I’m finding the news hard going at the moment. Iraq … Syria … Gaza … remembering last week the members of our own congregation who were killed or died as prisoners during the First World War. It can be hard to bring a Christian perspective into our thoughts and reactions to what we see and hear each day. Where is the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth, now that salvation has come to us?
Considering the story of Jesus walking on the water both Mark and then Matthew set this story alongside the death of John the Baptist. Jesus has twice gone away to pray on his own. The first time the crowds follow him, and he ends up ministering to them – healing the sick and then making sure everyone has enough to eat! How hard must it have been for him to do all this while mourning the death of one of his relatives?
The disciples are in trouble. Despite rowing hard against the storm it is now early morning and they are no further back to land. They are tired and exhausted, probably scared, and then to their horror they see Jesus coming towards them, walking on water.
The image of water/seas/waves in Jewish literature was linked to the idea of chaos. It’s not just that the disciples are in a boat in a middle of a storm, but that this is at the same time a metaphor for chaos. Stepping out of the boat in the story is a knock-out metaphor for faith. Peter trusts Jesus enough to step out of the boat.
Only Matthew has this story of Peter’s response. Often Peter is a representative of all the disciples, and for me he is the one with whom I can most easily identify. Passionate, impulsive, messes it up, but ultimately comes to such a strong faith that he becomes the bedrock for the whole church.
The writer of Matthew emphasises to his initial readership that Jesus, this man, was also God. A scandalous idea to peddle to Jewish people. But we have seen over the weeks Jesus giving short pictures, glimpses of God’s intention for His people. The Kingdom of Heaven is like …. a pearl of great price, like a field full of wheat and weeds …. In chapter 13 he asks the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and they say, ‘Yes’!! And now here at the end of the story they seem to have moved on a step in their understanding when they worship him and say, “Truly you are the Son of God”. But from where we stand we know that they had still not got it.
Paul, as ever, points out in stark terms that this offer from Jesus to step out in faith has now been extended to everyone, both Jew and non-Jew. As followers of Jesus in the present day, we still struggle to understand and step out in faith.
Some of us this week went to a talk about ‘What Makes a Good Society?’ Essentially it’s the same idea as the Jewish concept of the Kingdom of Heaven. But just as the disciples were 2,000 years ago, we say we understand when we just haven’t grasped what God is offering. Back then the people were looking for a liberator, one who would free them from living in an occupied country, a place where God’s rule of peace and justice would prevail and there would be true shalom.
Today in our Western society we often feel that our faith is something essentially private, to be packed away leaving a vacuum in which the government struggles to define what it means by ‘British values’.
If we want to see the Kingdom of Heaven come, or the creation of a Good Society, we need to have a faith that is not just brought out on Sundays, but which pervades our whole life. When we see events happening around us, it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand how or why – just as it was for the disciples – but it does matter that we have faith in God the Father through Jesus, that we step out of the boat and walk towards him.
It’s scary, but as Peter discovered, it can change your whole life.
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