Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-34) has given rise to the traditional image of the church as a boat. Matthew certainly has a bigger church orientation than the other gospels – for example: Peter the rock on which Jesus builds the church; the command to go and baptize.
For the first time the disciples are sent forth without Jesus. The boat struggles in the stormy sea – a symbol of the church’s stormy journey through history. Jesus – who represents the presence of God (Emmanuel, “God with us”) – is not with them.
Where is Jesus while the storm tosses the boat? He is εἰς τὸ ὄρος κατ’ ἰδίαν προσεύξασθαι. ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης μόνος ἦν ἐκεῖ. He was alone by himself, praying on a mountain – Matthew emphasizes the aloneness of Jesus twice!
In the fourth watch – meaning, between 3 and 6 AM – Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. He reassures them that it is he – ἐγώ εἰμι, an echo of the divine name in Exodus 3:14? This doesn’t of course mean that Jesus claims to be Yahweh – after all, he was praying to Yahweh (God the Father) just hours earlier. But regardless how his walking on the water was interpreted on that night or by the apostles, it was clearly a demonstration of divine power and Jesus represented the divine presence and assurance.
Peter’s attempt to walk on the water is unique to Matthew (not in Mark’s version) – another sign of Matthew’s church orientation. Peter steps off the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus. But he notices the storm – which means he took his eyes off Jesus, and that’s when he began to sink. But the first step was to leave the boat – the boat which represented community, Peter’s community: the company of the disciples.
Lesson for us, for the church of all ages? Step away from community invariably leads to losing sight of Jesus. Then the storms overwhelm. The sea is a barrier that separates the disciples from Jesus and the presence of God. We can try to overcome barriers on our own, but Jesus meant us to be a community of believers who share the experience of the storms of life. Peter not only took his eyes away from Jesus, but he left the boat, which was the community, the church, for him!
Jesus assures his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) that he will aways be with them until the end of time. Today’s gospel reading shows some of the ways he is always with us:
He is with us in prayer – as our high priest.
He is with us in the storms of life – reassuring us, telling us, “don’t be afraid, I AM” – I AM the presence of God.
He is with us in the community – the church – that he established so that we will never be alone in the storms of life.
The church is not bishops and priests. The church is not an institution. The church is not another organization that competes for your time and money.
The church is a boat. Are you on board? Or are you trying to do it on your own?