Matthew 14:22-33, Coming to Jesus “across the Water”

[August 10, 2014] The last post was about Jesus’ altogether inclusive attitude towards the crowd for whom he performed a miraculous sign that demonstrated God’s generosity toward them in anticipation of the coming kingdom. Now Jesus departs from both the crowd and his band of disciples after he sent his disciples on ahead to the other side of the lake. It is hard for me not to read this story as also a sign entirely appropriate for the literary context.

According to my historical reconstruction, Matthew at the time he wrote this gospel (52 CE) was living in Antioch, having arrived possibly as early as a decade before. Herod Agrippa I began persecuting the church in Jerusalem in April of 41. To win favor with the “zealous,” he attacked the church particularly for its new outreach to the gentiles (the conversion of Cornelius took place the year before). James the son of Zebedee was beheaded while Peter was miraculously delivered from prison and left the city (legends have it that when he departed, he traveled to Rome). It might have been about this time, during this persecution (Agrippa died in 44), that Matthew also left Jerusalem and began traveling up the coast where believers in Jesus had been reaching out to Greek-speaking Jews for a number of years. It was also around this time (41-42 CE) that Barnabas and Paul arrived in Antioch, where the believers in Jesus who preceded them may had already started reaching out not only to Greek-speaking Jews but gentiles, and—in a departure from the rest of the church before the conversion of Cornelius—not requiring them to be circumcised, possibly a few years before that event in Caesarea. “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26). “Christians” has a Latin ending and therefore probably legally distinguished these uncircumcised gentile believers from Jews. This either took place as a result of a dispatch of Vitellius to Syria in 36 or 37, or as a result of a disturbance in the city in 39-40.

Paul and Barnabas left Antioch in 45 CE and went “across the water” on an apostolic tour, first of Cyprus and then of Southern Galatia, returning in 47. Shortly after this, in the winter of 47-48, Peter visited Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21) where he was rebuked by Paul for accommodating to visitors from Jerusalem. During this time the “zealous” were violently (physically) attacking the believers in Jerusalem and Antioch for their inclusive fellowship with uncircumcised (“unconverted”) gentiles. The church was therefore under a lot of pressure to reconsider its position and many believers took the position that gentile believers needed to convert to Judaism (via circumcision) before they could have full admission into the church. Their propagandists had reached Antioch, and their presence is what had intimidated Peter (and Barnabas) there. In May of 48 Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to settle the matter with the church there, hence the council of Acts 15 when Peter spoke up on behalf of Paul (obviously having accepted Paul’s rebuke).

Later that year Paul and Barnabas parted ways and Paul began another tour, revisiting the churches he and Barnabas had established in Galatia and then moving further west into Anatolia and Greece. Meanwhile, in 49 CE there are violent disturbances among the Jews in Rome as the “zealous” attack believers in Jesus and the Emperor Claudius ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Rome (this was probably not enforceable; more likely they forbade them to assemble). Paul returned to Antioch in March of 52.

So Matthew, as the only disciple with a writing table and who owned the tools of writing, had a pile of notes from Jesus’ ministry and began composing his gospel during these years. As he saw the church expand into foreign lands it became clear that it was no longer practical for the eyewitnesses of Jesus to be present in the new congregations to testify of Jesus. A written account of the eyewitness testimony of the Twelve would meet the needs of these new congregations so that they could “remember” Jesus as they celebrated the Lord’s Table together. The gospel he wrote not only provided memories about Jesus, it also served as a manual for catechesis for teaching the new believers (hence the way it is organized into clearly demarcated sections). Interestingly, Matthew also managed to make the gospel correspond to the one-year lectionary of the synagogue (as Michael Goulder demonstrated) so that it could be read alongside the Torah in the course of a year. In other words, Matthew wrote the gospel to function in the new congregations as the church’s own Scripture (in addition to the Torah and the Early and Later Prophets and the still fluid canon of other Jewish scriptures, on the assumption that the believers would continue to attend the synagogue). Finally, Matthew’s gospel also responds to the polemical situation of the times, demonstrating that Jesus always intended for the church’s mission (its apostolate) to reach out also to the gentiles (this demonstration was meant especially for fence-sitting Jewish believers to see).

Matthew’s gospel was ready by 52 CE so that when Paul left again on a western tour he was able to take a copy of Matthew’s gospel with him. I believe this was the case because Luke (converted to Christ during Paul’s first apostolic journey in Galatia), whom Paul met up with again in Ephesus, must have obtained a copy of Matthew’s gospel shortly after it was published, for he used it when he prepared his own gospel, which he completed in 56 (before starting his volume on the Acts of the Apostles).

This then is Matthew’s situation when he composed his gospel, that is, when he arranged and edited the stories of Jesus that he had written and collected. He wrote in the midst of a violent controversy over the inclusion of gentiles in the church, and he witnessed Peter’s vacillation on the issue and his triumph over his fears. From where he stood in Antioch he saw the boat head out to sea (figuratively, but perhaps even literally if he saw them off in Seleucia)—the great Mediterranean Sea—in the midst of this (figurative) storm to bring the gospel to the gentiles via the Jewish diaspora and beyond.

In this segment of Matthew, 13:54—16:20, we see a semblance of the church’s struggle among the Aramaic-speaking Jews (Jesus’ visit to Nazareth in 13:54-58), its persecution by the Herods (14:1-12), and its “withdrawal” from Jerusalem, only resulting in a surprising crowd coming to Jesus: the Greek-speaking Jews along the coast of Palestine up into Syria who showed a considerable interest in Jesus, and even gentiles coming to Jesus in Antioch, both corresponding to Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in 14:13-21.

In 14:22-33 Jesus is up on a mountain praying (a picture of Jesus having ascended into heaven and interceding for the church) while the disciples struggle to cross the sea, “hard pressed by rough waves, for there was a headwind.” The sea is typically a picture of the gentile world, being associated with chaos and all sorts of dangers. The Lake of Galilee easily represents the Mediterranean basin (hence Matthew calls it a “sea”). As the church struggles with its mission to the gentiles, Jesus is walking on the water with them, saying, “Courage! It’s me! Don’t be afraid.” Peter, who took the initiative with Cornelius and who vacillated in Antioch, is seen here saying to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” “Come,” Jesus says, and Peter comes, also—miraculously!—walking on the water. “But then noticing the wind, he took fright and began to sink,” just as he had done in Antioch. “Lord, save me!” he cries, and Jesus puts out his hand at once and holds him. This was Paul taking hold of him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus says to him. “Why did you doubt?” We read about this in Galatians 2:11-21. We also see Peter after his recovery in Acts 15:7-11.

After the disciples make the crossing, they land in Gennesaret (Chinnereth or Kinnereth in the Old Testament), which means “Garden of Riches,” possibly for its very rich soil. There the crowds come to Jesus as they have elsewhere, only here they beg him “just to let them touch the fringe of his cloak. And all those who touched it were saved” (14:36). This probably refers to his tassels which symbolize his devotion to God. Another image also comes to mind. As happened to the high priest in Psalm 133, the anointing that came upon Jesus flowed down to the fringe (or collar) of his cloak. “Now raised to the heights by God’s right hand, [Jesus] has received from the Father the Holy Spirit, who was promised, and what you see and hear”—what happened on the Day of Pentecost—“is the outpouring of that Spirit” (Acts 2:33). The fringe of his cloak—see Psalm 133:2—is the church (or, if you prefer “collar,” the 120 on the Day of Pentecost.)

Then in chapter 15 Matthew narrates a story illustrating Jesus’ controversy with the “zealous” over cleanliness, the same people who were attacking the church at the time Matthew was composing these stories. Who is clean and who is unclean? That is the issue. What follows is a story of an “unclean” gentile, a Canaanite woman (a pagan, but one particularly unclean as far as that goes), who comes to Jesus begging that he would take pity on her and deliver her daughter who is tormented by a demon. These two stories go together. Jesus ends up saying, as he did to the gentile centurion in 8:10, “You have great faith.” What Jesus said to the centurion was, “In no one in Israel have I found faith as great as this.” It must have astonished the apostles and the church in Matthew’s time that the gentiles would turn to Jesus as they did.

This story is followed by a repeat of the feeding of the multitude in 14:15-21, only on the gentile side of the “Sea” of Galilee. When Jesus heals their lame and crippled, blind and dumb, the people are astonished and “praise the God of Israel” (15:31). When the gentiles believed in Jesus in the time of Matthew, when they turned from idolatry they believed in the God of Israel by adhering to Israel’s Messiah. Today we might forget this perspective. Gentiles in the Hellenic world of the Roman Empire were typically idolaters. We forget that Christians today are usually gentiles who are believing in the God of the Jews, the God of the synagogue.

So, the story about Jesus walking on the water and Peter attempting to do the same is not simply a miracle story about the extraordinary power of Jesus’ anointing that he received at his baptism. After the resurrection of Jesus, we believers do not need convincing about the power of God. The story is about the tremendous risk the church took and the tremendous faith of the apostles to make the church inclusive of gentiles, to not require that gentile believers in Jesus first become Jews before they could be fully accepted into the fellowship of the church.

The ascended Jesus had gone on ahead of them on his way to the gentile shores of the Mediterranean. “If it is you,” the apostles prayed, “tell us to come to you across the water,” and they heard Jesus say, “Come.” They went. There was vacillation at first, especially on Peter’s part but even on Barnabas’ part. But they made the crossing and came to the “Garden of Riches” (Gennesaret).

What has this got to do with us? After all, gentiles are fully accepted in the church now. Or are they? Is it even true? Sunday morning is still no doubt the most segregated hour of America. Gentiles no doubt accept their own kind but are often uncomfortable with other gentiles, and this is particularly true of white Christians (the traditional black churches grew out of white exclusion, not black prejudice). What is even more ironic is the prejudice gentile Christians have toward messianic (Jewish) Christians. The situation is entirely ridiculous and appalling. Thankfully it is not universal.

At the very least gentile Christians ought to all embrace each other in all of our racial, ethnic and linguistic variety. And we ought to embrace each other across the continents. There can be no privileging of European and North American Christians, not even on the basis of their Christian roots, for spiritual traditions are passed on spiritually. The historical heritage of the entire church (Asia, African, European, North and South American, the Pacific and Australia) belong to each and all Christians and all believers have much to learn from it. We are all always one step away from paganism. Of course, spiritual traditions can be embedded in culture; what I am saying is that the passing on of Christian culture does not pass on what is spiritual about it. That must always be obtained afresh by each generation (it cannot be taken for granted).

When I first heard someone compare the struggle to include LGBTQ people in the church to the church’s early struggle to include gentiles, I rejected this on historical grounds. The two groups—gentiles and LGBTQ—are not comparable. A person is born a gentile; it is genetic. Being lesbian, gay or bi is a behavior, and behaviors are a matter of choice; ethnicity is not. A person who perceives themselves as having a non-hetero sexual orientation can always choose to be celibate, eliminating the behavior in question. On the other hand, if I am born a gentile, it is how God created me. Gentiles are idolaters and to become a Christian they have to give this up, thus eliminating the behavior in question, and the early church required them to do so.

I was quite naïve in those days unfortunately. One is not born an idolater, one becomes one. We may have never been offered a choice, we may have never been aware of another option, so it may not seem like we ever made a decision. But on a deeper level idolatry requires that we reject what we innately know and that we willfully choose to be blind to reality (so Romans 1:18-21). We choose to reject the reality of God in order to “belong” to the community of people we depend on.

One’s sexual orientation is not like this. One does not choose to have this orientation. One is made this way by our Creator, by God. The problem that we have—and here most of us are narcissists—is being able to imagine that someone might actually feel differently than we do. If I am sexually attracted to women (with all the physical accompaniments to this attraction taking place in my body), I cannot imagine that a man can be attracted to other men in the same way. Because I cannot imagine it, I can only figure that he is choosing to be attracted to other men, and for me that choice seems perverse. Yet I do not choose to be attracted to women and such an attraction does not seem perverse. Why? Because it seems natural to me and—this is important—family and society support me and stand behind me in this experience of my own feelings. I am not willing, however, to validate someone else’s feelings if those feelings are different than my own. What is going on?

This unwillingness to entertain the possibility of another point of view is narcissistic and immature. Maturity teaches us that other people experience life differently than we do and that their own experience is no less valid than our own. Their conclusions may be less valid than our own (thus we reason and debate with them), but their experience is not less valid and therefore must be given equal weight to our own. This is not only a question of maturity but of charity (love).

But, you argue, we do not have to exclude those whose orientation is different than our own. What we exclude is the behavior. A person should act in a heterosexual manner (so long as it is ethical) without regard to orientation, or completely abstain from sexual behavior (copulation). It is the behavior alone that matters.

I wonder if we have considered what we (heterosexuals) are asking. To act contrary to our own orientation seems perverse to us and yet this is what we are asking of others. Does that make sense? Moreover, to demand that others practice celibacy when we ourselves cannot do so is hypocritical. Even if we are able to do so, there are extenuating reasons why we are able to. Perhaps those reasons are biological—which we cannot then apply to others. Or perhaps we are one of those people who can psychologically sublimate our sexual feelings in another direction without suppressing them—this is what successful celibates do. But most people are not capable of this. Many of those who choose a celibate lifestyle are unable to sustain it. We are created to be sexual beings and it is natural for us to give our sexuality expression. True, like everything else we do with our bodies, how we express our nature has to be within ethical limits and indeed should be virtuous, expressing the way God is in whose image we are created. But to tell someone else that they must not express the sexual nature that God has given them, that they must in effect be asexual or act in a manner that is unnatural to them, does not seem right.

The argument is that there are certain Scriptures that forbid homosexual behavior. This argument is not as solid as it appears. I would question the interpretation—and sometimes the translation—of all the passages cited (there are only six or seven such passages). Nor should we adopt the practice of adhering to or giving authority to passages in isolation. The authority of Scriptures—and this authority extends to every part of it—depends on its inner cannon, which is the revelation of Jesus Christ who reveals the Triune God. If we cannot find the inner connection of things, we cannot locate its authority. There is no authority that adheres to a misinterpreted text. Authority only adheres to its true meaning, and that inner meaning is always a shining through of the revelation of Christ, the Word of the Father. This is a theological position, true, but it is one that the church catholic has always followed, especially in times of crisis. This instinct has always come through in the end. At least this is visible when we look at the big historical picture (though it becomes quite obscured when we look at what is near us on the ground—I guess because we are very myopic and stand very short in the grand scheme of things).

Jesus says to Peter, “Come.” We are called to come to where Jesus already is. We are not the pioneers making a way for Jesus to follow. Consider Peter’s experience with Cornelius. God had already prepared and called Cornelius before Peter arrived. Indeed, in obscurer parts of the church other gentiles apparently preceded him. Peter, on the other hand, was stuck, concerned with what was clean and unclean. He went to Cornelius expecting to begin from scratch—expecting that Cornelius would have to become a proselyte to Judaism before he could become a Christian, certainly not expecting the Holy Spirit to come upon Cornelius and his household as they were. Jesus, however, had gone ahead of Peter and prepared the way. The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household without Peter laying his hands on them and Peter could only follow the Spirit’s direction by baptizing them.

The church is not the kingdom of God. Sometimes the kingdom of God goes ahead of the church and is active in the world. The church needs to have the humility to recognize what is going on. Of course, the world as such—and the culture at large—is in rebellion against God. The kingdom of God becomes active in the midst of such rebellion. The church is under the judgment of the kingdom of God and by submitting to the kingdom of God it can work with the kingdom, manifesting Jesus in it, and in this way become its instrument in the world.

The South African revolution, which was a Christian revolution, could not have happened if Gandhi’s work in South Africa and India had not preceded it. The same is true of the American Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also a Christian revolution. But Gandhi would not have done what he did on the basis of Hinduism and Jainism alone. He reinterpreted these religions on the basis of Leo Tolstoy’s work which brought Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to his attention. These are an example of the kingdom of God at work in the world and in the church. Modern yoga is hardly Christian but it has its roots more in the YMCA than in the ancient Indian practice: its positive view of the body has greatly reformed modern Hinduism. I think this is also an example of the kingdom of God. When the church is faithful, it is the salt of the kingdom, salting the earth; it is the yeast of the loaf (flour representing our common humanity), causing it to rise.

Might not the movement in the world to recognize the human rights of the members of the LGBTQ community be the kingdom of God at work in the world? Might not the origin of this movement actually be the gospel of Jesus Christ seeded in western culture over many generations? Yet many Christians today resist this. They believe that the culture is accommodating to human depravity and Christians who go along with this are accommodating to the world. It would truly be ironic and tragic if in God’s judgment it became apparent that they were the ones siding with the world against the kingdom of God.

People point out that they find instances in which marginalized people appear to be mentally unhealthy, not recognizing that this condition is often the result of their social marginalization and is not identical with their non-conforming sexual-orientation or gender-identity. The rule of charity would go a long way to improving our understanding and therefore our criteria.

I pose this as a problem that needs to be thought through. Christians should not blinding react because someone cites isolated passages that seem to confirm their “natural” (narcissistic) prejudices. Those passages each need to be understood in terms of their function within their literary context and against the backdrop of the whole of the Scriptural revelation and their individual function within it. When this is done, the lexical field of certain terms might also need to be reconsidered (prejudice masks a multitude of things). Moreover, the thought of Scriptures and the reasoning of its writers cannot be immune to the disciplines of theology, philosophy, history and ethics. These disciplines are not superior, nor are they an independent source of “revelation,” but their proper use—in obedience to revelation—can help us correctly understand the thought that is in Scripture.

Our waters may be different than it was in the sixth decade of our era, but they are nonetheless storm and Jesus is still walking on them. If we dare to see him we may even hear him call, “Come.” Do we have the faith of obedience? If we do, let us too step out on the water and follow him. He can hold us up. And still the churning waves. Let us not forget our apostolate!

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