Preached at St Mary the Virgin, East Barnet, on the seventh Sunday after Trinity, 2014
Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
Earlier this week, I was having a conversation with a man in the village. He asked me where I had grown up. ‘Monmouth, in South Wales,’ I replied.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Were you a rower?’ (Monmouth sits on the River Wye and is quite well known for its rowing clubs.)
I could only laugh. ‘No,’ I said. ‘They had the good sense not to let me anywhere near the water.’ He laughed as well, but actually I wasn’t joking. I’m really not someone who takes to water at all. While I was a teenager, I came close to drowning on two separate occasions. From my childhood onwards, swimming classes were to be endured, not to be enjoyed. Other people could race around a swimming pool. They made it look easy, even fun. No one ever looked at me, floundering away, and thought it looked easy or fun.
I didn’t grow up afraid of the water, not precisely. But I did pay it a very healthy respect. I knew very well that I had to be careful around it, because I was never fully in control. Water was dangerous.
Water is dangerous. But we can’t live without it. Water is both vital to our existence and ultimately out of our control. We may be able to turn on a tap and command water to fill our baths. But we can’t command the rain to fall, nor to stop falling. Like the old English king, we cannot stand on the beach and demand that the tide stop and the waves not wet our feet.
We may be masters of technology to an astonishing degree. But we cannot master nature.
This is a theme that we can recognise throughout biblical literature. Nature is powerful and uncontrollable. Above all, the sea is terrifying. It is the place of unknown monsters. ‘That Leviathan,’ as the psalmist says. The forces of wind and water are so strong and unpredictable. Going to sea—even an inland sea like the Sea of Galilee—is full of danger.
For ancient Israel, the sea is the most powerful thing on Earth. And so their most powerful religious statement was, ‘God is in control of the sea.’ Or ‘God made the sea.’ These ideas come up time and time again. The greatest moment in Israel’s history was the rescuing of the Hebrew people from Egypt when God parted the Red Sea. God created the the most powerful thing they know. He has power over it. How great must he be!
And this is the message we see in the Gospel today. Jesus sends the disciples across the lake. During their journey, a great storm arises. As they try to sail into the wind, they are battered by the waves. These were hardy fishermen, remember, used to this kind of weather. They were used to rough weather, though they never stopped fearing it.
And then they see Jesus walking towards them across the waters. This was, unsurprisingly, something they weren’t used to. They are terrified, and their minds go straight to the supernatural. ‘It’s a ghost!’ someone says. (Probably Thomas, because that’s just the kind of thing Thomas would say.) But Jesus says those wonderful words, ‘Do not be afraid.’ These are words that we hear time and time again. To Our Lady, as the archangel greets her. To the shepherds after Christ’s birth. To the disciples after the Resurrection. Time and time again, in the New Testament and in the Old. ‘Do not be afraid.’ And as Jesus speaks that word of peace to them, they are know him.
And Peter, being Peter, is inspired and wants to join Jesus. Then Peter, being Peter, gets scared and starts falling in. Jesus takes him by the hand. He calms Peter, and he calms the sea.
The disciples see the power he has over the forces of nature, and they know who he is. He is God. They worship him.
Now, earlier on I talked about my respect for water, but the sea doesn’t quite have the same rôle in our culture today. We don’t fear it. We take our holidays on huge cruise ships. We send submarines for months at a time. Vast oceans are covered in hours by aircraft. Single people in small boats circumnavigate the world. Our culture doesn’t fear the sea.
But we do know the powers of chaos and darkness. Whenever we see the news, we are surrounded by chaos, darkness and fear. Christians suffering persecution in Iraq. Endless war in Syria. Conflict upon conflict across sub-Saharan Africa. The unholy war in the Holy Land.
And we have no control. We can’t stop the tide on the beach and we can’t command these conflicts to cease. The chaos and the darkness are too strong and we are too weak. We, like the disciples, look on with fear. We cry out in despair. There is nothing we can do. ‘There must be something we can do,’ we say, ‘there must be.’ And then, for all our efforts to make things better, they only seem to get worse.
And it’s not only in human conflict. In our daily lives, we are confronted with the randomness and frailty of our human nature. For all our advances in medicine and psychology, we cannot prevent failings of body, mind and spirit. We weep and we mourn, but we are subject to our human nature. We have no control.
And yet it is here, as we weep and mourn and despair of all hope, that the Christian gospel has most to say. Ancient Israel trembled before the power of the sea and yet proclaimed that her God had power over it. And so we tremble before the powers of darkness, chaos and disease. We too proclaim that God has power over it. Even when it’s impossible. Even when we cannot see how on earth God is going to do anything at all to make it right. Even then, especially then, we proclaim that God made it and has power over it.
This isn’t easy. Perhaps we might have a moment of clarity, when we see Christ in all his power, taming the powers of darkness in the world. Perhaps, like Peter, we will say in that moment, ‘Lord, command me to come to you on the water.’ But then we will fear again. We will doubt. We will fall. And all we can do is to cry out with Peter, ‘Lord, save me!’ And he speaks peace to us. ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Those aren’t words of rebuke. Jesus isn’t angry when he says that. His voice is one of compassion and peace. ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ After all, he knows of what we are made. He knows our weakness. The night before he died, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he too despaired. And so, when we cry ‘Lord, save me!’, we can be sure that he will hear us. And, at the end of all things, we will see the impossibly good things that are to come. Our Lord will greet us with laughter and joy. ‘You of little faith, why did you ever doubt?’
This may sound romantic or naïve. But in times of darkness and despair, when the world is closing in around us and we have no hope left, all we can do is call upon God. Even at the darkest moments and in the bitterest moments, remember that Christ is Lord. Trust in him.
And here, on this altar, under the form of bread and wine, Christ comes to us. He comes with power and mercy, righteous judgement and the tenderest compassion. He comes with the promise of the new creation. He brings that new creation into this world. We take all our troubles, doubts and fears and we bring them to his altar. We receive a foretaste of our heavenly reward. In this sacrament, we receive a pledge of future joy. Here, we needn’t have any fear. And so we can say,
Sweet Sacrament of rest, ark from the ocean’s roar, within thy shelter blest soon may we reach the shore; save us, for still the tempest raves, save, lest we sink beneath the waves. Sweet Sacrament of rest.
And so to our Lord Jesus Christ, who has saved us and who will save us, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.