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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't Be Afraid

Texts: Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

When Matthew wrote his gospel, he did so for a small Christian community only just separated from the local Jewish synagogue in Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee.  For most of the first century, you see, Jewish followers of Jesus saw no reason to go off and start their own religion.  They saw their belief in Jesus as a fulfilment of their Jewish faith, and other Jews were, on the whole, quite happy for Christians to remain part of their communities.  But things changed dramatically with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70.  Jewish leaders started to believe that the destruction of the temple was a punishment from God for their lax faith.  So reforms began within Judaism, reforms that sought to take the community back to a more strict following of the Mosaic law than it had become accustomed to.  This meant that the Christian groups within Judaism—which were seen as radically liberal—began to find themselves on the wrong side of the reform.  Eventually, after years of tension, after claim and counter-claim, the Christians were finally expelled from the Synagogues in the early nineties of the first century.

This left the Jewish Christian communities in a rather vulnerable situation.  Suddenly they were no longer able to practice their faith as part of the living, breathing community that was Judaism.  No longer could they rely upon the support, economic as well as spiritual and moral, of that community.  They were out on their own, exiles from the promised land, cast out and shunned for their sins.  But they were in a more vulnerable position before the Roman power as well.  The Jewish communities were tolerated by Rome, you see.  Jews were pitied and derided, certainly, but in the 90s they were free to practice their faith under the pax romana The Christian communities, no longer part of institutional Judaism, now enjoyed no such privilege.  Increasingly, in the period when Matthew writes, the Roman authorities are taking a very dim view of the fledgling Christian religion.  Already, in the mid 90s, Christians are experiencing significant discrimination from the Roman state.  No longer are they able to hide under the skirts of their Jewish cousins.  They are a minority group, out there in the open.  And, pretty soon—perhaps only a year or two after Matthew wrote his gospel—the Christians are subjected to a devastating wave of state—sanctioned persecution.

So the community of Christians to which Matthew writes is feeling very vulnerable indeed.  The religious and social foundation on which these people had built their lives has suddenly begun to crumble.  The once friendly environment in which their day-to-day lives had taken shape has suddenly turned cold and indifferent.  People feel uncertain about the future.  They feel afraid.  They wonder where God is.  So the gospel story we heard a moment ago represents Matthew’s attempt to address exactly these fears and these questions. 

In the first century the image of a boat came to stand for the church.  So when Matthew tells us that the disciples are out on the lake in a boat, the reader understands that he is talking about a small church community trying to find its way to where Jesus is waiting.  Similarly with the storm, which here functions as a symbol of chaos—theological and political chaos—the kind of chaos which Matthew’s community is actually experiencing.  To them, the fear and the uncertainty of their strange new situation is like being out on a stormy sea. 

And the other symbols in the story are consistent with this reading as well.  When the disciples first see Jesus, they think he is a ghost.  Small, threatened communities see a lot of ghosts and monsters!  In the midst of the struggle to hang on to their fragile sense of identity, people can become more than a little paranoid.  The thinking goes something like this.  “People don’t understand or value what we stand for.  There’s a lot of folk who don’t like us, a lot of people who would prefer we disappeared.   Therefore I presume that YOU, the unknown person standing before me, wants us to disappear.  I’m going to presume you are hostile unless you prove otherwise.”  To communities such as Matthew’s, just about every new face is like a scary ghost.  Fear can do that to you.  In the story, it is the disciples who are made to represent such communities.  And Matthew has some very interesting things to say to them.

First, Matthew wants his community to know that ghosts and monsters can turn out to be saviours.  Often it is the one who is most scary to a small community who turns out to be their greatest ally and help through difficult times.  One might read the story of Joseph like that.  Now here’s a fellow who, by anyone’s standards, starts life as a bit of a dickhead.  With the apparent backing of his powerful father Jacob, whose word was law in that part of the world, he swans around the clan with dreams and stories about how they will all bow down to him one day.   To us, that talk seems funny or even charming.  But to his brothers, it was no such thing.  They were not amused.  Indeed, Joseph’s stories made them feel so afraid that, in time, they were driven to violence.   In the time and culture of this story, you see, the younger brother was supposed to serve the older. That was how the world was, and pretty much every social and cultural certainty proceeded from that one assumption.  So when Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s sons, seems to assume that he will be the head of the family one day, the other brothers can only assume that he is dreaming of some kind of fratracide, some kind of doing away with not only their rights, but also their economic and social future.  With Jacob favouring the youngster, the prospect seems only too real.  Of course, in the end, Jacob indeed becomes the boss, and more powerful than even his brothers had imagined.  Yet their fears turn out to be groundless, because it is precisely this reversal of the cultural status-quo which allows them to survive economic disaster when the famine arrives.  Disaster turns to promise, fear turns to joy.  The dickhead, the monster, turns out to be a messiah of sorts.  So too in Matthew’s story.  The “ghost” turns out to be Jesus.  “Don’t be afraid, it is I,” he says.  “Take heart”. 

In Matthew’s story, the ghost turns out to be a saviour figure who, unlike the disciples, is unafraid of the wind and the waves.  Jesus is not troubled by the chaos all around.  Indeed, far from being engulfed by such chaos, Jesus appears to walk straight through it.  Now, does that make Jesus somehow superhuman?  Is he like the heroes in comic books who seem immune from the fears and concerns the rest of us face?  Certainly not!  Remember that before Jesus came to the boat, he had spent the night with God in prayer.  Matthew wants us to note that the peace and calm which Jesus exemplifies in this moment is hard won.   Through the night he has been wrestling with his own sense of fear and inadequacy.  All around he sees the bottlomless needs of a people oppressed.  Ahead he sees only the cross and the dissolution of his small community.  But finally, through the tears and cries of a dark night, he glimpses the fact of the resurrection and of the church, and he has been able to accept God’s peace.  So much so, that when he arrives at the boat, walking above the waves, he is able to say  ‘Don’t be afraid.  I am the master of wind and sky and politics and history.  And I am with you’.  The message for Matthew’s community is clear.

And finally, note that Matthew has a word of grace for those who believe that wave-walking is only for mystics and prophets.   Even Peter, a total failure as a mystic if ever there was one, even Peter is able to transcend the chaos around him for a moment.  Even Peter is able to let go of his fear, jump ship, and trust in Jesus, if only for a moment.  Of course, when he turns again to note the fury of the forces arraigned against him, he finds himself in the water once more.  ‘Not waving, but drowning’, as the poet Stevie Smith said.  But we should be careful in our reading here.  Matthew is not so interested in Peter’s failure as in Christ’s mercy.  He recognises that few of us, not even those with some kind of saintly pedigree, have really got what it takes to walk through the storms unassisted.  If we call to God for help, knowing full well the poverty of our faith, then God will hear and save us.  This is what Matthew wants his readers to know.  ‘Lord, save me’ came Peter’s cry.  And while Jesus chides him for doubting, he also raises him from the water and accompanies him back to the boat.  Only when Jesus acts is all well.

Well, this has all been very interesting hasn’t it.  But what has it to do with us, here and now?  This is the preacher’s question, and without it, the story is irrelevant.  I wonder if we who have gathered here this morning are a small, fearful, community like Matthew’s?  I suspect we are.  Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Christians are popularly regarded as being out of touch with what’s really important, and therefore irrelevant to anything that’s really important.  That means that most of us don’t wear our Christianity on our sleeves.  Most of us are more than a little embarrassed about being Christians.  And why is that so?  Well, let me suggest it has as much to do with our own discomfort in faith as it does with the other person’s lack of regard for our faith.  Many, if not most, of we church-goers, are in rather in two minds about doing so.  Many of us suspect, do we not, that the crowd out there might well be right about Christianity?  That it’s just an anachronistic and irrational practice whose time has passed; that it’s a particularly pathetic form of wowserism that is best left behind; that while it may prove a useful crutch to hang on to during the tough times, it adds very little to life when all is going well?  When you’ve got a decent social life at work, at Probus, or at the sports centre, who needs church?  Let me suggest to you that the vitality of small Christian communities, here at the end of the twentieth century, is indeed at risk.  Afflicted by disinterest from without and fears from within, many Christian communities are simply fading away.  And let’s call a spade a spade.  Most Christian churches in contemporary Australia are never more than a hair’s breath away from that.

In the midst of these kinds of marginalisation, in the midst of our fears that we may cease to be, we have a choice.  We can give in the powers all around us.  We can capitulate to the values and perspectives of the world we live in.  Or we can cling to God.  We can let go of our fears and trust in the God who died and rose again.  Which will it be?  Now I’m still only a young fellow, and I know that some of you may be asking ‘Where does this fellow get off?  What the hell does he know about life?’  In answer, I can only tell you that I’ve lived a life too.  I’ve been knocked around by that life as well.  I’ve struggled with where I’ve come from, I’ve struggled with where I’m going.  I’ve fought with my family, with the church, I’ve fought with God, and I’ve fought with myself.  I’ve seen things clearly, with an intellectual certainly (if you can call it that), but I’ve also fallen into the depths of confusion and despair.  But . . . through it all, the only thing which has proved itself to be worth anything at all, the only thing that has proved itself able to continually redeem my life from the brink is my faith.  My faith in the crucified and risen one, my faith in the God of Jesus Christ, who reaches out to me with a love deep and true.

Faith, for me, is the pearl of great price.  The one thing I am willing to sell everything to attain.  Because in faith I hear that priceless voice of Jesus:  ‘Take heart.  Don’t be afraid.  It is I’.  This morning, I am simply a witness to that voice.  No more, no less.