Reading Matthew 14.22-33
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Why does Peter sink? Because he ‘notices’ the strong wind. Note that word. Jesus so transfixes Peter that at first Jesus is all that he is aware of, but then he ‘notices’ the howling of the wind, and he panics.
Peter here sums up the balancing act of the Christian life: having faith in Jesus and being realistic about the perils of the world. I was talking to someone ten days ago for whom Christian faith has come alive and for whom God is intensely real. ‘Whenever I read the Bible,’ they said, ‘it says so much to me.’ Yet this person knows all about the troubles and perils of life – and that is the high wire that thoughtful faith has to tread.
In the story, the perils get the upper hand on Peter. The more they scare him the greater the effect they have on him, and he begins to sink. It is like learning to swim. You need to know the danger of the water, but let it scare you too much, and you too will sink. If, on the other hand, you trust the person who is teaching you, as she persuades you that the water will hold you up, it begins to do just that.
But Peter is not swimming but walking; and walking not even on a high wire but on water. As ever, the Bible gives no help at all with the big question, how could that conceivably be possible? How you answer that question will say a lot about the mental world you inhabit, but meanwhile the story is still before us. How should we handle it?
It doesn’t seem that the early Christians preserved this story because they expected to do the same thing as Peter. When Paul got shipwrecked, he says he was adrift for a night and a day (2 Corinthians 11.25). What he doesn’t say is, ‘Ship sank, but no dramas – I just said, “Help me, Jesus,” and walked to dry land.’ So whatever else this story might or might not be, it is a symbolic scene. The early Christians went on telling it because it was an image of their experience; and it can be that for us, because it shows the followers and would-be followers of Jesus what is asked of them and what is offered to them.
But here we need to be careful. The story is set in a storm, and you may say, ‘Oh, yes – plenty of storms in my life.’ Rowan Williams writes about how the classical language of faith is often ‘rooted in experiences and expressions of “extremity”’ – as here: Peter and the others are in extremis, on the brink of drowning. Williams sees a danger when we apply this language to what he calls our ‘bourgeois environment’, which is that it can lead to ‘self-serving drama’. Here is a non-religious example.
Golfer Ian Poulter recently returned from the US with this Tweet:
Booked 6 business seats for my wife & nanny to fly home and British Airways downgrade my nanny so katie has no help for 10 hours with 4 kids. It just doesn’t seem right.
Replies from his 1.7m followers included
That news is just terrible Ian. I hope those 4 kids don’t suffer too much like those in Gaza. How awful for the family.
Thoughts with you at this dark time.
and this practical advice
Sell your car collection and buy your own jet. Problem solved.
According to the The Times, Poulter’s plaintive posting has been dubbed an example of a ‘first-world problem’, a term used online to mock those who complain about minor setbacks in their privileged lifestyles. And this is Rowan Williams’ point, that you can over-dramatise the troubles we face.
And so can we. The gospel reading we have heard this morning will be heard in most Anglican churches across the world. In London churches like ours, some will have had a troublesome journey to church, with the road closures for the Prudential bike race, and all that rain. Those who hear it in St George’s Church in Haifa Street, Baghdad will also have had a troublesome journey this morning. Many will have come by special bus to avoid kidnap. They will have come through doors guarded by soldiers and been frisked on the way in, to detect and deter suicide bombers. And they will feel better off than their brothers and sisters in Christ in northern Iraq. So when they think about the storms of life their thoughts may not be quite like ours.
So, then, the authentic Christian response to some so-called ‘storms’ may be, ‘Deal with it, girlfriend,’ but there is danger there too. God wants us to pray for the people of Gaza, but also for your nephew’s job interview. The God Jesus makes known to us numbers every hair of your head (Luke 12.7), and when our ‘storms’ are real – though teacup-sized compared with those of others – they matter to God. They can be public or private; they can be crudely physical, or in the mind; they can be whipped up by faceless forces, or inflicted by just one person on another.
The way through the storm is to have eyes fixed on Jesus while being realistic about the dangers. Let this story play on your mind, your memory, your imagination, and ask, ‘What have my storms been? What they are now?’ And if the stormy time is now, take a moment to ask, ‘Were am I in this scene?’ Starting to step trustfully across the waves? Scared and sinking? Or terrified and still sat rigid in the inundated boat? And what does ‘walking on the water’ mean? What step of trust is Jesus beckoning you to make?
Wherever you and I find themselves, here are words that can save you, spoken by one who is with you, always, in the storm: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Rowan Williams in Anglican Identities DLT 2004, page 120.
St George’s Baghdad http://frrme.org/what-we-do/st-georges-church-baghdad/life-at-st-georges/