Step Out! (Matthew 14:13-33)

“We had the experience, but we missed the meaning.” –T.S. Elliot.

When it comes to this week’s text—two stories of seemingly miraculous occurrences—it would be so easy to miss the point; to get bogged down in fruitless conversation about the plausibility of these events.

But I ask you to suspend that kind of judgment. Together, let’s look at these stories through a different lens: What is the meaning of these events? And, once we see it, are willing to step out in faith?

The text falls in two parts: The Feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus Walking on Water.

The 5,000

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Here is the very first rule of biblical interpretation: ALWAYS attend to context. This text opens in the middle of a story. “Now when Jesus heard this…” Heard what? Heard about the death of John the Baptist. This news would have shaken Jesus to his core. Not only was John his cousin and friend; John was his forerunner and predecessor in the work of proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God. And if Herod had John beheaded, who is next?

Grief.  Fear. Jesus has a lot on his mind. It’s no wonder he withdraws –or, rather, tries to withdraw. (Fun fact: of the 14 occurrences of the word translated “withdrew” in verse 13, ten of them are in the Gospel According to Matthew. For Matthew, at least, Jesus is apparently a bit of an introvert). But the crowd comes looking for him and, in the face of their need, Jesus cannot withdraw. He “has compassion” –my very favorite Greek word, splagidzomai, is translated “have compassion.” It means a spontaneous, visceral reaction. (Thus the old King James says “moved with compassion”).

So he heals them. And they stay long. And the disciples start to worry about what they will eat. The plan to send them away sounds reasonable, but Jesus has other ideas: You give them something to eat. The sentence construction renders the “you” emphatic. And I imagine the disciples are taken aback. But they take stock of their meager resources.

And then the miracle happens.

It is tempting to get hung up on the “how” question. Can we accept a real supernatural occurrence? Is this a case of everybody spontaneously sharing what they have and discovering it is enough –sort of a forerunner of the old stone soup story?

These may be interesting questions to us. But not to Matthew. Matthew means to convey something else. These 5,000 men (plus women and children) reclining on the grass? This is church.

The tell is in verse 19. Note the sequence of verbs:

19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 

Now look at Matthew’s account of the Last Supper (26:26):

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’

Took. Blessed. Broke. Gave. Same verbs, same sequence.

This is communion. And communion is this: the meal of God’s abundance.

Why does this matter?

Christians have a habit of interpreting Holy Communion is rather grisly terms –the repetition of Jesus’ sacrifice, the sacred cannibalism of his body and blood, etc.

But for the earliest Christians, communion is not about blood sacrifice. It is about enough. It is about welcome. It is about sharing.

We have the experience; do we get the meaning?

Walking on Water

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

This story may seem even stranger. The disciples and Jesus go their separate ways for a while. (Introvert Jesus needs to recharge). The reunite when Jesus comes walking across the story sea toward their struggling boat. Peter steps out onto the water, but his faith fails. He begins to drown. Jesus saves him and chides him. It is hard to convey in English, but “You of little faith” is one word in Greek: oligoipistoi. And it reads like an (affectionate?) nickname.

For me, the whole second story hinges on the way I hear Jesus’ tone of voice in verse 31. Is he harsh? Or kind? Angry? Or amused?

The Jesus I know tends toward the latter. And so I imagine saying to me—gently, with a loving tone and laughing eyes—“You of little faith! When will you finally get it?”

You keep having the experience; isn’t time to get the meaning?

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of this passage:

Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith…The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”

(Thanks to Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV –Year A for bringing the Bonhoeffer quote to my attention).

Taken together, the stories seem to say something like this: When we inventory our seemingly scare resources in the presence of Jesus, we will discover that we have everything we need to do what God calls us to go. But we will never know this until we take the risk of stepping out of the boat. 




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