A Musical, A Musician and A Math Problem
"A Musical, A Musician, and A Math Problem" that's what this text is like. Let's start with the math problem, specifically a word math problem: Let the wind and waves that the disciples are rowing against in the night stand for Covid-19 or your moniker of choice: coronavirus, pandemic, or even "times like these." Let Peter, the only one to get out of the boat, stand for those saying what pandemic? Whose afraid of a big, bad virus? As of August 12, "about 1.5% of the [U.S.] population have or had confirmed COVID-19." The death rate has been between 3.19 and 3.3% (https://www.valleypres.org/For-Patients/Covid-19/Facts.aspx). Let the 11 apostles who stay in the boat be us mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing, CDC-following folks. Do you see the problem? Is it right or wrong to get out of the boat? To answer we'll need a musician but first we turn to a musical.
I'm thinking Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 "Phantom of the Opera." Hear the opening overture with its sliding scales and mounting tempo that fill you with apprehension. This is the disciples put into a boat by Jesus to cross the Sea of Galilee at around 6 PM. John 6:19 tells you that they had rowed 3 or 4 miles and by the time stamp in our text "the fourth watch of the night", we know they've been rowing about 8 hours. The journey was no more than 6-7 miles. They should've been across by 9 PM (Buls, Notes on Text, A, 39). At least 4 of the apostle we're seasoned, commercial fisherman. We know from other texts they were used to being on the water at night. But they are undone by this. Hear the musical score mounting and courage sliding.
The disciples, depending on whom you consult, are being trained, chastised, tested. We know this ain't their first rodeo. They had been caught in another storm, but then Jesus was in the boat with them and it was during the day. Here it's pitch dark and they are alone. And they are "buffeted by the waves." Translating, as the insert does, doesn't sound so bad, does it? Basanizo is used 3 times by the Holy Spirit in Matthew. In 8:6 it's used of the centurion's servant who is paralyzed. The 1984 NIV translates the word as "suffering." Again in 8:29 basanizo is used of a demonized man and the NIV translates it "tortured." It means properly to test metals, then to question by applying torture, to torture, and to torment (Thayer).
There is purpose, intent, personality behind this storm. It didn't just happen. It' can't be explained by weather. Jesus is behind it. At evening, we're told they were already a considerable distance from the land and being tormented by the waves. Jesus knows this but waits hours to come to their aid, but wait there's more. Mark 6:48 tells you when Jesus walks on the water "He meant to pass them by." Hear the music; feel the thrum; it rises and falls like the waves. Now see Someone walking on the water, and they don't say, "It's a ghost." They say, "It's a phantasma." And phantasma is where we get "phantom", and here it's not "Phantom of the Opera" but Phantom of the sea.
Chrysostom says of what is going on in our text: "This is the way He constantly deals with our fears. He does not hesitate to bring on worse things even more alarming than those before" (ACC, NT, Ib, 13). 19th century Anglican archbishop Trench says, "Let the Lord only come to His people as they have not hitherto known Him, in the shape of some affliction, in the way of some cross, and they recognize Him not" (Miracles, 299). We recognize Him coming to us in the still waters of Baptism. We hear Him in the peaceful Absolution. And we know Him in the Breaking of Bread that is His Body and the pouring of Wine that is His Blood. But I don't think I would have known Him on the wind-driven sea in the middle of the night. I think I would've in terror shrieked, "It's a ghost." However, isn't Jesus doing what He always does, or as He is portrayed in parables doing? He isn't an unjust judge at all, but He appears to be. He isn't the kind of friend that has to be pestered into helping, but He appears to be. And though He loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, He doesn't rush to heal him when sick but waited till he was good and dead to come.
And so Jesus waits till the 4th watch of the night, 3-6 AM, to come to them on the billowing seas and even then He intends to pass them by. But to their shriek of, "It's a phantom", Jesus immediately says, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." And Peter responds to the Gospel. Peter, alone apparently, confesses Jesus to be whom He says He is. He says, "Lord since it's You, command me to come to You on the water." Is Peter wrong or is Peter right? Peter is whom the musician Billy Joel sings of: he may be wrong; he may be right.
No doubt about it. Peter is the first to respond in faith to the Lord commanding them to have courage, to stop being afraid, and promising them that He is none other than Yahweh, ego eimi, I am. Peter is right to take Jesus at His Word and be out front in faith. You see Peter first many times. Who is the first to confess Him to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God? Peter. Who is the one most adamant about not falling away? Mat. 26:33 records Peter saying, "'Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.'" In Gethsemane, who is the only one to try a rescue of Jesus? Peter. When John reveals Jesus is on the seashore, who is the only one to dive into the water and swim to Him? Peter.
Peter is always right to be first, but he ends up wrong, right? What does Peter do immediately after confessing Jesus to be the Christ? He says Jesus will never go to the cross, and Peter the confessor becomes Peter the Satan. And the Peter who says he will believe in Jesus even unto death doesn't believe Jesus' words that he will deny Him 3 times. And why are the disciples in a boat fishing after Easter anyway? Because Peter decided to return to fishing. He may be right but he may be wrong.
What happens here? Like the other cases faithful Peter sinks like a stone under doubt, fear, under the wind whipped water that he shouldn't be able to walk on. Google this text. I think the most popular sermon title on the internet is, "Get out of the Boat." That would make the solution to my math problem: get out of the boat: rip that mask off, throw away that hand-sanitizer, and breathe deep even though "they" tell you the gloom be gathering. Contrast this to Augustine. He says that although the boat is thrown into disorder, it is still a boat. It alone carries the disciples and receives Christ. It's in danger on the water, but there is death without it. "Therefore, stay inside the boat and call upon God" concludes Augustine (ACC, NT, Ib, 12). Mask up, apply sanitizer, and watch whose air you breath.
But are the people in the boat all alright? They don't respond to Yahweh in the Person of Jesus. He identifies Himself as the great I am, saying ego eimi like He does in John. I am the Good Shepperd, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Water of Life, the Door. Those who remained in the boat don't appear to get this. Notice how a distinction is made between "they", Jesus and Peter who climbed into the boat, and "those who were in the boat." The latter group worshipped Jesus saying, Truly you are the Son of God." This is what you could conclude from Job 9:8. There Job in the midst of His terrible trials can't see, Yahweh, the personal God of promise and peace. All he can see at this point is El. The God of power and might. He says of Him, "He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea." But Jesus has identified Himself as Yahweh, the great I am. Of Yahweh Psalm 89:9 says, "You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, You still them." Peter identifies Jesus as Yahweh when He says, "Lord, since it's You, tell me to come to you on the water." And when he sinks in doubt, again Peter calls in faith: "Yahweh save me."
Yahweh in the flesh calls Peter: one of little faith. You know what that means? He's got the right faith. He wasn't wrong to get out of the boat in faith, but Jesus doesn't chide the others for not doing so. It's not like the first time Jesus stilled the storm. Then He called them all cowards. Here, they've grown. All of them. Mark's account makes no distinction between Peter and those in the boat; he doesn't' even mention Peter's walk. He writes, "Then Jesus climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, because they had not understood about the loaves [when the 5,000 were fed]; their hearts were hardened." Jesus is going to go on to feed over 4,000, and the apostles aren't going to understand that either. As a result Jesus will say of all of them, not just Peter, "O men of little faith" (Mt. 16:8). Whether in the boat or out of boat not one of us believes as we should, hopes as we should, trusts as we should. In some form or fashion, I get out of the boat with Peter sometimes and sometimes I stay with the 11 in the boat. I may be wrong or I may be right but I remain a poor miserable sinner who but for God's grace in Jesus I sink in unbelief or swell with pride at my faith which leads to a fall.
Our Collect for today catches the right Spirit for a sinner to have. This is 6th century original which had added to in the 7th: "forgive us the things of which are conscience is afraid" and was modified again in the 17th century with: "give us the good things we are not worthy to ask" originally it was "we dare not ask" (Read, 532). Why does the Collect say the Almighty and everlasting God is "always more ready to hear than we to pray and always ready to give more than we either desire or deserve"? Because we believe so greatly, so rightly, so bravely? No, our prayer, our hope, our faith is based on "the merits and mediation of Jesus." This isn't an answer math gets you to or a musical or a musician for that matter. But it's the one that results in God pouring down on us an abundance of His mercy. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (20200823); Matthew 14: 22-33