Walking Toward Us: Reflections on Matthew 14:22-33

These people are all right. We can't, on our human strength alone.

Someone Walking Toward Us
But early in the morning, here comes someone walking toward the battered boat, as it is being blown farther and farther from shore. Here comes someone walking toward them who could have chosen to be somewhere else right now.

Here comes someone who could be standing on the shore watching them (us) suffer thinking, "What a shame."

Here comes someone who could be living in a gated mansion in peace, rather than amid needy people, who all want a piece of him, hemmed in by the hungry, his personal space transgressed by the sick.

Here comes someone who could have daily spa treatments and a personal masseuse, rather than live continually pestered by the pestilent.

Here comes someone who could be reclining at a banquet table at a four-star restaurant, rather than kneeling in the dust and multiplying grimy loaves and gritty fish.

Here comes someone walking toward them (us)—why? Because he chooses to do so.

Paul tells us, reflecting on the life of Jesus as conveyed to us in the gospels, that "Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and being found in human form, he was obedient, even unto death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6ff).

Walking On the Water
But that's only half the sentence. "He comes walking toward us on the water."

In the mid 300s Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, a brilliant thinker of the early church, clarified how we think about Jesus over against a) those who taught that Jesus was an apparition who only seemed to be human—the Apparition Jesus (taught by the Docetists), and b) those who taught that Jesus was a human being who only seemed to have miraculous powers—the Magician Jesus (taught by the Ebionites).

Athanasius concluded that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine. If he were not fully human he would not have the compassion to save us. If he were not fully divine he would not have the power to save us.

Who is it that comes walking toward your boat on the water—someone who has the power to come to the place where you can't help yourself, where you are beyond all human help, and reach out a hand?

He comes walking toward people in places many church people might hesitate to go. The disciples, after all, in the feeding of the 5,000 wanted to send the hungry people away so they could be alone with Jesus.

He won't have it. If someone is beyond human help, he takes us straight to them.

"It's a Ghost!"
The disciples had been following Jesus for some time now. They had seen him feed thousands of people, heal people, and, back in chapter 8, they had been in another boat with him and seen him calm a storm at sea. They had seen his authority over demons, illness, and chaos. But they are slow learners. Jesus in Matthew has a pet name for them: "little faith ones." They still haven't learned to call on him in times of trial, in situations of distress. They still haven't learned that he is ready and able to be present with them. And when they see a figure doing what no human could do, coming where no human can come, walking on the water, they act like bad extras in a horror movie "It's a ghost!" they cry out in fear (Mt. 14:26).

What if we tried acting like disciples instead? Our lines would be different. We would say, "No, this is no ghost. This is Emmanuel." Or as the angel of the Lord told Mary: "God is with us" (Mt. 1:23). This is the one whose mission is to "bring light to people who sat in darkness" (Mt. 4:16).

Someone Is Coming Toward Your Battered Boat
Someone is coming toward your boat walking on the sea. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called that divine perambulation "prevenient Grace," the Grace that "goes before." So every time we call on Jesus it is because he is already coming toward us. Every time we invite Jesus, we are actually RSVPing to his prior invitation.

There is an African American saying that we are always either going into a storm, in a storm, or coming out of a storm. Disciples are those who are learning to call on Jesus the Son of God, in all three conditions. When our boat is battered by waves, we can call on Jesus. When our boat is far from land, we can call on Jesus. When our boat has the wind against it, we can call on Jesus. He knows our sufferings. He is approaching. He is present and able to offer assistance. He has been here all along. The question is, how are we going to respond to that knowledge? Are we going to keep focusing on the wind and the waves, or on the outstretched hand of our Lord?

We left poor Gary sitting on the park bench in a situation in which he feared he was beyond forgiveness, beyond a new future, his boat battered by waves, the odds against him. He says that, as he sat there mediating, he felt rather than heard the words, "Let them go. You don't need them anymore. Let them go."

7/31/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.