Today we move from stories that Jesus told to stories about miracles that Jesus performed. After Jesus told parables in chapter 13, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where, when the people heard him speak, they rejected him because they had known him as a boy and didn’t believe that God was really with him in the things that he was doing and saying. Then after that story, Matthew shifts the scene back to John the Baptist. King Herod had imprisoned John because he had been saying that it was unlawful for Herod to be married to Herodias; she had divorced Herod’s brother Philip in order to marry Herod. Also, just a note that this King Herod is the son of the Herod who was king and ordered the babies in Bethlehem to be killed when he heard from the Wise Men that a new king had been born. This family was not very creative in coming up with names for their sons. In any case, Herodias held a grudge against John because of what he’d been saying, and when Herodias’ daughter pleased Herod by dancing for him, Herodias urged her daughter to ask Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod did as his stepdaughter asked, and John’s disciples took the body, buried it, and then went and told Jesus what had happened.
And this is where our Gospel story today picks up. “Now when Jesus heard this, . . .”; “this” meaning that John the Baptist had been executed. Remember that John had baptized Jesus, and John was seen as the one preparing the way for Jesus. So, Jesus had an intimate connection with John, and he would have taken the news of John’s execution very hard. When Jesus heard that John had been executed, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Yes, he went to grieve, but he probably also went to pray, and to reflect on his own ministry and where God was calling him to go. Jesus knew that he, too, would be violently executed, and I think he knew that John’s execution was a sign that his own death was getting closer. He probably wanted to be alone to grieve for John, but also to do some serious mental preparation for the continuation of his ministry and his own eventual death.
But what happens next? Those pesky crowds. They “heard it”; either they also heard about John’s death, or they heard about where Jesus had gone, and they decided to follow Jesus, intruding on his solitude in that deserted place. Now, if that had been me, I would have been really annoyed. I’m an introvert, and I need my quiet time, and especially after hearing about the execution of someone I cared about, I’d want to be by myself for a while. But Jesus does not respond to the crowds with annoyance. Instead, when he sees the crowds, he has compassion for them. He puts aside his own feelings and his own needs, and he heals those among them who are sick. And when his disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away so that they can get something to eat, Jesus does not say, “OK, yes, I’m ready to be by myself now.” No, he responds with continued love and compassion and tells the disciples to give the people something to eat.
And this is the part I find fascinating about Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000: Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, I will feed them.” No, he expects his disciples to feed all of those crowds. 5000 men, with even more women and children with them. And the disciples said to Jesus, “Um, rabbi, do you know how many people there are sitting here? All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s not going to go very far. How are we supposed to feed all these people?” But Jesus doesn’t bat an eyelash at this seemingly insurmountable problem. He blesses the bread and the fish, and then he gives them to the disciples. The disciples are the ones who give the food to the people, and somewhere along the way, they discover that the little that they had is more than enough. It’s so much more than enough that they’re able to gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers. All of this from five loaves of bread and two fish.
Here in our four struggling congregations in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire, I think we often feel like the disciples did on that day. We feel like we don’t have the resources to do what God has called us to do. We are tired; we are aging; and we say, “Jesus, we only have five loaves of bread and two fish; how do you expect us to feed all the people who are in need around us?” And yet, as we look around, we find that Jesus has given us enough to do what we are called to do. At Salem, we were able to gather enough food and clothes to have a free community service day in January, and we had more than enough to serve the people who came. Also, at Salem, we were able to open our doors to Rose’s Communities of Hope group, allowing them space to come and to be healed from past hurts, and to worship God in a manner best suited to them. At St. John’s, we have hosted Family Promise and coordinated volunteers from all 4 churches to help minister to families in need of shelter. We have also literally fed people at community breakfasts and community dinners in conjunction with St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church. And I know the congregations of Trinity and St. Peter’s can tell similar stories about Jesus blessing what they think are meager resources to minister to a larger group of people. Jesus blesses what we have, and it always enough to do what Jesus calls us to do, no matter how little we think it is.
After this, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead toward the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He finally dismisses those pesky crowds, and he gets some quiet time by himself to pray, and to grieve the death of John the Baptist. But when he’s ready to rejoin his disciples, the boat was already far from the land. Well, no problem for Jesus, because he just starts walking on the water towards the disciples. Now, we have this image of Jesus just kind of ethereally floating on the water, feet barely touching the churning waves, and not getting wet at all. But I heard a description this week that I’d like for us to imagine for a moment: what if Jesus walking on the water was kind of like us floundering through a foot of snow? Sometimes we’d get our footing, and sometimes we’d slip and fall into the snow, but then get up and keep going. Now picture Jesus struggling through the waves of water like that: sometimes having firm footing and sometimes slipping and falling into the water. I don’t think that takes away from his miracle of walking on the water at all; he’s still walking and not swimming. I just think it makes Jesus more human to go along with his divine act of walking on the water.
So, when Jesus comes close enough to the boat with the disciples in it, they think they’re seeing a ghost. And Peter cries out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Think back for a moment: this is the same language that the devil used to test Jesus back in chapter 4: If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread, for example. The question here is this: Is Peter doing the same thing as the devil did? Is he testing Jesus and daring him to do something stupid? And when Jesus tells Peter to come on, does that mean that he fails the test? I’m not sure I have the answer to that one, and I think it’s something for us to meditate on in Bible study and private devotion.
But what I want to focus more of our attention on is this: the traditional interpretation of this scene praises Peter for taking the risk of getting out of the boat and following Jesus. There are whole studies for revitalizing the church based on this idea that sometimes we have to get out of the boat, and, unlike Peter, keep our eyes focused on Jesus, and we will do miraculous things, too. There’s just one problem with this: Peter loses faith, begins to look around, and sinks like a rock (remember also that the name Peter means “rock”). And this happens to us, too: no matter how boldly we might start a risky new venture, soak it in prayer and trust in Jesus, at some point we will look around and see that things are not going as we had hoped and prayed, and we, too, will begin to lose faith. So, I have serious doubts about the merit of this interpretation, and I don’t think this is what Matthew intended when he told this story.
Instead, I think, we need to look at it like this: in the history of Christian symbolism, a boat very often symbolizes the church, especially tossed about on waves as the church is often tossed about in the world. Despite the storms that beset the church, however, the church offers protection for all who shelter within it. Therefore, Peter getting out of the boat means he is leaving the protection of the church and striking out on his own, and even though he initially walks on water and keeps his eyes on Jesus, without the support of the Christian community around him, he sinks and depends on Jesus to rescue him and bring him back to the boat. And, when they get back into the boat, the storm stops. Therefore, the point of this story is not to get out of the boat and take risks for Jesus; it is, rather, to stay in the boat, with the support of the Christian community, and trust that Jesus will come and keep his church safe.
And, this, I think is what ties these two stories together. Jesus gives us more than enough to do what we are called to do, and as we serve him, he calls us to stay together and to support one another, and he promises to be with us always, keeping his church safe from harm. What great gifts these are! To trust that we have enough—and more than enough—as we embark in ministry, telling people the great good news that Jesus is with us—all of us, black, white, straight, gay, sinner and saint alike—and gives us all that we need, including the gift of one another. Look at the person sitting next to you in the pew today. That person is God’s gift to you, your sibling in Christ. God uses the gifts and talents of each one of us to help one another through life and also to reach out to others and bring them into the safety of this community in Christ, so that they may experience the love of Jesus through us. And that is worth praising and thanking God for. Amen.