In the Boat: He who comes

Christ_marchant_sur_la_merComing on the Water. Alyce McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She always has a good “take” on Scriptures. I enjoy reading her Edgy Exegsis column on the Patheos portal. I thought I would share her insights on this reading:

Twenty centuries earlier, another man looks out over another lake from the mountaintop to which he has retreated to pray. He is not a superhero who has retreated to his bat cave. He is not a ghost out to haunt the already terrified. He is a man. Fully God, fully human. He is the Son of God, though those around him don’t yet recognize him. His ship of faith is being battered by the rejection of his hometown folks and the beheading of his cousin John the Baptist by Herod. He knows his time is coming. Crowds of needy people press in on him constantly.

At last he has sent the crowds away and convinced his disciples to get in a boat and cross over ahead of him. Finally he has found time to pray. He is praying, perhaps lifting up each of his fears to God and exchanging them for faith, allowing the comfort and healing and power of God to fill his inner life, his heart, mind, emotions, will. This is what the Old Testament tells us to do, to surrender all our lesser fears to our fear of the Lord, our reverence for God, for who God is and what God can do….

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).

In biblical thought, only God walks on the sea (Job 9:8; 38:16; Ps 77:19; Isa 43:16; 51:9-10; Hab 3:5; Sirach 24:5-6, of Divine Wisdom).

25 During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.

In the 4th century, 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.

The disciples have already experienced the compassion of Jesus for people’s conditions when he fed the 5,000 plus people. The question of divinity is perhaps more challenging, but it is precisely in the midst of this story, that Jesus speaks the divine words, saying ego eimi, literally “I am.” The formula is first one of simple identification, “It is I” – not a ghost as you fear. But the phrase also evokes the self-identification of God, Yahweh (YHWH) the one who says absolutely “I am” (see Exod 3:13-15).

Scholars argue whether Matthew means to claim that Jesus is Yahweh given that he had just pictured Jesus as praying to God. Some argue “either or” and hold that Matthew only intends that the divine presence and assurance is mediated by Jesus, as promised in 1:23. Others adhere to a “both-and” view and hold that Matthew intends both.

Again, from Alyce McKenzie: 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?…

It is a hand that is both very human, and the very hand of God.

Notes

Matthew 14:26 saw him walking on the sea: In biblical thought, only God walks on the sea (Job 9:8; 38:16; Ps 77:19; Isa 43:16; 51:9-10; Hab 3:5; Sirach 24:5-6, of Divine Wisdom). Questions are raised whether the response of the disciples: “It is a ghost is a superstitious response reflecting the popular belief that evil spirits lived in the sea or that those who had drowned haunted the water. Or was it a reactionary conclusion because the alternative was recognition that Jesus was indeed God.

Matthew 14:27 It is I: ego eimi, literally “I am” invoking the divine name of God in Exodus. Perhaps the more human “It’s me” is fitting for the meaning of v.26 if taken to be a superstitious response.

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2 thoughts on “In the Boat: He who comes

  1. Personally, I really can relate to the imagery of Christ extending his hand, possibly murmuring softly “Take my hand, I am here for you. Always!” Often, we can miss the beauty and simplicity of our faith and of Christ. And, then, in two little words, it all comes full circle — “I am.”

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