Tazewell Parish—Matthew 14:22-33, Jonah 2:1-9, Psalm 29
When I was a mere youth, and trying to master the art of throwing a baseball or playing ping-pong, I was taught that I could spin the ball different ways so as to make it behave unpredictably, and confuse my opponent. In my adulthood, of course, that notion of “spin control” has become a metaphor for the management of information so as to create a particular desired impression. With politicians and business leaders, spin control becomes second nature, as they seek to put raw, objective facts in the most favorable frame they can. But we all do it.
In a way, the discipline of “Christian apologetics”—the task of justifying the ways of God to people, explaining God’s often mysterious behavior in ways that make some sense to rational human beings—the discipline of Christian apologetics could be said to be a form of theological spin control. Christianity claims that Jesus makes God present to us. Christianity claims that, in Christ, the fundamental gap that separates us from God is bridged, and the path to perfect communion with God is opened. Christianity claims that the community of the church is like a well-built boat on the stormy seas of life, the ark of salvation that will deliver us safely to the distant shore for which we are bound.
This should be a source of comfort and peace, but, instead, our actual experience—both in the world and in the church—can often be rather chaotic and scary, like being in a boat in the middle of a storm, always just a moment away from capsizing and spilling its passengers into the abyss.
Water—the sea, the ocean—figures prominently both in our conscious awareness and in our subconscious imagination. We all spent nine months surrounded by water, and coming out of it was a traumatic experience. The depths of the sea represent our primordial fears, our deepest unspoken anxieties. For Jonah, being cast into the sea, from the comparative safety of a boat, was a sign of his being punished by God. From the belly of the fish that swallowed him, he prays
I am cast out from your presence; how shall I again look upon your holy temple? The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever.
These words of Jonah may have been in the minds, or even on the lips, of Jesus’ frightened disciples as their small craft, beaten by waves, negotiated the choppy Sea of Galilee on a windy night. And, to be honest, when taken figuratively, they represent the experience of a great many people—probably most people, at some point in their lives—who feel simply overwhelmed by life: drowning in grief, regret, shame, fear, and despair. So all this presents a monumental challenge to anyone involved in Christian apologetics. It leads any rational person to question Christianity’s claims. It sows seeds of doubt—doubt within ourselves, about our own spiritual experience, doubt about the life of the church, and about our witness in and to the world. What are we to make of this? What sort of “spin control” might we engage in to present the claims of the gospel in as attractive a light as possible?
The frightened disciples in that storm-tossed boat probably remembered, when they allowed themselves a stray thought, that, only a few hours earlier, Jesus had ministered to several thousand people on the beach, by feeding them from a mere five small loaves of bread and two fish. But that memory probably seemed pale and irrelevant to them as they faced the imminent prospect of having to do some serious treading of water. In a similar way, you and I “remember” Jesus. We’ve stored away, in the gray matter between our ears, a great deal of information about his life on this planet. We remember things he said—teachings, parables, words of comfort and compassion, words of challenge. We remember things he did—gestures of love and tenderness and courage, miracles of healing and mercy. But these memories of Jesus may seem a little sketchy to us, so distracted are we by the pressing concerns of work and career, relationships and family life, recreation and entertainment. Our relationship with Jesus can easily become like that of a long-married couple who are so caught up in the mundane mechanics of life that they forget why they ever got married.
But once in a while, usually without any warning or preparation, we actually do have something resembling a real experience of Jesus. It may be a spine tingle when the lights come on at the Easter Vigil, a healing for which there is no medically plausible explanation, or the dramatic turnaround of a life that had appeared to be lost—lost to alcohol or drugs or gambling or violence or some other compulsive behavior. And when this happens, ironically, our first response is not faith, but doubt. We are like the disciples on that boat when it becomes apparent that the mysterious figure walking toward them on top of the waves is none other than Jesus. They said, “Lord, if it’s really you…” Note the operative word there: “if.” If—the token of conditionality, the marker of doubt. We meet Jesus, who wants to rescue us from the mess we’re in, and the first thing we do is ask for his photo ID! We demand verification. “Lord, if it’s really you … do it again, and then I’ll believe.” In Peter’s case, it was “Lord, if it’s really you, let me walk out to you.” What Peter is saying, what we are saying, in effect, is “I’m seasick; get me out of this wretched boat; you’re there and I’m here, take me to where you are.”
We speak the truth when say this. It sounds like an expression of confidence. Our real attitude, however, is just the opposite. It’s grounded not in trust, but in lack of faith. Authentic faith, mature faith, trusts that God is no less present with His people in the midst of their trials, than at the end of their trials. So Peter’s request—“Lord, if it’s really you, let me come out to you”—is actually an instance of putting God to the test. Now, if we remember our Old Testament, putting God to the test is not usually thought of as a good thing! People got in serious trouble for putting God to the test. Jesus tells Peter, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” In other words, it wasn’t Peter’s “little faith” that caused him to sink, as we might easily suppose. We often assume that Peter’s mistake was in taking his eyes off of Jesus; that’s what caused him to sink. There may be a good lesson there; there’s something to be said for not taking our eyes off of Jesus. But I would suggest to you that it was not Peter’s “little faith” that caused him to sink; it was his “little faith” that caused him to leave the boat in the first place!
What this says to the apologetic project—the task of explaining the ways of God to doubting human minds and hearts—is to get in the boat, and stay in it! Yes, the seas will get rough from time to time, but the boat is the place in which Jesus will come to you, and when he comes to you, he brings his peace with him. Matthew tells us that, as soon as Jesus—and a very damp Peter—got into the boat, the wind ceased, and there was peace. So, we are to wait for Jesus in the boat. And in the symbolic vocabulary of the New Testament and Christian tradition, of course, the boat stands for the Church: the visible, organic, historical community that connects us, through 80 or so generations, to Peter and the other apostles who welcomed Jesus into their storm-tossed boat and experienced the peace that only he can bring. As topsy-turvy as our experience in the Church may be, she is still the “ark of salvation” and we need to stay on board. It never ceases to amaze me how, very often, when faithful church-going Christians sail into one of life’s storms—illness, family problems, work problems, or whatever—the first thing they do is quit coming to church. Just when they need it most, they quit coming to church. When we do this, we’re acting like Peter. We have “little faith.” We’re abandoning ship when that’s just the place Jesus wants us to be so he can bring us his peace. We need to stay on board. Jesus will find us here.
When the wind whips up the waves, and things get a little shaky, we can always take comfort from the words of Psalm 29:
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.