Thursday, August 10, 2017
Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about the time of day when Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 14:22-33) about the walking on the water takes place. In a way for which I am often grateful to Steve, he identified something that I hadn't really noticed. Not only did he help bring the story to life by filling out more completely its setting but also helped me perceive another aspect of this story related to time--how long it takes.
When the passage begins, Jesus orders his disciples to get into the boat and begin making their way across the sea, while he stayed behind and dismissed the crowds. Keep in mind that they had just been fed with the five loaves and two fish, which Jesus miraculously multiplied in order to satisfy 5,000 men plus women and children. Maybe you remember how that miracle begins. The disciples are worried that evening was approaching and that the crowd needs to be dismissed or else they will not have a chance to buy food for themselves in nearby villages. I don't know what time shops closed in first-century small-town Palestine, but it seems likely that they closed pretty early.
That helps us fill out the chronology a little more fully. It was early evening when the people were fed, after which Jesus immediately sent the disciples across the sea in a boat. I think they left before dark--maybe after sunset but before twilight. At that point, Jesus sent the crowds on their way and went up on the mountain to pray. It seems that he prayed all through the night because, as Steve reminds us, it was the fourth watch of the night--sometime between 3am and 6am--when Jesus went out to meet the disciples on the water.
That's a long time after they started sailing. A quick Google search suggests that a normal crossing of the Sea of Galilee might take a few hours. The disciples had been in the boat from evening until morning--seven or eight hours or perhaps longer. Not only that, the fourth watch is the last watch of the night. Although I like Steve's suggestion that we recover that detail and help the congregation see how the darkness was starting to lighten, the NRSV translation of "early in the morning" helps us know that the time when Jesus met them was the time when night was passing into day. In other words, they had been struggling all night long. That's hard work.
It's into that context--the struggle all night long context--that Jesus meets them. It's after an exhausting, struggle with the wind and waves that Peter asks to come out and see Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus made them get into the boat. Jesus "ἠνάγκασεν" or "compelled" or "constrained" them to get into the boat. He was a carpenter's son. His fishermen disciples may have looked up at the sky and thought, "This isn't a great time to get into the boat and try to sail across the sea. Can't he see that a storm is coming?" But Jesus didn't give them a choice. He didn't "invite" them to go ahead without him. He made them do it.
Sometimes we've been battered by our own wind and waves so long that we're ready to give up. Sometimes it feels like God has led us right into that place of struggle. What are we like in those moments? What sort of response to we have when salvation appears? Do we have the same incredulous reaction that the disciples did? Are we likely to step out onto the water and then change our mind when another gust of wind blows?
So much of this story gets lost in its brevity. There are hours worth of struggle in this passage that are easy to miss. I'm grateful that Steve helped me see them because that kind of hard, long struggle seems pretty familiar to me and those around me. Maybe this appearance of Jesus walking on the water will feel a little less fantastic and a little more real when we remember how the disciples struggled through the night.