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Trinity + 12: Blessed Assurance

10 August 2008
Genesis 37. 1-4, 12-28, Matthew 14. 22-33, Psalm 105. 1-10 Let us acknowledge the Lord

Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugenie together attended the opera. After the national anthems had been played, Eugenie took her seat, having first looked behind her to ensure that the chair was in place. Queen Victoria, on the other hand, needed no such backward glance, subconsciously knowing there must be a seat ready: there always had been, and there always would be.

In today's lesson, St Peter sets off, as confidently as Queen Victoria, to walk across the water towards Jesus. All goes well for the first few steps until his conscious mind remembers the law of gravity and he notices that there is a strong wind blowing: he loses his 'blessed assurance' and begins to sink.

All the gospels tell the story of Jesus walking on the water after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but it is only in Matthew that we have the story about Peter. For Matthew, Peter's problem was not only that he took his eyes off Jesus, but that he wanted proof of the presence of Christ, and so left the boat in the first place.

The message is not 'If he had enough faith, he could have walked on the water,' just as the message to us is not 'If we had enough faith, we could overcome all our problems in spectacular ways.' This interpretation is wrong in that it identifies faith with spectacular exceptions to the warp and woof of our ordinary days, days that are all subject to the laws of physics and biology. This is wrong because when our fantasies of overcoming this web are shattered by the realities of accident, disease, aging, and circumstance and we begin to sink, this view encourages us to feel guilt because of our 'lack of faith'. Faith is not being able to walk on the water − only God can do that − but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.
Eugene Boring on Matthew's gospel, 'The New Interpreters' Bible'

As we sit here together in the nave of this church of St Peter, it is interesting to reflect that the word nave comes from the Latin word 'navis' meaning a boat or ship:

Peter should have believed Jesus and stayed in the boat. I know we love the walking on water bit, the brave heroic action. And there are times when our faith means taking these kind of risks, and relying on God to make all the difference. But there are more times when faith requires the risk of taking Jesus at his word. Trusting him. In fair weather, storms, calm waters and the choppy seas where our lives feel in danger.
Brian P. Stoffregen 'Exegetical Notes'

St Peter should have remembered Nicely-Nicely Johnson's testimony at the Salvation Army meeting:

As I laughed at those passengers to heaven
A great big wave came and washed me over board!
And as I sank and I hollered "someone save me!"
That's the moment I woke up, thank the Lord.
And I said to myself, sit down,
Sit down, you're rockin' the boat!
Said to myself sit down, sit down, you're rockin' the boat
Sit down, sit down, sit down, you're rockin' the boat!

'Guys and Dolls'

The sea itself in biblical thought denotes the forces of chaos, held at bay in the creative act of God, but always threatening ... Whereas the modern mind thinks of defying the law of gravity, the biblical mind thinks of the one who overcomes the power of chaos...From the Epic of Gilgamesh onward, it was a commonplace of ancient thought that no human being could perform this feat, reserved for deity. In biblical thought, only God walks on the sea. Precisely in the midst of this symmetrically constructed story, Jesus does what only God can do, and speaks with the voice of God, "I am." Eugene Boring on Matthew's gospel, 'The New Interpreters' Bible'

What is the secret of serene confidence in the existence of the Almighty? Well, you could spend the rest of the summer reading Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and try and work it out for yourself. Or, you could take advantage of the fact that we are in the hiatus of August: the harvest is mostly in, the politicians are on holiday, the Lambeth Conference is over, and we are becalmed. August is the time to be, rather than to do.

You know the graffiti, don't you:
Marx said: to do is to be;
Kant said: to be is to do;
but the wisest sage of them all recommended: do, be, do, be, do - Frank Sinatra.

As Kant almost said, there are two ways of knowing anything: working it out by pure logic, and knowing something intuitively. Let us wait until what the French call 'la rentrée' in September to find the ultimate argument to refute Richard Dawkins:

Lift up our souls, O Lord,
Above the weary round of harassing thoughts,
to your eternal presence.
Lift up our minds
to the pure, bright, serene
atmosphere of your presence,
that we may breathe freely,
and rest there in your love.
From there, surrounded by your peace,
may we return to do or to bear
whatever shall best please you,
O blessed Lord.

Edward Pusey

D H Lawrence wrote in 1928:

The moon perhaps has shrunk a little. One has been forced to learn about orbits, eclipses, relative distances, craters and so on. The crescent at evening still startles the soul with its delicate flashing, but the mind works automatically and says 'Ah, she is in her first quarter...the earth's shadow is over her'. And willy-nilly the intrusion of the mental processes dims the brilliance, the magic of the first perception. It is the same with all things. The sheer delight of a child's perception is based on wonder; and, deny it as we may, knowledge and wonder counteract one another. You cannot help feeling wonder in an ant busily tugging at a straw. Even the real scientist works in a sense of wonder.

Now, hymns live and glisten in the depths of man's consciousness in undimmed wonder because they have not been subjected to any criticism or analysis...so that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is just as good to me now as when I was a child. I am eternally grateful for the wonder with which all religious teaching filled my childhood. 'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness', we sang. I don't know what this is exactly. But if you don't think about it -and why should you?- it has a magic. In me, it still produces a sense of splendour. When I was about 7, a teacher tried to harrow us about the crucifixion. She kept saying 'aren't you sorry for Jesus?' and most of the children wept. I never did care about the crucifixion, yet the wonder of it penetrated very deep in me.
Hymns in a Man's Life.

To have a simple faith is not necessarily the mark of a simple person: it may be the product of years of thought and prayer. The 18th century Quakers who emigrated to the Americas hoped to build a new life in a new world. They would face many challenges and often God, but they rejoiced in God and in his presence as they often sang in the Appalachian mountains:

It's a gift to be simple,
It's a gift to be free,

It's a gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we see ourselves in a way just right,
we will live in a valley of love and delight.

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the endings, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.