing to give is the only way to show us that the strength flowing through us isn't our own, and never was.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Matthew 14:17-21 - "And they said to him, 'We have here only five loaves and two fish.'"

Continuing the story from last time, the disciples tell Jesus to send the multitudes away so they could buy food for themselves. Their request may not have been entirely selfish. They may have seen how tired Jesus was, especially after hearing the troubling news of John the Baptist's execution. But Jesus would not hear of it and instead orders the disciples to feed them.

The disciples protest with, "But we only have five loaves and two fish." Yet because they bother to scrounge around, come up with a small amount of food, and bring it to Jesus, they display enough faith for Jesus to work his miracle. It is a faltering faith mixed with a great deal of doubt, and it's hard to tell whether the disciples present the five loaves and two fish to Jesus in anticipation of what miracle he might do, or to show him that his request is ridiculous. Probably it is a little bit of both. Yet Jesus knows how to take the slightest flicker of faith, even a smoldering wick of it, and fan it into an opportunity to perform wonders.

Jesus' miracle of multiplying the food for the crowd echoes a little-known miracle performed by the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The passage is short enough to quote in full:

Now a man came from Baal-shalishah and brought the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And [Elisha] said, "Give them to the people that they may eat." And his attendant said, "What, shall I set this before a hundred men?" But he said, "Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left over.'" So he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over according to the word of the LORD.

Isn't it interesting that even the remark about having "some left over" parallels the way Jesus' miracle is told? Jesus is being presented as a greater Elijah/Elisha-like prophet, multiplying food for five thousand instead of one hundred. There are parallels between Jesus' situation and that of these prophets. Remember that Israel was becoming apostate during the time of Elijah and Elisha. In Elijah's time God cursed the land with a drought and in Elisha's day he brought famine upon the land, as if to symbolize the spiritual drought and famine that plagued Israel. Jesus ministered in a similar time of Israel's faithlessness. But just as Elisha was able to provide food for the one hundred who followed him during a time of mass starvation, Jesus provides both physical food and spiritual food for those who believe in him in spite of the waywardness of the Jewish nation. Even during times of spiritual leanness, Jesus is able to call forth a remnant and multiply out of their faith an abundance of spiritual blessing.