SERMON ON JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA - Matthew 14:22-34
August 21, 2016
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Beloved, here's your quiz. Do you remember what I said to you some months back about who was the first person to see the risen Christ? Not Mary Magdalene but someone else? Yes, the fathers say clearly that it was the Mother of God. Others didn't recogize Him, they thought He was the gardener. But the fathers say that the Theotokos saw Him first and recognized Him immediately. There are many texts in the Gospels that speak of people "seeing" Jesus, or wanting to "see" Jesus. For instance, Luke 19: 2-3 says: "And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature." And in John 12:20-21 it says: "And there were certain Greek-speakers among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, ...saying, Sir, we would see Jesus." This is SO funny, because these out-of-towners came to Philip in order to see Jesus, but the Lord Jesus chastises this same Philip for not "seeing" Him at all. The Lord said: "“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?"
In today's Gospel we encounter a similar problem. It says: "Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear (Matthew 14: 25-26). What happened? These are Jesus' disciples; they know him better than anyone. They know what Jesus looks like. Their eyes were not confused because of the storm, the wind, or the waves. It says that "when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea." Not "when the disciples saw a form gliding toward them" or "when the disciples saw something that looked like it might be Jesus walking on the sea." It says "when the disciples saw Him." And when the disciples saw Him what did they say? "It is a ghost!" They are not comforted by the sight of Jesus. St Matthew says they were "troubled" or at least that's the word that many translators use. But the word in Greek (ἐταράχθησαν) is actually much stronger. It's closer to something like "shocked with terror." So why are they terrified at the sight of Jesus walking on the water? Hadn't they seen Him work many miracles - even raising people from the dead?
Yes, of course they had. But they had never been separated from Him like this before, and the very moment that they stepped into the boat, they were afraid. That's what the fathers say. The disciple were not happy when Jesus "compelled them" to enter the ship without Him. They were fishermen. They knew the weather. They knew the signs, they knew the treachery of the water. They felt secure and protected as long as He was physically with them. But now they were afraid, and this is precisely what the Lord wanted! He wanted them to develop their faith, and not to rely solely on His physical presence with them. St John Chrysostom said:
"(The Lord) allowed for them to be tossed the whole night, exciting their hearts by fear, and inspiring them with greater desire and more lasting recollection of Him; for this reason He did not stand by them immediately, but...(instead) teaches them not to seek a speedy riddance of coming evil, but to bear manfully such things as befall them. But when they thought that they were delivered, then was their fear increased, whence it follows, 'And seeing him walking upon the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a vision, and through fear they cried out.' For the Lord always does this; when He is to rescue from any evil, He brings in things terrible and difficult. For since it is impossible that our temptation should continue a long time, when the warfare of the righteous is to be finished, then He increases their conflicts, desiring to make greater gain of them; which He did also in Abraham, making his conflict his trial of the loss of his son."
So what does this mean in English? It means that the Lord allowed this "test" for His disciples in order to strengthen their faith in Him. He said to one of them on another occasion: "Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." "The love of Christ is tested by adversity" says St Mark the Ascetic, and St John of Karpathos says that "God who watches the contest, often allows us for some definite period of time to be trampled by our enemies, but it is the mark of a noble and courageous soul not to despair in adversity." The disciples had to learn not to despair. They had to learn not to fear, but instead to have faith, to believe, and to have confidence in Christ - even when He is invisible, even when your mind deceives you and your thoughts make you afraid. And this is the same lesson that all of us need to learn.
Peter was the chief of the disciples. He too had been terrified. He too saw Jesus with his eyes, but his fallen brain told him that this had to be a spirit, a phantasm, a specter. But when Jesus identified himself by using the Divine Name "Be not afraid - I AM" Peter's thinking was jolted, it was dragged from the earth back to heaven, and He was able both to see and to know who Jesus was. That is what gave him the courage to call Him "Lord" rather than "a ghost." Real faith only comes by means of trials. As the Holy Apostle James, Brother of the Lord, says, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and whole, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4). The Apostle Paul says "And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). And a last quote from St John of Karpathos again: "He allows us to suffer adversities so that in the end He may give us eternal joy and glory."
So, what does it mean to be whole and perfect? What does it mean to acquire eternal joy and glory? It is the ability to see Jesus, as He truly is. It is the fulness of faith - which has every confidence that no matter what our situation, no matter what our trials, no matter what our sorrows, Christ will come to rescue us. He may not come immediately, and He may not always come in the way we want Him to, but He will come and He will save us. Amen.