Christ Floats Our Boat
A sermon based on Matthew 14:22-36
August 10, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One day – that I’m know they will claim not to recall– the Mullendores took me out on a boat in a lake Erie. Steve pulled into this nice spot and we were having a great time bobbing about talking and enjoying the scenery. It got kinda hot out there and we got thirsty, so Jeanne got up, folded her arms and snapped them down then got out of the boat, and walked on the water over to a store on shore to get some sodas. Then she returned walking on the water with those cold drinks. At first I thought it was the heat and being with a “genie” that caused my mind to play tricks, but when we ran out of cold drinks Jeanne turned to Steve and said with the same folded arm snap “Your turn, Mullendore.” Steve got up, stepped outside the boat, walked across the water and returned with more drinks. A little later it was getting really hot, the sodas were warm and we were hungry. Steve said: “Come on, Scott, your turn to go get some more drinks and a few burgers.”
With a more than slight tremor in my knees, I got up, stepped out of the boat, and sunk like a stone. Drenched I climbed back in the boat. Steve turned to Jeanne and said: “Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?”
I have had nightmares about that day ever since. I am here to tell you that that adventure has given me a whole other reason to say “I dream of Jeanne-ee.”
Just in case some of you are wondering, the story I just told was, well, not really an actual event. I thought about using a number of your names, but, settled on the Mullendores because it allowed those awful “Genie” puns. And, of course, I also like that the story automatically conjures in our minds the Lectionary reading from Matthew, reminding us how strange a miracle it is in that story. Walking on water is quite an oddity.
When I really think about it, I wonder what’s up with that in this story?I mean, if you have power to do that kinda stuff why not just fly over? Or better yet, be like a genie and just appear or apparate into the boat? Jesus doesn’t just appear in the dead of night in the boat. First he walks over the sea, and a stormy sea at that. And you know what? Whether we think this story actually happened or is meant as metaphor we are still left with trying to decide its meaning.
And like many Bible stories the best answers require a contextual understanding of the story. You know how Jesus appears after the resurrection in many forms to many people and is not recognized at first? Well, many scholars think that this story originally was about the resurrected Jesus being mistaken for a ghost. Did you catch how we are not told the disciples are afraid of the storm, but that they are terrified of the image of Jesus coming at them in the dark on top of the sea. So it is thought the story may have first been told as a post-resurrection story– an Easter story.
Jesus as a scary ghost was not a good image even back then and so somewhere along the line the theory is it got refashioned to an experience of the living Christ appearing amidst troubled waters. 1 So the story originally may have been an eerie Easter story which is interesting (and no, the eerie-ness is not why we have the long “eared” rabbits at Easter).
I find it even more interesting that in the ancient world bodies of water were considered deep, dark, scary places of unknown fate and swirling danger. Forget ghosts, a very real horror to the ancients was a body of water. They were untamable, wild and life threatening, a topsy-turvy-hurly-burly uncontrollable place where terrible things could and did happen.
Lakes, rivers, seas and oceans did not just represent chaos to ancient listeners, but were understood AND experienced as chaos. 2 Knowing this, we can find new meaning in Bible stories with bodies of water, and not just today’s Lectionary text.
At the very start of the Bible this applies. In Genesis God creates a good world out of the formless chaotic darkness of the deep water that covered the earth. The good news in the Bible from the beginning is that God has power over chaos and has created good things out of it. And it is no accident that this creation story was written during the darkness and chaos of Babylon’s horrifying conquest and enslavement of the Hebrew people. God offers the hope of making good out of chaos.
We can see this in the Exodus story too where God causes Moses to part a body of water so the Hebrews could escape the chaos of slavery and a battle and wander toward the Promised Land. And when Joshua finally walks into the Promised Land he too is God’s means of parting water, the chaos, to get there.
In the Bible bodies of water are often chaotic, not unlike life is often chaotic. In the Bible stories we can hear God not just controlling such chaos but even making something good of it.
With all this in mind, let’s see how this chaos theory might apply to the Jesus-walking-on-the-stormy-sea story. Jesus told stories in parables, so, it seems, did the authors of the gospels. So it is fair for us to look for and consider metaphoric meanings in THIS Gospel story. As we heard the disciples are surrounded by sea water, which as I’ve indicated we can hear to represent chaos. It’s important to note that while the sea – the chaos– surrounds Jesus’ followers, they are out of immediate danger in a boat. 3 This is meant to be true even in the scariest of times. The story takes place in the darkest hour –the scariest time– of the night.
So the disciples are afloat in a threatening stormy sea in the darkest part of the dark.
And who shows up as chaos threatens at the darkest hour? Christ shows up!
Christ has such complete control over chaos as to calmly walk on top of it, and even though it is as dark as dark can be Christ can be seen, can be experienced above the fray, and a light in the dark. Magically apparating or appearing into the boat would not allow this powerful image of control and presence in troubled waters.
Christ is not troubled by chaos, nor by the darkest hours, Christ conquers it. And best of all, Christ can be experienced in it. Christ calmly walks right over it to get to the Jesus Followers. And we need to also keep in mind that Jesus Followers are (as I said) also on top of the water. They are in a boat above the chaos even as Matthew has them amidst it.
The boat is battered by the waves, far from land and the wind is against them, but they are not afraid of the chaos. Nor are they actually touched by the chaos–the boat floats in the middle of it buffeted by it, but those in the raft are not down in it.
The boat in this story has long been understood by Biblical scholars to symbolize the church struggling in the commotion of life, the utter chaos of reality. 4
As community in church, even in the midst of the struggle, we are safe. Safe together. Christ can be experienced even in the darkest and stormiest of times – as long as we stay in the boat, in community helping one another and bringing God–love– out into the world.
And as the story ends with Christ on board in the church with us, we hear how the church is able to move forward as the wind dies down.
Together we are able to float above the chaos and move ahead together in this boat we call Church, what we name amongst THIS loving band of Jesus Followers, as First Congregational United Church of Christ. Just like the disciples in today’s story. Christ comes to us, love fills this place, even as we gather in storms that batter the boat and blow against us . . . even when dark hours beset us. We miraculously remain safe in the chaos of the events that unfold.
Today’s reading can also be heard to be about one of Jesus’ followers getting out of the boat, leaving the church. No other gospel, except Matthew reports Peter getting out of the boat. So we need to ask why Matthew has Peter leave the boat? The reason is that Peter symbolizes those who try to go at it alone without the boat, those who leave the church community and step out into the sea of life trying to stay above the chaos as individuals. As Peter sinks he’s not relating to community– those of us in modern American have this problem as a people we tend to relate less and less as community and we are sinking.
Community matters. Without the support of the ship of the church what happens in the story? Peter is safe only for a few steps even with Jesus in plain sight. Alone chaos quickly becomes too much for him. He could not help but be distracted. He could not help but take his eyes off of Christ, and when that happened Peter (who’s name means rock) does what? Just a few steps away from the boat he sinks like a stone (like I did on lake Erie). And what does Jesus do? He grabs Peter’s hand and brings him back to the boat and the safety of Christ’s community. And for all who are in the boat– the full affect of the stormy chaos ceases. When we all remain together we are safe in the turmoil with Jesus by our side and chaos’s blustery affects cease to hold us back so that we can move ahead.
In Christ’s presence, in any faith community, Christ words in the text should have full effect “Take heart, do not be afraid!” We are meant to be safe together in this ship of church. First Congregational United Church of Christ is full, full to the brim with Spirit-filled people. It is also full, full to the brim with Christ’s presence. We are all in this boat together so-to-speak. And while it’s not always going to be smooth sailing, as long as we remain together we can weather any storm, survive any crisis and stay afloat in the chaos of life. Here, we know this to be true. Why? Because we are together and Christ is here with us! As Christians we cannot be above trouble on water; we cannot survive being amidst and in the chaos alone, without a community of faith, church and Christ’s presence when two or more are gathered in His name. It is here – together– that Jesus does the impossible and walks over whatever storm there is, shines in any darkness and comes to us.
Christ floats our boat, is the rudder of our ship and the wind in our sails.
Christ, pardon the boat puns, is no OAR-dinary presence, but for us, the HULL story. CANOE agree with that? It is not like the Erie Lake tale I told. In the eerie sea lesson today the good news is that in the eeriness of life, Christ is here and with us.
And together we CAN float above whatever storms and darkness we encounter.
In Christ’s presence, in this community “Take heart, do not be afraid!” we are safe together in this ship of church.
Here through Christ’s presence God always offers the hope of making good out of any chaos. That is the good news of the Gospel and the whole of the Bible!
Together with Christ we can a make a difference!
* based on a sermon I first preached in 2008
1..Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1998), 233 (see note 46)
2. See New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB), Vol 2, p 600; NIB vol 8, p. 327-328.
3. NIB, Vol 8, 327
4. Ibid., p 327
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014