Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 14.13-33 (NIV)
24 February 2019, NL1-25, communion
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed those who were ill.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’
Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’
‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.
‘Bring them here to me,’ he said. And he told the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’
‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’
‘Come,’ he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
These may be two of the best-known moments in Jesus’ life, aside from his birth and death. Once many years ago I was teaching a class of teenagers and when I asked them to make a list of things they knew about Jesus, it included only that he was born in a stable, died on a cross, and in between he walked on water. And then they wanted to know how that was possible and if it really happened.
I suspect that’s not so far off what Peter wanted to know as well. Every time I read this story and come to the end, where Jesus asks Peter “why did you doubt?” I think to myself—of course he doubted! He was literally standing on the surface of the sea, walking away from the safety of the boat! I have often talked about how Peter just wanted to be where Jesus was, that despite what felt like security in the boat he knew that the best place to be was at Jesus’ side. And when a rabbi called disciples, he was declaring that he believed they could do what he did—so for Jesus to call Peter out of the boat was just another sign that Jesus believed in Peter as much as Peter believed in Jesus.
And yet...when he saw the waves, he was afraid and began to sink.
Now, the wind and waves were already wild before Peter stepped out of the boat. It isn’t as if he noticed them for the first time when he was already several steps away. Somehow, he managed to overcome his fear enough to get out of the boat in the first place....but he couldn’t maintain that courage long enough to stroll across the sea the way Jesus had done.
Why did you doubt?
I learned this week that the word “doubt” literally means “of two minds.” The idea the word conveys here is of a conflict between Peter’s fearful mind set on human things, and a mind set on divine things. This isn’t the first or last time that this conflict has raged in Peter’s mind, or in our own. But I love the idea that Peter found himself sinking not because he didn’t believe in Jesus or in himself, but rather because the mind set on human things won out over the mind set on Christ.
How often we find our minds and hearts divided, one side firmly in this world and all its fear and scarcity and conflict and despair, and the other side in God’s reality. It is a constant balancing act, to live as if God’s kingdom is truly here, at hand, while also making our way through life surrounded by people and agendas and powers and desires and everything else that makes up the reality we more often see. Setting our minds on human things is a very....well, human thing to do. And I’m sure we’ve all known or heard about those people whose minds are so set on heaven that they’re no earthly good, as one of my friends puts it—people whose spiritual outlook doesn’t leave room for them to do things that help make this world look more like the kingdom of God: like caring about those in need, or protecting the environment. There is a balance to be struck...it’s only when Peter let the fearful side of his two minds win that he began to sink.
But on the other hand, he got out of the boat in the first place, which is a sign that the side of his mind that trusted in God was in control at least some of the time! Perhaps because he’d seen the incredible feast that night, when honestly all of the disciples doubted—they had the fearful human mind at the fore as they insisted to Jesus that he should send all those people away, because having a hungry crowd in the wilderness was a bad idea. It’s as if they had forgotten what God could do with a large group of hungry people out at the margins, away from the prying eyes of the empire and its economy. And it also seems they have forgotten that it’s likely some in the crowd wouldn’t be able to afford to buy food, especially once merchants got wind of a huge crowd coming in—supply and demand would suggest prices would rise dramatically if 5,000 families suddenly arrived for dinner. Not to mention that the Roman Empire carefully controlled the food supply of its occupied territories, ensuring there was always a sense of scarcity. How many would go hungry in the scenario the disciples suggested?
When Jesus looked at them and said “you give them something to eat” I suspect he could see the fear in their eyes. But their second mind, the God-centred one, the one Jesus is constantly trying to get to be our first mind, was still just active enough to convince them to bring their meagre packed lunch to Jesus. And he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them...and there was enough. Enough to remind them, perhaps, of God feeding the people with manna in the wilderness. Enough for their eyes to be opened a little bit, so they could begin to recognise him. Or enough, maybe, to change the balance of their two minds, so that trust outweighed fear for a while. And there was a basketful of leftovers for every doubtful disciple, so they could physically take away with them the weight and the scent and the taste of God’s providing.
It’s easy to slip into believing that it’s better to go back to the empire economy, but Jesus is insistent that they stay at the margins—in the wilderness, on the sea—because out there, it is easier to see that there is another way. When we’re in the midst of everything, buying and selling and wondering if there’s enough, thinking mainly of our own welfare and advancement, our minds are caught up in all the trappings of empire. It is the empire that insists each person must fend for themselves, that going it alone is the best way, that we have to wheel and deal to meet our own needs and leave others to do the same. Jesus is trying to train the minds of his disciples, and the crowds, and us, to allow those things to recede and have minds that are instead caught up in the trappings of God’s kingdom: where together, in community, all are fed, and all are welcomed, and all are nurtured, and all are valued. There’s no means testing for manna.
That is why this table matters so much. It’s why the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is central to our spiritual lives as Christians. Because when we come to the table, no matter who we are or where we’ve been or what our status or ability, we are welcomed and fed. And the sharing of these loaves is a reminder to us that there is enough, that God provides beyond our imagining. This is when we taste and see that God is good...and also when our two minds can be reoriented, and our kingdom mind can be pulled to the fore and nourished and grown. This table is where we learn once again how to have the mind of Christ, set on divine things like love and justice and abundant life for all. When we feed that mind, that heart for God, then our lives will reflect God’s reality, and we can more consistently follow Jesus wherever he calls us—whether that’s out into the storm, or up onto the mountains, or anywhere in between.
May it be so. Amen.