Sunday, August 10, 2014

Heads Above Water

Matthew 14:22-33

            When someone says, “ I do not have enough faith,” you might ask, “if you had more faith, what would you do with it?” 

            Today’s gospel ranks in the top five stories (but who is counting?) that seem to be about believing in the impossible.  The phrase “walking on water” has come to mean being able to do something superhuman, or to be morally or otherwise superior to ordinary people.  A former parishioner of mine, who, it is fair to say, held me to a standard I could not meet when I was her priest, came to see me some years after she and I had both left that parish.  She was talking about her then current rector and all of his faults.  “In retrospect,” she said to me, “you walked on water.”  Well, of course, I did nothing of the kind.  Not even metaphorically.  But hers was high praise.  And on my less than good days I might even think that she was correct.

            But the truth of the matter is that most non-literalistic rationalists who read or hear this story about Jesus walking on water immediately conclude that it couldn’t possibly have been so, since everyone knows that human beings don’t walk on water because they can’t.  Literalists conclude that the story proves that Jesus was in fact God, who alone can walk on water should he take a notion to do so.  And the moralists are sure that the story is all about Peter, who couldn’t do what any human being presumably actually could do if only that person had enough faith.  So we are left with basically three alternatives:  don’t believe the story; or believe that the story proves the divinity of Jesus; or believe that the story implies that if we are not walking on water it is because we are guilty (note the word) of having too little faith. 

            As is usually the case, these rather simplistic views obscure what the story is all about.  It is clear that for Matthew, the story is one about discipleship and the disciple’s dependence upon Jesus for strength and power.  It is about the community of faith, pictured as being in a boat on a wind-tossed sea, trying to make headway on their own since Jesus is absent.  It is about how that community is surprised—shocked—by the very appearance of the one who can and does save them.  It is about the hesitancy of the disciples to believe in the reality of the Risen Christ, always testing him, saying, “If it is you, then do so and so.”  It is about Jesus finally getting in the boat with his community who at last acknowledge who he is and worship him accordingly.  Matthew himself writes the part of the story about Peter, who for Matthew, is the icon of the disciple, not always (as this story indicates) a good model of discipleship, but a reliably accurate example nonetheless.  And the problem with Peter is that he seems to be afflicted with what the Church generally considers to be the chief of deficiencies:  doubt.

            So let’s face the question:  if Peter’s doubt was his problem, and thus the problem for the Church, and thus the problem for you and me, what can he, we, or Jesus do about it?  What might we do if we had more faith?

            It might behoove us to consider what faith is.  And that isn’t as simple as it sounds.  Faith, in scripture, can mean a host of things including belief in a religious system, confidence in a person, being attentive to and responsive to God, hoping confidently in a particular outcome for a set of circumstances, and giving one’s heart to another, something that causes faithfulness and reliability, a solemn promise or oath, a proof or pledge, a special gift or virtue, and so on.  But in the Bible faith overwhelmingly means actively taking risks in trusting or confiding in another.  That is what characterizes faith in God, for example, the prime example of which is Abraham, who embarked on a journey the end of which he had no way of knowing. Jesus consistently teaches that faith is taking a risk:  asking for what one might not get, trusting in what one cannot prove, casting one’s lot with the Kingdom of God when every other kingdom is clamoring for one’s loyalty with nearly irresistible promises. 
            Ultimately, then, faith has to do with relationships.  It is not so much a matter of giving mental assent to a series of propositions by saying, “I believe” in this, that, or the other.  It is about being in a relationship with God or Jesus or somebody else in whom you place your trust, to whom you give your heart and life.  And that really is what the story about Jesus walking on the water, and Peter’s near drowning, are about.  They form a narrative portrait of how the relationship of Jesus and his community work.  We are all in a small craft on a storm-tossed sea, with no visible God anywhere around.  Suddenly there is a Presence, we don’t know who or what.  No matter how many times that Presence reassures us, saying “Take heart!  It is I.  Don't be afraid,” we cannot get it through our skulls that he really does show up in the darkness.  So we test him, “If it is you…”  And he responds, “Come.”  Then comes the moment of faith.  Getting out of the boat, which seems our only means of survival, requires an immense amount of courage.  Winds rage.  Waters swamp.  Our hearts sink.  That is the moment of judgment—not the judgment that wags its finger saying, “You don’t have enough faith,” but the judgment that reveals the Truth:  we cannot make it without him.  It is not so much that we take hold of him as he takes hold of us.  And the journey of faith takes us to where we never imagined we would go, which is back into the boat—the community—that continues to discover the power and peace of Jesus.  Living in that reality is what we call living the resurrection.  It is what we call taking up the cross and following Jesus.  It is what we know as the moment of transcendence. It is our healing.

            Does it always work this way?  Maybe so.  Maybe not. (Can you think of a better way?)  The whole thing is a matter of getting out of the boat with no assurances, only with the trust that God will show up when we least expect, and that God will sustain us  and empower us to do far more than we could imagine.  True?  Who knows?  That is why it is called “walking on water.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014