The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
Sixty years ago today, as our globe rolled into the warm morning glow of the sun’s rays, a few people awoke to discover that humanity had been carried during its sleep into an era of blistering radiance. Not everyone knew yet that the blinding ferocity of the sun, which holds our planet in orbit around itself, was now something we human beings had stooped to pick up and place in our pockets: searing and annihilating power. The thunderbolts Zeus and Thor held over Europe in myth, fallible frightened people now held over Japan in fact. If anything, this is where we have stumbled: either paralyzed by the guilt of our arrogant trespass—who are we to sit where the gods sat and to wield their weapons?—or blinded by the pride of our achieved possession—what were the gods but the terror-forged dreams of our ancestors predicting their children’s and now our success?
This mix of paralysis and blindness is what we see in today’s Gospel. This is actually the second half of a single story: Jesus feeds over five thousand people with a meal adequate only for a single family, then walks across the water to catch up with the disciples whom he has sent on ahead by boat. The thrust of this story is the restoration of the Exodus, the period of courtship in the wilderness between God and the people of Israel. As God fed the tribes with manna in the desert, so Jesus feeds; as God opened the Red Sea, so Jesus also moves across the water. In both episodes in both stories, neither the absence of nourishment nor the presence of natural barriers impede God’s blessing and God’s approach. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. The disciples anticipate in neither case what Jesus will do; they do not yet understand that God is the one who is with them.
Only Matthew, however, tells the surreal story we heard today, in which a human being asks to do what he sees God doing and achieves for a moment what is effortless to God. It is surreal because it is impossible to know if the story is meant to invoke laughter or terror—both seem equally plausible, though the laughter is simply a brace against the terror. It is surreal because the image presented to us, crowded with details that impersonate facts, is one at which rationality revolts—it is both undignified and scientifically impossible. But today, sixty years and one day after human beings flew over Hiroshima and hurled fire down on it, this story of a man stepping off a boat to stagger across a stormy lake ought not to startle us. If anything, we ought to protest its embarrassing triviality, when our own despair and anxiety are so great. Please understand: our impatience with the story is not because human barriers are overstepped in this supernatural way. We have left Peter far behind and have trampled the natural order with utter disregard for human proportion. Our impatience is Peter’s thoughtless impulsivity, his shortsighted self-indulgence—yes, you might say, it is our own frustration with ourselves depicted in him. Why, if we must listen to his story and learn from it, did he not ask to be given the power to multiply food, to heal, to raise the dead? We already know we are foolish. How human beings might learn to create rather than destroy—that is what we, whose hands reek with blood and smoke, whose eyes burn, whose minds are numb with fear and weariness, need to know.
However, this moment that we heard retold today, in the pre-dawn of a stormy night in the middle of a dark lake, is about the establishment of something different than a moral vision. This story is deeper, more primal.
Place yourself on that little boat. The wind is against you, so you must row; the wind is strong, so you are battered by the waves. You have no additional light; the strong wind would have blown out any torch you had. Perhaps there is a fire on the shore, perhaps the moon is out, but you have nothing else by which to see or to steer. The waves are only visible for the moment the crest breaks up into white foam—but then it is too late, as the boat you are in, full and heavy with twelve grown men, tilts and drops and takes on water. This is chaos; and chaos is the time before Creation, when there were only the swelling waters, turbulent and gray, churned by the winds, appearing empty because undifferentiated. Nothing was, and all that might become was dormant and indistinguishable. The terror of the storm is the devolution of the created order, breaking up and dissolving back into chaos, being hurled back into nonbeing. But in that chaos, in the beginning, the Spirit moved over the face of the waters. That is what we are given in this story: in our blind terror and in our desperate clinging to the facts we know, it is a storm, but to opened eyes and to an awakened mind, God walks on the water, approaching us.
So Peter’s request, far from trivial, is a request to approach the primal God, the Creator, to know as God knows, to see from the perspective of the One who is seated above the chaos, enthroned upon the waves. This can still seem to us arrogant, even when we discern its spiritual import, but it is the very heart of all spiritual growth. Because of its primordial depiction, this story we heard today is not, therefore, a story about what we are to do, but a story about where we are to be. Perhaps for that reason, it is devoid of any moral import that might distract us. This story offers us a glimpse of what is prior, not what is subsequent. Where we are will determine how we will act and what actions will be effective.
This is not to say that good cannot be done even when we do not understand ourselves or know God. The uncomplicated efforts of good will and courtesy, the obvious efforts of justice and prudence, the urgent efforts of intervention and support when hunger, illness, homelessness, and despair are destroying our own flesh and blood—we cannot pretend to have no sense of the validity of these efforts. Matthew himself warns us in a parable that the care we extend to the least of those around us, we offer in person to Christ. Prophets and apostles agree that God has shown us in creation what is good. In fact, the most despicable cynicism is that which constantly and strategically denies that human beings can understand each other or help each other. To respond with a stone heart when someone asks you for bread is already to be condemned: your stone heart is the evidence that already Hell has closed its cold jaws around you. A numb conscience is already the symptom that psychic necrosis has set in. Even for these dying souls, the uneasy recognition that, if we are to survive, we must care for each other because ultimately we cannot get away from each other ought to overrule the most torpid selfishness—unless, truly, we are determined to deceive ourselves in order to destroy ourselves, in order to spite God and to escape our suffering. For that, the atomic bomb will do. That is why knowing what is good is not sufficient; we must also know God.
Peter’s request is to know God. He asks for a mystical, rather than a magical, experience. He wants to know the God who walks on the face of the water, the God prior to the contingencies of Creation, the God who understands that creatures are chaos refracted, constellated or crystallized for a moment, but soon to dissolve again. Is it possible for a human being to walk along the surface of chaos, undisturbed, to be God’s companion?
Note that Jesus does not rebuke Peter or mock him; Jesus does not say that some things are reserved for God alone. Instead Jesus says, “Come.” And when Peter begins to sink in the waves, Jesus does not say, in a dry voice, “If God had meant for you to walk on water, he would have given you fins.” Instead Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”Peter’s eager desire to join him, that is, our desire to know God as far as possible transcending the created order, is neither impossible nor forbidden.
In Christian Scripture, a mystical approach is never enjoined as a moral command, as our care for each other repeatedly and unequivocally is. Instead, throughout Scripture, human beings express the desire to be closer to God, and more often than not, God says “Come.” Moses asks to see God’s face, and God invites him up Mount Sinai into the darkness of the cloud, and God passes by him there and proclaims the unspeakable Name of God. The writer of the Gospel of Mark makes this point emphatically when he tells the story we heard today from Matthew. When he tells us that Jesus, walking across the Sea of Galilee in the storm, meant “to pass by” the disciples, he uses the same Greek word that is used in the Book of Exodus for God’s self-revelation on the mountain to Moses. This story is about the direct unveiling of God; and when Matthew tells it, it is also about our longing, in the person of Peter, to know God as God is.
To make his point, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray—and in the stories of God’s courtship of the people of Israel in the wilderness, there is only one mountain, and that is Sinai, the mountain of God, where God is met, where Elijah also underwent earthquake, fire, and storm, before the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice, alerted him to the presence of God, and he went out covering his face. Just as in Buddhist cosmology, Mount Meru, the central and only mountain of the cosmos, rises from the churning of the gray ocean, and is at the same time known as the body of the Buddha, where the syllable OM vibrates in its resonant caverns, so here we have the same depiction: Jesus, identified with the mountain that is the home of prayer and undisturbed, walks on turbulent water and calls out “Do not be afraid,” responding to those who ask to join him that they are to come to him and to ascend the same mountain that he himself is.
Peter walks for a few seconds where God walks; then he notices the strong wind, becomes frightened, and begins to sink. His terror is at this point a remembered emotion. When Peter notices where he is and what he is doing, when his eyes drift from God back to himself and to all that he takes for granted about the world, then he recalls the emotion of terror—terror is what one must feel in the dark predawn and wind-tossed on a stormy sea when one finds oneself outside a boat. His habitual worldview reasserts control, and he remembers what he believed was reality, and the emotion that accompanies that memory is terror. The clamor of the finite mortal creature, always frightened about survival, breaks through and pulls him under. This terror is not a response to his present—alone with God moving at peace across the surface of chaos—but the breaking memory of a fisherman caught in a storm at night. The memory of danger causes terror; the memory of terror causes us to begin to thrash and lash out and sink.
This, of course, is the paradox: we return to our pain. The very thing we believe we hope to escape lures us back. The churning world, whose constant suffering proves its unreliability and forces our detachment, sucks us back under. We feel relief at Peter’s sinking. But our relief, dear friends, is not the consolation of the envious and the cowardly; it is also consent and contentment. Peter’s sinking is right and to be endured for three reasons.
First, the memory of suffering reminds us that we have here no permanent city, that here we are subject to evil and death, that what endures and what can be trusted is offered to us through what is impermanent and corruptible. The unreliability of everything around us inflames our thirst for the deep inexhaustible aquifer that we intuit is at the heart of God and our pain drives us back into God’s arms. Second, the memory of suffering is the terrain where compassion is cultivated. Once we learn that suffering is a memory, not the present moment in the presence of God, we can look with compassion on those for whom suffering is not a memory, but a crushing lacerating reality. We do not need to be afraid of joining them in order to bring them relief. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” Third, the memory of suffering is above all the remembrance of the one who, being in the likeness of God, did not think equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself and took on the form of a servant, and being found in human form, humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. The one we follow is the one who gave himself for the ransom of others, becoming like us to make us like himself.
Those powers which, sixty years ago, we brandished are not in themselves forbidden. They cannot be responsibly used, however, until we learn to know God as the one above chaos and walk towards him without fear. And when the memory of suffering goads us to use nuclear power for destruction, we must understand that the memory of suffering can better urge us to promise “never again” and to work for the relief of present suffering and for the removal of occasions of future suffering. May God give us the strength to do what we cannot imagine we have the power to do for the good of all the created order, finding chaos a firm ground for our feet when we walk with Christ, until that day when God bids us come to him across those dark waters whose depth only Jesus has sounded, where we will join the Risen Christ and praise the one God, with all God’s saints through all eternity, as we do this day.