“Jesus Changes the Rules” Matthew 14:13-33
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
February 24, 2019
Robert Gench tells a story of a woman who “was serving on a long-range planning committee of her church at a critical juncture in the church’s life. They had decided,” he says, “to reenergize various ministries of the church, but initial enthusiasm waned when the implementation of the ministries proved difficult. Negativity overtook the leadership…[and] finally one of the newer members of the church asked, ‘Is this what it means to be church, believing you should do all these things, and then feeling worn out and guilty because you can’t? Is this the Good News we celebrate?’” The question got people’s attention.
It just so happens that the woman in the story is Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the President of Union Seminary in New York City where I studied for a year. It’s a small story, and it goes to show that no matter our standing or status in the world of faith, we all miss the boat from time to time.
Speaking of boats, Gench told this story in a commentary on part of today’s story from scripture – the story of Jesus walking on water, though I actually think it’s best thought of as the story of Peter walking on water. After all, miracles are kind of Jesus’ thing. But for Peter – ordinary Peter – to walk on water? Well, that gets my attention.
The story tends to be interpreted on the individual level: “in the storms of life, keep your eye on Jesus and you’ll pull through.” Or, Jesus is cast as a kind of superhero who just kind of does amazing stuff. These aren’t necessarily bad interpretations, though I don’t generally think it’s helpful to imagine that Jesus is a superhero because then we forget he was also one of us. But these interpretations tend to miss the bigger picture.
When trying to interpret a story in the Bible, the best way to avoid missing the big picture is to learn about the context of a story. Context means a few different things:
One level is about the words on the page: Where does this story fit in with the bigger story being told? What happened before it, and what will happen afterwards?
Another level is about what was going on in the lives of those who wrote those words. What was going on at the time? What was the social and political situation like? What were God’s people struggling with?
This information isn’t locked away in some secret place that only those with seminary degrees can access. It’s accessible in any good study Bible – I always recommend the New Oxford Annotated or the Harper Collins.
Anyways, knowing the context is like the difference between using a candle in a dark room, or turning on a bright light. You’ll get by with the candle but there’s plenty you’ll miss. It’s worth looking around for the light switch for a minute to see a whole lot more.
So what’s the context of this story and why does it matter?
Before people start walking on water, Matthew tells the story of the feeding of the 5,000 – though I’d rather call it the feeding of the 20,000 because that way we’re including women and children. And right before that, Jesus learned that his cousin John the Baptist had been executed by Herod Antipas, the regional governor of the area. Then after this story, conflict between Jesus and the authorities gets more intense, and he finally tells the disciples that he must turn to Jerusalem, where he too would be executed. It’s no wonder, reeling from news of John’s death, that Jesus’ disciples would have felt a bit ragged, in need of some faith.
Then we have what was going on when Matthew wrote the story. Matthew was written probably between the years 80-110 or so, during a time of significant religious and social upheaval and change.
For Matthew’s community of disciples, it was a time of much difficulty. Tensions were growing between Jews who followed this Jesus guy and those who didn’t – but they were all still worshiping together. After all, the word “Christian” only appears three times in the New Testament. But it was not a time of happy togetherness – the temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, and the blame game was running at full swing. Without a temple to hold everything together, nobody really knew who was in charge – who got to say what it meant to be a Jew? Who decided on right and wrong interpretation? What is the foundation of faith if there is no building and little political power? It would be decades, maybe even a century before things settled a bit. They were sandwiched in between the past and the future and didn’t really know what was next.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Knowing this context adds several layers of meaning to the stories we heard this morning. To start, Matthew writes about the disciples exhausted and at the end of their rope, dealing with John’s death, surrounded by thousands and thousands of needy people looking for something from Jesus. Feeling like they had nothing to offer anymore, they told Jesus to send the crowds away so they could get food elsewhere. But Jesus responded, “they don’t need to go away. Feed them.” The disciples protested: “we have nothing but five loaves and two fishes.” They just wanted to rest, but Jesus told them to press on: “bring them to me.” And somehow five loaves and two fish became enough for everyone.
The difficulties didn’t end there though. Jesus sent the disciples on a boat to cross the sea while he went to pray. They woke up, battered by waves, only to see Jesus walking towards them on the sea. This freaked them out because that’s not the kind of thing that happens often. But Jesus said to them, “it’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Still terrified, Peter responded saying “prove it!” Have me walk on the water to you! Jesus said go for it, so Peter started walking on the water. It was an amazing moment: he was walking on the water, towards Jesus! For just a few seconds, nothing else mattered, not the wind nor the waves nor the thousands of people who never stopped needing things. He was caught in this amazing moment, held up by God’s power. But then he noticed the wind again, his fears came back to him and he began to sink, crying to Jesus to save him. Jesus saved him and said “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And then, as they returned to the boat, the wind died down and the disciples worshiped Jesus, convinced once more that he was the Son of God.
Knowing what was going on when Matthew wrote these stories, we realize that Matthew was writing about the church. Yes, the original disciples of Jesus, but also the church of his time. The initial joy and excitement of faith had long since worn down. Surrounded by human need, yet feeling entirely unable to help. Out at sea, surrounded by wind and rain and rickety boats, finding success and energy and joy for a few moments only to sink again below the tide. It’s not hard for me to imagine someone asking the same question posed to a church committee two thousands of years later: “Is this what it means to be church, believing you should do all these things, and then feeling worn out and guilty because you can’t? Is this the Good News we celebrate?”
The answer, if we are to believe Matthew’s gospel, is no. That is not what it means to be church. Why? Because Jesus is with us! Yes, it’s true, to be grieving your own losses while surrounded by need, feeling unable to do anything is a sinking feeling. To lose faith and sink down into the raging sea is a terrifying thing. But Jesus’ disciples were not left alone to face those challenges, whether when feeding people or walking on water, whether finding their way in Matthew’s time or in our own time. The late United Church of Christ theologian H. Richard Niebuhr taught that in every encounter there is a “third” involved – God. How often we forget this and imagine that there is just me and you or me and some situation and that’s all there is. But there is always a third – there is always God.
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, [Jesus] looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves” as if to say “don’t forget there’s more happening here. God is present. And God changes all the rules. With God all of a sudden nothing to eat becomes plenty to eat. In the same way it is Jesus’ presence that makes the different between Peter walking on the water or sinking down. What would have been a disaster is a moment of grace, because in every moment there is the third. God. Changing the rules we thought we knew.
For as we heard last week, little faith can be amazing. When Jesus says “you of little faith” he isn’t just tsk tsking at Peter or at us. He is also reminding us that just a little faith, like a mustard seed, and do amazing things. Just a little faith was enough to feed thousands and walk on water and it would be enough for Matthew’s church to get through their hard situation faithfully and yes, just a little faith is enough for us, church, figuring out where God is calling us among all the wind and waves, all the people with deep and sincere needs, all our grief and loss and pain. There is a third in all of this: Jesus. And Jesus is always changing the rules, making something out of nothing.
These stories help us see our ancestors in faith wrapping their minds around who this Jesus is and what he meant for them, just as we struggle to do the same. If Jesus is changing all the rules, it means we don’t really get to make the rules to start with. We don’t set the terms for how God works in the world, or with us. And when we try it doesn’t work so well. It’s God who decides what God wants, and it is up to us to seek a little faith to find what that is and be part of it.
So I repeat the question once more: “Is this what it means to be church, believing you should do all these things, and then feeling worn out and guilty because you can’t? Is this the Good News we celebrate?”
No. The Good News is that we don’t have to set the agenda for faithfulness ourselves and we really shouldn’t try. The Good News is that we don’t have to be successful or even know what success is. The Good News is that we don’t have to meet every need but when we let ourselves try we might be surprised what God can do with us. The Good News is that it only takes a little faith to do amazing things. “You of little faith,” Jesus asks, “why did you doubt?” They doubted – and perhaps we doubt – because they were human and we are human. But they were not left alone in their struggles and neither are me. They were joined and surrounded by a God who never rests until all people are brought into the shelter of love and grace and blessing. A God who does amazing things with us – we who need only a little faith. Who need only to let ourselves believe that maybe, just maybe, God is with us just as God was with our ancestors, calling us still to amazing things if we will but listen and seek to follow. That’s Good News – and it makes all the difference.