Carried into the Boat

Sunday 7th August 2011
Year A, The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 14:22-33

Recently, Jane Austen's novel, the Watsons, went under the hammer. What is curious about it is that it is incomplete; but I doubt it will remain so for long. There is a minor but flourishing industry in completing what has been left unfinished, from Charles Dickens' Mystery of Edwin Drude and Jane Austen's other unfinished novel, Sanditon, to Bruckner's Ninth and Mahler's Tenth Symphonies, and any amount of unfinished Schubert. Our culture is a culture of closure. Some authors in the 20th century with serious literary pretensions abandoned the happy ever after formula but it persists in all popular fiction and music.

The other genre where we like closure is in our history. We don't like it to be so messy that we cannot see a clear picture; indeed, there is a strong argument that if a piece of work is impenetrably equivocal, it might be academically useful but it isn't real history. The trouble is that it's the winners who write the history or, put another way round, we tend to read the accounts of our victories to such an extent that we turned the retreat from Dunkirk into a victory!

Where does Saint Peter stand in this light? Well, he ultimately ended up on the winning side and, for all his vicissitudes, he became the focal point of the western Church: it is his Basilica which dominates Rome, while that of Saint Paul is outside the walls, but his life has no beginning, no childhood chapter to explain his later behaviour and no closure. He says his piece at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, claiming, quite properly - and in spite of Saint Paul's later claims - to be the Apostle to the Gentiles; and then he disappears while Paul takes up the whole of the second half of Acts.

But whereas we get a rather cold  picture of Paul from the generally warm Luke, our snapshots  of Peter are vivid and multi dimensional; and no more so than in Today's Gospel.

Now we could have a discussion about how literally to take this story but that is a rather mechanical question which misses the central point which is how we are to understand our calling. Here we are, in a boat, with the wind contrary and the waves threatening, and it's just before dawn, the lowest point in the human circadian cycle when all problems are multiplied, when anxiety about one thing feeds off anxiety about all the others so that there is a knot of anxiety which seems incapable of disentanglement. So, as I said, here we are at our worst, frightened and bleak, when we see a figure on the horizon and we think it's Jesus whom we follow but we then flip into thinking it's some kind of malign spirit. Then it speaks and we know it's Jesus. And our leader, who is by turns the bravest and the most frightened, asks Jesus if it is truly him, to call him over. So Jesus says "come" and Peter pitches himself over the side and we think "impetuous fool! show off!' and such like; but we look again, expecting him to sink, and he's there, striding towards Jesus' outstretched arms; and then he slows down and, like somebody cycling or ice skating, there's only a certain amount of slowing down you can do before you disintegrate; and that's what Peter does. And we all experience a mixture of "Oh dear!" and “I told you so!" And then Jesus catches him and carries him into the boat as if he were a babe; and the wind ceases.

And we have to look very hard into the New Testament to find a better description of the way we are called and the way in which we follow. This Jesus whom we follow as Christians has been with us in all kinds of guises, for most of us throughout our lives, and yet we are still equivocal when he shows up in a new guise; and we doubt. Look at Peter's statement: "If you are Jesus, call me." And Jesus, apparently refusing to be upset by this equivocation, calls Peter, calls us, and we set off at a cracking pace but we look round and the hostile territory and lose momentum.

Of course, for us it isn't so spectacular in the sense that we're not actually in a boat in hostile weather with the bodily Jesus walking on the water but, on the other hand, we are here now, as Easter children, heirs of the Resurrection, about to partake in the body and blood of Christ, and yet we know in our hearts that no matter how high spirited we are when we leave, our energy will be sapped by the hostile environment: not enough time to say prayers; not enough money to give to the Africa famine; not enough energy to combat prejudice; not enough imagination to solve a problem; not enough patience with a friend or relation who needs support; and our momentum steadily ebbs away so that each forward motion becomes ever more difficult; and it is only usually at this point that we really understand what is going on. We have to reach a crisis point before we realise how bad things have become; and we're thrashing around in the water; and we think we're going to sink.

And then, in the nick of time, Jesus picks us up, no matter how big, no matter how proud, no matter how rich, no matter how clever,  picks us up like a baby and carries us to safety; and calms the hostile weather; and we sleep.

There  is an apparent contradiction here, that we are supposed to do so  much for Jesus and yet we are babes; but the solution is simple enough: we are competent enough in carrying out our duties in this world but we are mere babes in the Spirit. We are expected to employ our skill and our will for the love of God and the good of humanity but everything we do must be done within the framework of grace. Only in the Spirit can we maintain strong faith, lively hope and selfless love. And when the environment is hostile, when the waves threaten and the wind is contrary we must not, as Peter did, look down at his feet; we must look straight at Jesus and keep on walking.

But we know it won't be like that. Peter's life is our life; and his shortcomings are our shortcomings. And although there is no end to his story - although there is a strong tradition that he became head of the church in rome and was martyred for his faith - we can compose it for ourselves; whatever the detail, the man who stumbled for us all ended up in the arms of Jesus, as we will.