Text: Matthew 14:22-33
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
July 30, 2017
While Bonnie and I were on vacation, I received the sad news that my favorite Uncle, Bill, for whom I was named, had passed away. So many memories of times we spent together came flooding back. One incited that I will never forget occurred shortly after my ninth birthday. We lived in Michigan near Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes.
One sunny summer afternoon my uncle called me up and said, I’m coming over to take you fishing. The lake was calm and we rode for several miles in a small boat as we headed for Charity Island where he claimed there was an especially good cove to drop anchor and fish. Time flew by as we cast our rods and talked. We did not notice a storm brewing behind the island. Suddenly, it was upon us. we decided to head for shore. The rain came down in torrents. Lightning flashed all about us. The waves slapped angrily against the boat as the bottom began to fill with water.
As a nine-year old I was terrified! My uncle, though, remained calm and seemed full of confidence. "We will make it ok," he assured me, "you just wait and see." After what seemed like an eternity, we did reach the shore in safety. With a sigh of relief, we headed home.
At least four of our Lord's disciples were experienced fishermen. In today’s gospel reading, we find them in the middle of the sea of Galilee. Suddenly the wind began to howl through the hills surrounding the shoreline. Minutes before, the waters had been peaceful, a friend which for so long had provided them their livelihood. Now, it became a raging enemy. From past experience they knew they were in great peril. Then Jesus came, he spoke to them, the storm was calmed.
Like my response after the Michigan storm you would think the disciples would have been greatly relieved and thankful. Perhaps they were. But this is not what we are told by Mark’s account of this incident. Rather he states: “they were utterly astounded" Given their situation, I suppose this should not be too surprising. It was the fourth watch. That is, it was sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. when it happened. They had seen something or someone in the midst of the raging storm. Was it a ghost? Were demons ascending from depths of the sea to claim their lives? Perhaps it was the Loch Ness Monster transported from Scotland to the Sea of Galilee. They couldn’t tell. Then in the midst of a crisis beyond the control of experienced fishermen, Jesus spoke and the storm ceased. No wonder then, that they were utterly astounded. I suspect we would be too if we saw our Lord walking on water.
But the Gospel writer does not leave us there. He adds yet another dimension to his statement which seems to make no sense at all. He notes: “they were utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves.” When I got back safely to the shore in the Michigan storm, the last thing I had on my mind was the picnic lunch I had eaten earlier that afternoon. Why then, at the climax of this crisis; when their lives were in danger, did the Gospel record that the disciples were perplexed about the loaves?
The answer is rather simple. The Gospel writer wants us, the hearers and readers, to understand that the significance of this incident is bound up with the events which took place on the previous afternoon.
What happened on that day was so important: it was the only miracle of Jesus to be recorded in all four Gospels, the feeding of the five thousand. You recall the scene. Our Lord was exhausted from his ministry among the people. He had been teaching along the seaside near his headquarters in Capernaum. He needed time to be alone with his disciples for a little R & R. They slipped quietly away in a boat the previous night and landed in a deserted area on the opposite side of the sea of Galilee.
But it was to no avail, someone had spotted them leaving and the word spread. By the time they landed on the other side, five thousand people awaited him in eager expectation. Our Lord had compassion on them. He spoke to them, and when he had finished he fed them with the loaves and fishes.
The significance of this event was obvious to the crowd and to the disciples as well. It could only mean one thing. Through symbolic action, Jesus was announcing that he was the long-awaited Messiah. For over four hundred years the Jews had waited and had longed for the coming of the Messiah. They thought he would be like Elijah, performing mighty miracles of power. They had believed that he would be like David, restoring independence to Israel and reigning as their King. But most of all, they were convinced that he would be like Moses, who led his people out of Egyptian bondage, through the wilderness into the land of promise.
From the Dead Sea Scrolls and other intertestamental writings, we know that the Jews thought the Messiah would first appear in the wilderness. There, he would announce his mission. There, the people would flock to him. There, the angels would appear from heaven. Together, they would wage war with Rome, finally arriving victorious in Jerusalem.
Indeed, several had proclaimed themselves Messiah, only to have failed. The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells of one who appeared when Jesus was only eleven years old. People followed him by the thousands. At his command, they rose up in revolt. The rebellion was soon crushed. Over two thousand rebels were crucified.
When John appeared baptizing in the wilderness, the people flocked to hear him, thinking he was the long-awaited liberator. He denied this, saying, "my role is to be a voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for the Messiah to come.
Now, Jesus had made his appearance in the wilderness. Like Moses, he fed the people. Like Elijah he had performed many miracles. Surely now he would announce that He was Messiah and, like David, call them to arms.
Mark’s account is very instructive at this point. When Jesus was about to feed the crowd he asked them to sit in groups of 100, the very number of men a Roman Centurion held under his command. John's account of this story makes this understanding explicit. He states that after the five thousand were fed, they cried out, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come onto the world!" And they proceeded to try to crown Him King.
Our Lord refused their wish. He dismissed the crowd and sent his disciples away. Alone, he went into the hills to pray. It is in this context that we must understand the disciples’ reaction when Jesus appeared in their midst to still the storm.
Jesus had been introduced as the Messiah by John the Baptist. Again, and again he had demonstrated his authority over sin, sickness and the demonic. He had given his disciples power over these same forces of evil. That afternoon he had fed the multitude even as Moses had provided manna in the wilderness. Now he had demonstrated that he had authority over nature as well by walking on water and by stilling the storm. Surely, he had to be the Messiah.
Then why? Why did he fail to accept his responsibility? Why did he not put down the hated Roman oppressor? The disciples did not understand. They did not understand about the loaves. They did not understand that this was to be a type of His broken body. They did not understand that Jesus must suffer. They did not understand that liberation would not come through a show of force but through His death on a cross.
The disciples were utterly astounded. He had fulfilled all their expectations except the most important one. He would not assume his rightful role to call the nation to arms and throw off the Roman yoke. They did not understand about the loaves and so their hearts were hardened.
It is at this point that this gospel suddenly ceases to describe an event in the life of our Lord. Now it becomes interrogative. It reaches out across the centuries asking you and me: “In your storms of life, when you cry out to the Lord in distress, do you understand about the loaves? When He invites you to His table to eat his broken body and to drink his shed blood, he is there to heal your brokenness and to calm your troubled sea. But he is also there as your Lord asking you: "Are you willing to be my disciple? Are you willing to drink of the cup from which I drank? Are you willing to take up your cross daily and follow me?" My brothers and sisters in Christ, do we understand about the loaves? If we do, we can respond in faith. Then, in the midst of life's storms He will speak to us "Take heart, have no fear, it is I.”