Sunday, August 7, 2011

Walking on water …

One of the profoundest truths we hold on so dearly is the divinity of Jesus. Christianity teaches us that Jesus is not only human but he is also divine. This claim, however, has not always been without its “rough edges”. While it may not have appeared as unequivocal as it should have been, Christ’s divinity is not, as argued by others, the result of a proclamation that was issued by a Church Council and, therefore, a human proclamation. To be more specific, Jesus’ divinity was not an idea concocted by those who met in that Church Council at Nicaea in 325 CE although that gathering helped in addressing heretical and erroneous teaching about Jesus. On the contrary, the idea of Christ’s divinity goes back to the New Testament times, way before the church became transformed into an institution conflicted by differing theology, dogmas and hierarchical structures.

If one had the patience and were to really look more closely on what Holy Scriptures has to say about Jesus’ divinity, one can end up with a long list of scriptural passages alluding to the divinity of Jesus. Included in this list would be citations that talk about how others have borne witness that Jesus is the Son of God, and therefore divine. It would also include passages citing Jesus himself claiming divinity as well as passages that talk about miracles alluding to Jesus’ divinity.

Our gospel lesson for today, (Matthew 14:22-33) is one of those passages alluding to Jesus’ divinity. To put it in context, recall that Jesus, after the feeding of the 5,000, sent the crowd home. He also sent the disciples out in a boat to go on the other side while he went up into the hills to pray. Soon thereafter, the wind was against them, perhaps, a vicious storm and the disciples found themselves battered by strong waves. Early in the morning, the disciples were further terrified by what they saw: Jesus approaching them, walking on water.

The story of Jesus “walking on water” would definitely push our claim for his divinity up another notch and not just because no human has ever defied the law of gravity and ‘walked’ on water. Those who tried sank. Those who tried to defy the law, including Michelangelo, needed contraptions.

For Jesus to have walked on water was, indeed, not a human feat. He had to be more than mere human. And yet for this miracle to be an allusion to his divinity there’s got to be more than this gravity-defying stunt. So what is it? What’s that vital link to justify our claim that this miracle s indeed a sound basis to make that claim.

A good way to begin is to go back to its historical context. When was this story told and why was it important that this story be told over and over again? Who were they trying to reach by this story and how was this story received by those for whom it was written?

Matthew, Mark and John, the two other gospel writers who have the same story, wanted very much to tell their listeners that Jesus was, in spite of having died, rose again and has conquered all, even death. And what a better way to demonstrate this than by relating a story of how, once, a tempestuous sea was conquered; a distinct symbolism that has some bearing on the Jewish mindset of how Yahweh conquered Chaos at the beginning of Creation.

Recall that in the Old Testament mindset, “conquering chaos” and “lordship over the sea” were attributed only to God. In the Book of Genesis, the story is told of God creating the heaven and the earth and the earth was “without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep”. That was how chaos was depicted and then, as Genesis 1:2 tells us, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”.

The spirit of God, the “Ruah”, hovered over the waters, the chaos, bringing order and lording over it. The tempestuous sea and the chaos it represents was subdued and conquered by Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now, this understanding of how God began Creation was very clear to every Jew and to those whom Matthew was trying to reach. And here’s where the compelling connection comes in. Those who heard the story of Jesus “walking on the water” must have readily recognized this great Old Testament overtone. Just as the Primordial Chaos was conquered by God, bringing order through the hovering of the Holy Spirit, so does Jesus’ walking on water clearly affirms Jesus’ mastery of the forces of the sea and the divinity attributed to him. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s peaceful, creative, divine and redemptive power. His miraculous walking on water points to his divinity which He shares with God.

This gets even more exciting. Listen to this. Matthew tells us that the miraculous walking on water elicited from the disciples a very authentic human response, fear. On seeing Jesus, the disciples thought they saw a ghost and so cried out in fear. But immediately, Jesus spoke to them saying: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” These words, in the ears of the disciples and to those whom Matthew was reaching out, allude to the more familiar words in Exodus 3:14 where Yahweh, when asked by Moses by the burning bush who he was, replied “I am who I am.”

“I am who I am.”  “It is I.” Do you see the strong correlation between these two “divine” replies? Yahweh, saying “I am who I am” and Jesus saying, “It is I”. Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh.

Other than this passage being a good source to cite when referring to Jesus’ divinity, there are other lessons we can glean from today’s gospel lesson. So, moving on, we know from this story that “Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. Jesus replied, “Come”. So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and started to sink. He then cried out, “Lord, save me! Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

The imagery of Peter and the disciples in a boat alludes to us, the Church. And just as they were in that stormy water so does the church often wafts through the wild and tempestuous sea, battered by the strong waves of scandals, schism, breakaways and the battering waves of decline.

Peter’s asking Jesus that he too might come to him on the water alludes to our collective plea to “share” in his divinity, not to be another god but in a way that we may be “like” Jesus. After all, as Christian, we should be Christ-like! Jesus’ reply to “Come” becomes our invitation to get engaged in that process of becoming like Jesus, beginning with our baptism when we were first given the invitation to “come and follow him”. That meant being invited to “walk” on the waters of sin, over the seeming placid waters of prejudice, bigotry and racism; the waters of fear and the waters of violence.

To all these, Christ Jesus, the Son of God, invites all of us to “come” and when we respond, we are, in some sense, “getting out of the boat and setting our feet on these virtual waters. And in so doing, some walk and others sink, back to “chaotic” waters of sin.

And why is that? Well, perhaps we can learn from our story today, especially with what happened to Peter. As long as Peter gazed on Jesus, he walked on water but the moment he noticed the strong wave, he began to sink. And so perhaps, for those who wanted to “come and follow” Jesus but somehow placed their attention somewhere else, they sank as well. And this is where we can end up the moment we put our confidence on someone other than Jesus. We will sink down to the “chaotic waters”, the moment we refuse to grab on the saving hand he extends to us, sinners that we are.

And that is why Jesus’ divinity matters. He’s not just a mere guru who will advise you of the “art of saving” or the “right techniques to repentance”. He’s more than that. Jesus is the Son of God, who extends his saving hand to all who wish to be reconciled with him.

We have been taught this by the apostles and the early church fathers and it is now incumbent upon us to teach this to those who will come after us.

Let us continue to answer our Lord’s invitation to “come and walk on the waters of sin”, coming to Jesus the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith. 

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