Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
August 9, 2020
The church has from its very beginning been considered metaphorically to be a boat. This is unsurprising when we consider that Jesus’ first followers were fishermen and that the gospels often tell us of Jesus himself getting into a boat, including once when ‘such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach’ (Matthew 13:2). It is no accident that the part of the church that the congregation sits in is called the nave, and that the word comes from the same root word as ‘navy’ and ‘navigate’ (Latin navis meaning ship). Anytime you sit in a church’s nave you are sitting in a ship, and if you look at the ceiling of old churches, you’ll notice that many of them do look like the upside-down hull of a boat. The image of the church as a ship is one that is used in the logos of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and in our own Uniting Church logo. All of them have elements that look like tall ships.
I have long known about this idea of the church as a boat, and I have used that image myself when talking about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers or ‘boat people’. But it’s never struck me as quite the right image for the church in modern Australia, especially when we connect the church-as-boat to this particular gospel story. Saint Augustine (354-430 AD) said that the story we hear today is an allegory, with the church represented by the boat the disciples were in. Augustine preached that the church may get thrown around by the storms and high seas of life, but with Jesus’ help the church can weather any wind that blows. It made sense for Saint Augustine, living in a time when the church was under constant attack, to equate the church with the place where the disciples became terrified and cried out in fear, but for most of us that hasn’t been our experience of the church. And most Australians are happy coastal dwellers, likely to be much more apprehensive when we are in Australia’s vast inland than when we are on the water. Today’s gospel story normally needs a bit of contextualisation to make sense.
To begin with, the people of Ancient Israel did not like the sea. The Book of Revelation actually offers a vision of paradise where the sea will be no more (Rev 21:1). For the people of Israel the sea was traditionally the source of deep and threatening power, a place of danger and terror. So when the disciples, in today’s reading, are in a boat, battered by the waves and far from land, they feel not only the immediate fear caused by their situation, but the primeval fear of chaos and the abyss inherited from their ancestors. For them wind and waves are terrifying, even before Jesus comes to them walking on the water like a ghost.
The only Being with any power over this dangerous element is God. From the very beginning of creation, when a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, God has been the one who can control the seas. This is repeated through the psalms, God is the one who has ‘gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle’ (Psalm 33:7). So when the gospel writers tell us of Jesus walking on the water, they are showing Jesus as the One who has authority over all the powers that threaten humanity, God’s power. Matthew is telling us a story in which Jesus is shown to have a unique relationship with God. The disciples realise that this man who walks on water is someone in whom they can have faith. And that leads to the second part of Matthew’s story.
Matthew’s version of the story is the only one that adds to this revelation of who Jesus is the description of Peter walking on water. Luke and Mark both have Jesus calming a storm; Mark also tells the story of Jesus walking on water, but only Matthew gives us the extra story of Peter joining him. I like Peter’s habit of jumping in first and thinking afterwards. He does it on the mountain during the Transfiguration, when he suggests that he and James and John should build booths (Matthew 17:3). He does it when he tells Jesus that Jesus must not suffer and die (Matthew 16:22-23). He does it when he insists that even if everyone else deserts Jesus, he won’t (Matthew 26:33). In today’s story we see this Peter, eager, impetuous, willing to take risks.
Why does Peter leave the boat in the first place? None of the other disciples do, none of them take the risk of that step from battered boat to stormy lake. Peter does because Jesus asks him to. He has the faith to take that step out of the boat, not knowing whether or not he’ll sink, but willing to obey Jesus. There is more than one miracle in the story. Jesus not only walks on water; Peter, rather than sitting fearfully in the boat in the hope that the storm will pass, takes a leap of faith to join him.
Peter, as so often, represents all of us, and not just us at our strongest and most faithful. Peter recognises who Jesus is, and obeys Jesus’ command to ‘come’. He has the faith to follow Jesus. Then the reality of his situation strikes him, he takes his eyes off Jesus, and he begins to sink. Like all of us, Peter is torn between faith and doubt, boldness and fear, strength and weakness. Sinking, he cries out: ‘Lord, save me!’ and Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches him, saying to Peter, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
Peter had the faith to risk stepping outside the boat. So why does Jesus address him as ‘you of little faith’? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Repeatedly in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus refers to his disciples as those ‘of little faith’ but he also tells them: ‘if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’ (Matthew 17:20). If this is what a little faith can do, how could we ask for more than a little? To be of ‘little faith’ is to be one of the disciples, struggling, asking questions, misunderstanding, fearing, and starting all over again. It is to be within the circle of those who have glimpsed who Jesus is. It is to be like Peter, able to step out of the boat and, just as important, able to call for help when sinking. To be of little faith is to answer Jesus’ invitation, and then to allow Jesus to hold us up when we begin to sink. To be of little faith means to believe that when we do sink, Jesus will offer us his hand.
As I said at the beginning, I have often struggled with the idea that the boat in this story represents the church because of the fear the disciples experience in it. If the church is this boat, then it isn’t a safe place. And we have to acknowledge and repent that for many people, especially children, the church hasn’t been a safe place. But I imagine that for most of the members of the Western Heights congregation the church has been a place of welcome and acceptance. That has certainly been my experience of the church (most of the time). The church has been the place that has welcomed me and encouraged me to use my gifts.
That may mean that this year is the time when this story is most relevant. This year the church isn’t safe. The small boat that is a congregation has been battered by the waves of covid19 and is still far from safety with the wind against it. We do not know when we will again be able to hold worship services in the church building. Like the disciples, like Peter, in this time of covid19 we often feel frightened and as though we are about to sink. And so this year, more than ever, we need the reassurance that this story offers us, the reassurance that it is as true for us as it was true for the disciples in the boat. Jesus is with us, saying to us in our fear, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Amen.