The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Narrative Lectionary)
Text: Matthew 14.13-33
Discipleship in the fast lane
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
What I like about the Gospels is that they are very realistic. That might seem a strange thing to say, when we have just heard stories of miraculous feeding and walking on water. The miraculous and unlikely is certainly part of the Gospels. But there are also realistic- the things people do, even in extraordinary situation, the way they react, is often very true to life. People appear in the Gospels warts and all. That’s especially true of Jesus’ disciples, who come across, not as plaster saints, but as very fallible human beings, who often make mistakes and constantly misunderstand their master.
At the end of a long day, when Jesus has been busy healing and teaching, a problem arises. One of the disciples points out the very practical issues that they are a long way from the nearest town, it’s getting on to evening, and the vast crowds which have followed Jesus to this remote place have nothing to eat. The disciples have a very practical solution: ‘Send the people away and let them go to the villages to buy food for themselves’. That is a practical, pragmatic solution from these all-too-human disciples- get the people who have caused the problem to fix it themselves.
But Jesus is less practical. He doesn’t want to send the people away. He wants his followers to be a good deal more hospitable than the disciples are willing to be. So he gives an impractical instruction: ‘They don’t have to leave… You yourselves give them something to eat’.
It’s very noble of Jesus to want to feed everyone there. But it is very impractical, as the disciples soon point out: ‘All we have here are five loaves and two fish’. These disciples are realists- the kind of people who will point out the problems, the limits, whenever we feel like being noble and visionary. We do need such people- but in this story they do not get the last word.
Jesus takes what is there, gives thanks, and breaks the bread, sharing with his disciples. And somehow everyone gets fed. We often call it the feeding of the 5,000, but Matthew says that it’s 5,000 men ‘not counting the women and children’- so it’s probably something over 10,000 people.
How it was done I have no idea. Perhaps the disciples hadn’t looked hard enough when they found the 5 loaves and 2 fish. Perhaps there were people who had food, and who were somehow moved to generosity. But that kind of explanation- and I’ve used it in sermons myself- turns this into a merely a moral tale. But for Matthew, this is a not a morality tale, but miracle story. At the end, for example, we hear there were 12 baskets of leftovers, which sounds like an exaggeration- hyperbole, as the scholars call it. Matthew is telling us a story, not about how generous humans can be, or trying to encourage us to be generous. This is a story about how generous God is.
The way Matthew tells us, there was simply not enough food. It wasn’t that people were hiding it or storing it up. It just wasn’t there. Only God’s miraculous intervention ensures that there is enough to go round. Matthew is assuring us that, when crisis comes, God always gives us enough.
That’s something we need to learn in our lives as individuals. But if we just see this a story for each of us as individuals, we are again in danger of missing the point. For look at the setting of this story. It comes at the end of a long day of preaching and healing. The people have come to meet Jesus- and Jesus, in his words and actions, wants to bring them to meet God. So for Jesus, sending the people away is not an option. It might have been the sensible thing to do- but he is not going to send people away when they have come to find out about God.
But threatening to send the people away, the disciples threatened Jesus mission. By going for the pragmatic approach- they can buy their own food from other people- the disciples are turning people away of Jesus, and from the chance to encounter God. Jesus, however, wants to assure the people of God’s care and providing for them. Last week, David preached on the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. That would have been a heartfelt plea for many of those in the crowd. For this was an agricultural society, where people lived off the land in away few us of do nowadays. They were prone to famine and war, they worked hard to grow crops much of which went to the rapacious landlords, and when they tried to trade their produce they had to pay tax to the Romans. For many of them, actual hunger was never far away. Those of us used to buying our bread from heaving shelves of supermarkets can miss just how well-crafted these words were for the Palestinian peasants Jesus first spoke them to: give us this day our daily bread. This is a prayer for people who live a hand to mouth existence.
So Jesus is saying, ‘Don’t send them away, because they need to be here. And don’t ask them to dip into their own, scarce resources- they hardly have any money to pay for food in the villages. Instead, disciples what do you have. Not very much? Never mind- in God’s hands, it will be enough’.
So this is a story which is really addressed to the church. We’re being told that when people come to meet Jesus, we are to practice hospitality. We are to welcome them, not turn them away. We are to give what we have so that they might experience the abundance of God. We are to have faith that even when we don’t think we can bring much, God will make much, much more of it. We are to take risks, and to rely on God. We’re not to be too practical- we’re to expect miracles, even when there doesn’t seem much material for miracles. This is something the church- our church- needs to hear today. We need to hear Jesus calling us to take risks in welcoming people. We need to hear Jesus telling us not to be cautious and practical, but to hope for miracles. We need to hear Jesus telling us to welcome, not to turn away, those who come to him, and to allow God to feed them.
The huge meal, in which everyone is fed, makes a fitting climax to a busy day. And at the end of the day, Jesus dismisses both his disciples, and the crowd. The crowd go home full- and the disciples are told to push the boat out and go on ahead. I wonder if, once more, the disciples thought Jesus impractical. Why doesn’t he just come with them- because he needs time to pray and reflect at the end of this busy day. And I wonder, too, if these Galilean fishermen perhaps guessed that the weather might not be too good for a night cruise. If they did, and if they said so, it doesn’t matter- Jesus sends them off.
So Jesus goes up a hill to pray, and as it gets dark, it gets stormy out on the lake. It’s funny how the weather out of the water can be quite different from the land. Even an inland lake, like the Sea of Galilee, or Loch Ness, is affected by the wind very differently, as there is no shelter are there is on the land. It’s scary already for the disciples, as their boat is tossed about in the darkness. No wonder they scream in fear when they see Jesus walking on the water.
Again, people have tried to explain this very odd miracle- I think the silliest suggestion I ever heard about was that maybe Jesus was on a sandbank. Again, trying to explain it away misses the point Matthew the Gospel writer is trying to make by telling this tale. It’s a wonderful drama, and we should simply enjoy the story.
So the disciples scream in fear, because they think they’re seeing a ghost. But somehow, over the noise of the wind and the waves, Jesus makes himself heard: ‘Courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’. And those are words we all want to hear when we are tossed around in a storm. We want to hear that Christ himself is there with us, for these disciples might often get it wrong, but they know enough of Jesus to know that there is nothing to be afraid of if he is there. Just as the story of the miraculous feeding is telling us that God is going to provide, so this tale is telling us that Christ will be with us in the storm. If anything links these two miracles, it is the sense that, when things go wrong (run out of food, get caught in a storm) God is going to be there.
Peter the disciple, impetuous, questioning Peter, speaks up. If it is really his Lord, he should be able to order him out of the boat. Jesus answers him: ‘Come!’ and Peter is somehow emboldened to do what none of us would ever dare- he climbs over the edge of the boat, out of the relative safety of the vessel which is just about keeping him afloat, apparently trusting that the one he calls ‘Lord’ will keep him not just afloat, but walking on top of the water. This is a strange, dramatic tale!
And he does it. He starts walking on the water towards Jesus. This is an incredible thing to happen- but it is a miracle story, after all. Incredible things happen in miracle stories. Peter’s also being able to walk in water sounds like the kind of hyperbole which gave us all those left over baskets of food when there hadn’t been anything in the first place. We shouldn’t try to explain- we should just enjoy the story.
Water-walking is impossible- we have to suspend out disbelief in order to get the story- just as we are willing to believe, for the sake of the story of Doctor Who, that a police box can travel through time and space. But in the midst of the miraculous, the best stories have people being very human. We might not believe that Peter ever walked on water- but we could believe that, if he did, he might not get very far before he started to panic.
This bit of the story makes me think of the Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons, who runs off the edge of a cliff, then stops in mid air, looks around and down, realises that there is nothing solid under his feet, before finally falling into the canyon. ‘But when he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid and started to sink down in the water’- this is Peter’s Wile E. Coyote moment!
But as he sinks, he is rescued by Jesus, who- you might think a little unfairly- accuses him of weak faith and doubt. The implication is that, if he had kept focussed on Christ and not started to fear the waves, Peter would have made a much better job of water-walking. Yet when they get into the boat- and as the wind dies down- there is little apparent doubt- ‘Then the disciples in the boat worshipped Jesus. “Truly you are the Son of God!” they exclaimed’.
So- two stories of extraordinary miracles. All miracle stories are extraordinary, but these are unusual, for miracles in the Gospels are usually healing miracles. These two have Jesus seeming to change the nature of reality- creating abundant food out of very little, and defying normal physics to allow Jesus- and Peter for a briefer moment- to walk on water. They are about creation, and assert that Jesus has domination over the created order. And so they point beyond Jesus to God his Father, the creator who provides our daily bread, and who rules over wind and waves.
And they remind us that our Creator God is to be depended upon utterly. When we are tempted to turn people away, when we feel scarcity will prevent us from being hospitable, God will provide abundantly. And when we are tossed around by circumstance, like fearful boat passengers in a storm, here comes Christ, telling us not be afraid, because ultimately God is in control. And if we keep looking to Christ, and relying on his father, our creator, we will blessed.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo
Offering after sermon at SS