Fear, faith and the place of reason
Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
7 August 2005, 10:30 (Trinity 11)
Genesis 37.1-4;12-28. Matt 14.22-33 Yr A. Trinity 11 (Proper 14)
‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ At the risk of sounding dated and not resonating with the radio experience of anyone under about the age of fifty I can remember the way the story began in that short programme for children on the Light Programme – or was it the Home Service? - (there I go again, that dates me) called ‘Listen with Mother’. The reader always began: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’. Well, are you sitting comfortably? You shouldn’t be!! Not after today’s gospel, for it’s full of challenge to our personal, individual lives as well as our life as a world community.
It speaks about sharing, miracle and faith. Sharing – the story of the feeding of the five thousand; miracle –that story and the next about Jesus walking on water; and faith – Peter’s response to Jesus coming to them across the water. I want to examine these in turn and see why these are such a challenge.
First, the feeding of the five thousand. This is a disturbing story and not just because of its sense of the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes but also because of Jesus’s response to the disciples deflated outlook on what they had available for feeding the people who had followed them. He simply asked them ‘You give them something to eat.’ What have you got? He looked to them because they had the answer in their own hands. Five loaves and two fishes. Hang along, that’s not enough. Well it proved to be when it was shared and given over to the one who gives in the first place. Does this remind you of any challenging story we’ve heard this week? Can you keep out of your minds the terrible situation of starvation in Niger, the warnings that were given months ago, the lack of response when the G8 were actually meeting and the world congratulated itself on stating that it would come to the help of Africa?! It has been said time and again no one should starve in our world of plenty. There is enough food to go round. But, like Eric Morecambe’s experience of playing the piano with Andre Previn: all the notes are there but they’re not necessarily in the right places. I get the feeling that’s so with our food and medicine. We actually have enough but it’s not necessarily where it’s most needed. Perhaps we should see the meaning of real sharing as ‘I am happy with less so that those who have nothing have more’ and that this itself is miracle. The miracle is in the movement of the heart from preservation of self to protection of others. Maybe that’s something that only God can do in the hearts and minds of the hearers – that too is a miraculous work.
However, in case you’re thinking I don’t believe in miracles then I am further challenged by the next story in this chapter 14 about Jesus walking on the water. Did he? Didn’t he? Some commentators have said that perhaps he was walking on well placed stepping stones! No really! I don’t find this sort of version of religious hopscotch at all helpful. Indeed for me it devalues the story and begins to seduce us into thinking that either every aspect of the gospel can have a rational explanation or if it hasn’t it isn’t worth the papyrus it’s written on. In appreciating the miracle stories in the gospels I don’t think I have to deny my reasoning capacity as a person of faith. Nor do I have to deny my faith as a person of reason. Geoffrey John in a most helpful book called The Meaning in the Miracles tells of the time when he had two RE teachers at school, one who saw miracle as a mere suspension of the natural order of things and the other who explained everything away as if it had a rational answer. He found neither approach helpful. Well, as a Christian who believes in the incarnation, God come to us in human form in Jesus Christ, I believe in miracle. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, I believe in miracle. And those miracles make me see and appreciate more and more of the miraculous around me, in life and beauty, in the coincidences that happen, in ordinary and everyday moments. But it also doesn’t stop me wondering when things go wrong, when the coincidences don’t happen, and when bad things happen to good people.
So to the third aspect, faith. And in this particular instance the faith of Peter. We aren’t told why Peter decided to walk towards Jesus. It may have been because he thought Jesus might need rescuing or whether Peter wanted to prove what a faithful, person he was, but as he gets out of the boat he sees that the weather has struck up and he is suddenly filled with fear and begins to sink. I think the story is told not to convince us about miracle as much to tell us what faith is about. First, it is about invitation and response: Peter says to Jesus ‘Ask me to join you and Jesus says ‘Come’. He begins the journey but sinks - for fear. That for me is significant. So much of the time we think faith is about staving off the challenge of doubt, or getting our intellectual questions answered so that we can begin the journey of faith. But it is not doubt that paralyses our beginnings of faith but fear – either fear of what the family or friends might think (you’ve got religion – as if it’s a disease), fear of the loss of status (in the office), psychological fear of not being in control any more, or fear of what it will cost in reputation and so on.
But faith leads to the opening up of a whole new world. A world where even when there’s a storm going on you are not alone. Hear the words of Jesus Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid’. It’s interesting how John’s gospel also refers to the effect of fear. It was for fear of persecution that the disciples were behind locked doors following the resurrection. Fear imprisons - faith releases. Fear freezes - faith frees. Peter himself was to experience just that when he and the other disciples are commissioned at the end of this gospel and almost the same words that were said to him in the boat come back to him again as the gospel closes: I am with you to the end of the age.
In thinking about the place of reason in relation to faith I have always found William Temple’s observation helpful: he thought that whilst you cannot reason a person to faith, faith once held is reasonable.
In thinking through this sequence of stories one last important point also needs to be said, because it also opens up for us further insights into the way the gospel writer thinks and what for him is the good news of Jesus Christ.
Some commentators have said that this Chapter 14 begins a new part or the second half of Matthew’s Gospel account. The reason for this is that they have noted parallels with the opening chapters of Matthew, eg where there is reference to John the Baptist, where Jesus withdraws to a deserted place (the story of the temptation in the wilderness and where he doesn’t use his power for himself), where there is the response of faith by Peter and other fishermen and the response of Jesus to people who are sick followed by the teaching material in chapters 5-7 (including the Beatitudes). Now here in chapter 14 there is again reference to John the Baptist (his death), Jesus again withdraws to a deserted place; again there is a response to people who are hungry, where he challenges the disciples in their faith and he is acclaimed by disciples as the Son of God, followed by further teaching material.
As Matthew moves the story along he further emphasises his theological point that in Jesus he sees the new Moses, the one who leads his people through the wilderness and the waters to the promised land. And Jesus is more than Moses. He is the Son of God.
It is an uncomfortable place to be challenged. But as the early church then was beleaguered it found in Jesus its centre of peace amidst the storm of persecution and uncertainty, and in him its strength and its future.
So in our generation the story asks us to respond to Jesus Christ in a living faith that is fearless.