"Before the Gospel is a word," Frederick Buechner writes, "it is a silence."1
It was silence that Jesus needed so desperately. For chapters now in Matthew Jesus has been on the go – town after town, crowd after crowd, everyone had been demanding things of him – that he inspire, that he heal, that he teach, that he offer something so different, so new, so perfect. On top of the exhaustion he got terrible news – John the Baptist, his cousin and partner in ministry, who had announced Jesus’ own coming, held his shoulders as he thrust him under the waters of the Jordan River, was dead. King Herod had John beheaded in prison. Word got back, Jesus overcome with grief. He tried to get away, as we heard in last week’s text, but the crowds pursued him. The disciples tried to protect him but Jesus, having compassion for the people, blesses the five loaves and two fish they bring, transforming it into a meal for thousands.
Then He saw an opening. Jesus sent his disciples down to the boat as the now pleasantly full group dispersed, and made His way up the mountain to pray. "When evening came," Matthew says, "he was there alone…." I bet there was some shouting and tears on that mountain. That, and the silence Jesus needed, to collapse into God’s embrace.
While Jesus spent much of that night on the mountain, the disciples were down below in a silence of their own. They gathered their things, pushed off. Matthew sets the contrast in verses 23 and 24. "When evening came," Matthew says, "he (Jesus) was there alone" – on top of the mountain. But by the time He got up there, the boat was far from the shore. The Greek has the distance come first, and the language is literally ‘many stadia,’ as in our stadium, a Roman measurement of a racetrack, 600 feet or so. Out far, "many stadia away," from the land.
"But by this time," Matthew says, the boat was battered by the waves. Again we lose something in the English because the root literally means torture, torment. I have been on some boats on some pretty choppy seas, including a 40 minute boat ride from Iona to the island of Staffa on our Scotland trip with the youth, and there was lots of movement up and down, and a number of people started feeling fairly ill, but I haven’t been tormented by a storm. And the wind was ‘in opposition to them,’ fundamentally opposed to the way they wanted to go.
Our family was on vacation in the mountains for two weeks, returning last weekend. We had the privilege of some blessed time, to rest and read in the mountains, to catch up with old friends, to celebrate my dad’s retirement after 28 years at Montreat. But Wednesday before last we realized we hadn’t turned on the television in a week, and figured we’d watch the news. This was a very bad idea. We knew what we had left, but the world continues to be battered about, like that boat of disciples, in torment – it is kind of amazing how much bad news surrounds – by the waves of rockets from Gaza, and the Israeli response. Sectarian violence in Iraq, becoming a humanitarian crisis, right beside Syria, where a civil war has left hundreds of thousands dead. Battered about by earthquakes in China, by Ebola. And back here the winds pick up, they blow against us as we prepare our kids to go back to underfunded schools with teachers already exhausted and the year hasn’t started yet. We come back into town and get word of another cancer diagnosis, another marriage in crisis, a priest of a neighboring congregation goes out to run errands on Monday night and doesn’t come home. The future is far from clear and we, as families, and we, as the church, feel in deep turmoil, clinging to the deck as the waves crash overhead.
But Matthew doesn’t let this moment last long. As the disciples wiped their brow, feeling a bit seasick… they saw a form walking on the water. On top of it, it couldn’t be a mistake because they are so far from land. IT IS A GHOST they cried out in fear. But IMMEDIATELY Jesus spoke to them, to the church, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." I imagine there has been a time in your life when you have been overwhelmed by the noise of this world. Battered by the waves, the wind against you. I wonder when that might have been. And what if, in that suffering silence, you could hear him call to you…Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of the changes the suffering the distressing economic indicators. Of the war or the cancer or the sense that the world you knew no longer exists. Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. This is an important text for Matthew, where he continues to make his case through this miracle, right on the heels of the feeding of at least 5000. He puts his conclusion in the mouth of the disciples as they worship. Here we are given another glimpse of who Jesus is, the Lord of all creation, the One who saves, the One the disciples name, with the church, as the Son of God.2
But it’s this interaction with Peter, tacked on at the end, that I have found interesting this week. Peter’s nervous, I don’t blame him. He also wants a little help. He has to know if this is true. Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. I have no idea what Peter expected, but Jesus looked at him and says…come on. And he did, and he started walking on the water….it was real…he was doing it….tentatively at first, then gaining confidence. Then the wind blew, and with it comes doubt. It doesn’t take much to puncture our confident bubble, and Peter started to sink and he wasn’t tentative anymore he knew he needed help, "Lord, save me!"
Jesus’ response has often been interpreted as a rebuke. You of little faith, why did you doubt? The church has interpreted Jesus as saying, "You did a bad job. You failed. Why didn’t you trust?" But I wonder if we miss Jesus’ tone. Poet and pastor Amy Hunter writes that, in response to Jesus’ rebuke, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" we go too far. Peter is being imminently reasonable – walking on the water isn’t something we are supposed to be able to do. What if, instead of a rebuke, Hunter writes, "Jesus speaks as a friend. Perhaps he knows and accepts Peter’s limitations and what he is saying is, "You were doing it! You had it! Don’t lose that!""3 Remember, Jesus is reaching His hand OUT TO PETER as He says this. You hear the difference between: "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" (in harsh, judgmental tone) and "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" (softly, as to a friend). This is a kindness. There is something in Jesus’ encouragement here, loving Peter, but also calling more out of him – that I think is a powerful word for the church.
Tim Harris is a special Olympian, a gentlemen with Down’s Syndrome, who has become an accomplished athlete. He was at the White House last week for an awards ceremony and in his remarks the president noted that Tim was better known for his hugs, given out at a restaurant Tim runs with his family in Albuquerque. Tim sits at the entrance every day and, when folks come in he asks them of they would like their hug then or if they would like him to come by their table later. It has become quite a phenomenon in the area, over 42,000 hugs served. And so the president, ad-libbing then, said that he hadn’t received his hug. So Tim got up in the East Room, rushes the stage, and nearly tackles the president in a big bear hug, saying, "I love you Obama," as he did. In an interview later on he simply said, "It makes me feel good, and makes other people feel special. Everyone needs a hug."4
It seems to me that in weeks in which the news is as bad as this one, we could all use a hug. Our political leaders surely could most days. But even more than that, we could use a word of encouragement. Here in the next couple of weeks we’ll all come down the mountain. Life will crank up, the routines that drive the year. I want to challenge you to be a community of people that offer the encouragement Jesus does to Peter. Not that we won’t feel batted about ourselves, need to hear Christ’s call to take heart, and to not be afraid. But we are also surrounded by people who are battered. In our neighborhoods, in the halls at school, at work, with friends, folks in the pews right around you. By loss, by doubt, by disappointment, by regret. I wonder if, in the midst of it all, we could offer a bit of encouragement, like the way Jesus did with Peter, grabbing a hand as people sink, helping them up. "You can do it!" we can say. "Hang in there." "You are loved." And perhaps, in our own small way, we will bear witness to His love – the One of whom people said, "Truly, this is the Son of God."
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), p 25.
2. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 197), pages 166-167.
3. Amy Hunter, "Stepping Out" in Living By the Word, accessed at the website of The Christian Century:
4. "Meet Tim Harris, presidential hugger," The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. MSNBC.