Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Fr Paul’s Sermon:

One of the recurrent themes in the Gospels is our Lord’s need to pray. Today’s reading follows on from the feeding of the five thousand, which in turn follows the account of how King Herod killed John the Baptist. Hearing the shocking news, Jesus withdrew to a quiet place with the disciples, but the crowds pursued him. His compassion for their needs overcame his desire for quiet, but now, at the start of today’s reading, he sends the disciples on ahead in the boat, dismisses the crowd, and finally goes up the mountain-side to pray, to be alone with the Father. Matthew stresses this: when evening came, he was there alone.

Meanwhile, down on the lake, the disciples are being tossed about by the wind and the waves, making no headway. And it is dark – very dark, one would assume, because the weather conditions suggest a cloudy sky, with no light from moon or stars – at most, a lantern in the boat. Even for experienced sailors, this would be a frightening experience, and by no means all the disciples were sailors, Matthew the tax-collector for instance.

The, in the fourth watch of the night (I’m not too sure what time that is, but well past midnight) they see someone walking on the waves towards them. How did they see? Did the moon break through the clouds for a moment? It was Passover time, John tells us, so the moon would have been full. Or did the figure shine with its own radiance? Matthew says their reaction was to take it for a ghost. At any rate, they start shouting and yelling. The whole picture suggests disorder.

And then – a voice: “Don’t be afraid, it’s me!” And they recognise that it is indeed the Master. For one disciple at least, fear and terror are instantly changed to joy and confidence. Peter calls out, “If it’s you, Lord, let me come to you on the water!” Peter the impulsive, Peter the over-confident. This is before his great confession, and before his refusal to accept the prophecy of the cross, but already we see his character. But Jesus simply says, “All right, then: come!” And Peter gets out and starts to walk on the water!

But almost immediately, he realises what he is doing. Do you remember those cartoons where Bugs Bunny or someone is being chased by the hunter, and the hunter runs straight across a cliff-edge, and only in mid-air looks down and sees the ground hundreds of feet below. For a moment he hangs there, and then, suddenly, drops! Well, I picture Peter rather like that: he walks out of the boat, intent on Jesus, and suddenly realises what he is doing. Walking on the water, with wind and waves still raging! “Help!” he shouts as he starts to sink. Jesus just reaches out his hand and catches him, and gently teases him: “Man of little faith! Why did you doubt?” And the two of them get into the boat, and the wind drops. The rest of the disciples are awe-struck: “You really are the Son of God!” (which was another way of saying, You are the Anointed Messiah, the King who is to come.)

The whole episode is, in a way, a foreshadowing of Peter’s behaviour during the Passion: first the boasting, I will never desert you; then the shameful denial, I don’t even know the man, followed by the bitter weeping, and eventually the restoration by this same lakeside, Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.

And it is a picture of our own discipleship, too. Sometimes we feel storm-tossed and in the dark, with the Lord far away. In reality, he is always aware of us, as he is alone with the Father on the mountain (a way of saying that  the human Jesus is one with God in a way we cannot imagine). He comes to us across the waves, even invites us to join him, and sustains us when our faith falters. In the end, he is “in the same boat” with us, figuratively, as he was literally with the disciples.

One last picture, from the OT reading. Elijah has withdrawn to the mountain to escape a hostile king. Hiding in his cave, he is beset by earthquake, wind and fire: but it is in the “still, small voice of calm” that he recognises the Lord, and receives his mission to go back and confront the forces of evil. Let us ponder all this, and apply it to our own lives and calling.