By Pastor John Johnson

Walk on the Water

August 9, 2020

NRS Matthew 14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." 28 Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29 He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God.”

I can still remember rather vividly my first monsoon in Tucson. It was on July 4, twelve years ago, and Patricia and I were sitting on our patio, when all of a sudden there was violent thunder and lightning and the sky fell — for about fifteen minutes. That pattern of short, violent thunderstorms was repeated several times during the coming weeks, though most commonly about midnight or into the early morning hours. I don’t think we have had as good a monsoon since; indeed, this year’s has so far been pretty — heck, alarmingly —weak.

Tucson is a lot less level than here in Coolidge or Florence; in fact, it is mountainous as one can see almost from here, and an impact of the monsoon rains is that water comes rushing down those mountains and through the various washes, washes which are dry most of the time, when roads run right across them.  But these washes can be perilous when it rains, such that signs are posted on those roads saying not to enter when there is water in them. But each year, it seems someone thinks he or she can ignore those signs. Sometimes, a violator is safely pulled from his or her car by heroic good samaritans before the car is completely submerged and carried away by the rushing water, but there are those drivers for whom those warning signs are, tragically but avoidably, the last signs they ever see.

Water, particularly in a storm, can be dangerous, and one is better off being frightened by it, and thus cautious, rather than to ignore the peril it can represent.

I use monsoon flooding rather than a storm on a lake to make my point; I fear that many of us here in the desert have forgotten what a lake even looks like. A lake, such as the Sea of Galilee in our Gospel reading, is a body of water bigger and deeper than those puddles that form in the road from a monsoon rain. A lake is not so big as an ocean, but frequently big enough and deep enough that fish swim in them, providing a way for those who have nothing better to do than to sit and engage in that activity, though it is hardly active,  called, appropriately, fishing.

But I digress ever so slightly. Water and storms can indeed be a reason for fear, and water and storms can provide a metaphor for other things, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or even for the various storms and disturbances such as economic difficulties or family problems or illnesses that throw our lives off of their even balance, throw them off kilter.

And that is why whenever we encounter, as we do two years out of three, as I’ll explain, why whenever we encounter the story of Jesus’ either walking on or calming the waters, I ask: “What do you think this story is about? That two thousand years ago Jesus calmed waters during a lake-storm, or that Jesus can calm our troubled waters today?”

I have said it before and I know I shall say it again.

But permit me to lead us through some of what I hope is enjoyable Bible study. As I comment often, the books we know as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic, or “seen together” gospels, and are the foundation for the way churches around the world choose Scriptures in a three year cycle — this is the year in which we read mainly from Matthew, — occasionally using the fourth of our canonical versions of the Gospel, which is, of course, John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “synoptic” because they are very similar, seen alike, and as I remarked just a week or two ago when mentioning Albert Schweitzer, the first written of these was Mark, and Matthew and Luke consist mostly — about seventy percent in both cases — of material that is found in Mark, and today’s Gospel reading from Matthew indeed has a parallel in Mark, though not in Luke. But very interestingly, at least to me, but of course, I am weird, today’s story of Jesus’ coming to the disciples through troubled waters also has a parallel in the Gospel According to John, which only infrequently has material that corresponds with anything in Mark or Matthew or Luke.

But today it is important to note that in all three biblical locations, Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus’ coming to his disciples who are in troubled waters occurs immediately following the miracle of feeding, which in Matthew was described as feeding the five thousand. There must be a reason.

Jesus had provided edible food in those feedings, but, might I be so bold as to suggest, the disciples did not quite get it? When he fed the 5,000 — 4,000 in John, — Jesus provided the literal, physical food to fill their bellies, but Jesus provides so much more than literal food for our bellies, he provides . . . well, he provides all they needed and all that we need — and the term “spiritual food” understates what Jesus provides, — Jesus provides all we need not merely to fill our bellies as to see us through the storm-tossed times of life.

And is COVID-19 not about as difficult, as much a storm-tossed time of life as many of us have ever experienced? Well, Jesus is here for us in this storm.

I said it and said I would say it again: “Is the story we read about something that happened two thousand years ago, or is it about something that happens to us NOW, now and every time when we need calming in the midst of a storm: Jesus was there for his disciples; Jesus is here for us!”

And the way in which our two stories, last week’s of Jesus providing the food we need — the food to sustain us through the normal course of time, — and this week’s story of Jesus’ coming to us when we are frightened and troubled go well together as one extended story to make the point that Jesus is with us always; we just need to call on Him, and we have all that we need.

And I believe that.

Some of you may understandably want to push me a bit because of the Trinitarian aspect of Christianity we proclaim and that I invoke most every week in our benediction, “God the Father, Jesus the Son, God the Holy Spirit.” And I think that whether it is Jesus or the Holy Spirit who comforts us in such times as this deserves an answer — “either”. . . and “both,” — and in pondering this, I hope it gave me more insight into both the Western, as opposed to Orthodox, and Orthodox concepts of the Holy Spirit as seen in the differing wordings of the Nicene Creed of 325 CE, one of the great achievements of early Christianity, including in the Creed’s emphasis on the personhood of how we experience our relation with God. I hope it gave me more insight into both Western and Orthodox Christianity as I looked at the differing wordings of the Creed as used by these two only marginally different branches of Christianity.

In simplest terms, and I am hardly in conflict with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, in simplest terms, Orthodox Christians believe the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father, that is only from the Father, and in the Nicene Creed, which was written in Latin, Orthodox  churches do not include a word used by Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists and the other western Churches, the Churches arising from, and including, the Roman Catholic Church. The word is filiusque. Filiusque takes me back to my high school Latin, particularly relevant to me in light of what I observed yesterday, where “que” — q-u-e — added to the end of a word means “and” plus whatever the word was. Filius means “son.” The words, “and the Son,” appear in the Nicene Creed as we state it, and so we believe, that is, our doctrine uses the idea of the words that, the Holy Spirit comes to us from the Father and from the Son.

And I believe that thinking of the Holy Spirit as coming from both Father and Son can help us. If you are like me, you pray — as did Jesus, — to God the Father, “Our father who art in heaven.” But perhaps you also ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” After all, the life of Jesus is a model for us and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us tries to steer us to follow His model.

Or, more to the point as we deal with disruptions to life such as COVID-19, we might, wonder, “Who is going to help me? — or if you are in a boat, figurative or otherwise, in a storm, figurative or otherwise, — “Who will come to my aid?”

And Jesus, although it might theologically be, “The Holy Spirit,” gives us a real sense of a person-to-person relation with what — with whom — a person-to-person relation with who helps us, with who saves us.

No, the importance of this story of Jesus coming to his disciples walking on troubled waters is not that Jesus walked on water two thousand years ago, but that in what might seem to us hopeless or impossible situations, situations far more physically and emotionally challenging than overcoming stay-at-home orders, Jesus can be — Jesus is! — here, available to us when we need Him most.

When we need Him most, because one of the promises Jesus made two thousand years ago was that He and the Father would send an “Advocate,” the Holy Spirit, to be with us. And if we take advantage of the presence of that Holy Spirit, we can indeed make it through whatever storms and troubled waters the world may throw at us by calling on Him.

We are, indeed, never alone; all we need to do is to call His name.

And in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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