As someone who preaches pretty often, I’ve fallen into the habit of reading a lesson with a one-track mind, asking “What’s the point?” The preacher’s question takes several forms—“Why is this passage written?” or “In what way is this passage truly the good news?” or “How does this passage have the power to transform us?”—but it always takes us from a surface reading of what happened to a deeper sense of why it is recorded. This Sunday’s gospel lesson takes a long, long time to get to a fairly straightforward point, which makes me wonder whether I should throw the preacher’s question out the window.
Yesterday, we heard about Jesus going off in a boat to a lonely place but encountering a crowd that followed him on foot. Although it was cut out of the reading yesterday, the reason Jesus was seeking some time alone was the recent death of his cousin and friend, John the Baptist. Because he had pity on the crowd, Jesus never got that quiet time. This Sunday’s lesson (Matthew 14:22-33) picks up with Jesus insisting on it—sending the disciples ahead of him, dismissing the crowd, and going up on a mountain to pray. There’s a sermon waiting in there, especially with the first lesson being the story of Elijah and the Lord appearing in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:9-18), but that isn’t the point.
Then, the disciples and their little boat are battered about on the sea by quite a storm, so Jesus walks out on the water to them. So surprised are they to see someone walking on the water that they assume it is a ghost (actually a reasonable conclusion). Jesus offers them a comforting word: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Surely a preacher can find a sermon in that, but, again, it isn’t the point.
Peter isn’t satisfied. He wants to be a part of the action. He wants to take Jesus’ power and experience it for himself, so he asks Jesus to call him out on the water. Interesting, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you…” as if someone else might be walking out to them. Halfway to Jesus, the wind picks up, and Peter’s faith plummets, causing him to begin to sink. He cries out, and again Jesus saves him. There’s at least one sermon in there—Peter’s lack of faith twice over—but that isn’t the point of this lesson either.
Finally, when Peter and Jesus climb into the boat, the wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God!’” And there it is. Jesus has power over the wind. But no one has power over the weather except God! This is a moment when Jesus shows his disciples his résumé as the Son of God. Feeding the 5,000 was a nice trick, but Moses also found a way to feed the multitude in the wilderness. But no one other than God can command the storm to cease. That’s the point, but it took a long time to get there—maybe too long.