This is us
"This is us" is a popular NBC comedy/drama about people whose paths cross unexpectedly because some of them share the same birthday. "This is us" may or may not be about you, but this text is definitely us. And while the TV show has that popular element of randomness about it; this text is purposeful.
Our Lord purposely puts us in scary, dangerous, troubling situations. Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. "Made" is a strong Greek word. Paul says he tried to "make, force, compel" Christians to blaspheme in Acts 26. They disciples don't want to go. John 6 tells you why they didn't want to go and why Jesus made them go. But what you should see here is this is us being put into a boat in the late afternoon sailing off into black thunderheads streaked with lightening.
After Jesus forces them into the boat, He went up on a mountain to pray. By the time evening came, the boat is "already a considerable distance from the land. And it was "buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it." This is us. The boat of life our Lord purposely puts us in is literally "tormented" by the wind and waves of life. This is the word for testing metals for their purity. It's also the word for questioning by applying torture. The Lord who puts us in the boat does "nothing" but pray for about 8 hours while we are tortured by wind driven waves that frighten us. I get 8 hours from the fact Matthew tells us Jesus was praying when evening came, say 6-8 PM, and He doesn't come to them till the 4th watch, sometime between 3 and 6 AM.
But don't think the apostles are in a dingy. They are in a vessel of 27 feet, equipped with sails and oars. At least 4 are experienced commercial fishermen who know exactly what to do. However, this is us. Even though we know how to handle family problems, money problems, sickness, death, Jesus makes us get into a boat and sail off into them and keeps us there all night with everything against us. The wind is in our face; the waves are spraying us and our arms ache. Ever row for an hour? That's a field trip kids. Go down to Lady Bird Lake, get in a row boat, and see how you feel after 30 minutes of rowing on a calm lake, in broad daylight.
After 8 hours of rowing on a trip that usually took about 2 hours and still only being half way there as John tells us, they're wondering why Jesus who calmed the wind and wave with but a word in Matthew 8 doesn't do anything now. But then what's that? In the inky blackness, there is shape moving. And it couldn't be doing this, but it looks like it's walking on the sea. And that's when they lose it.
This is us. We are tortured by a trouble, by a worry, by a grief relentlessly struggling with it, against it, and Jesus is praying for us, but we don't hear Him, and we don't remember the Bible says Jesus is always interceding for us or that He promises, "I will never leave you or forsake you." And when Jesus does come to us, we don't recognize Him.
This is us. Jesus comes to us in His Word of promise treading down not just waves but sin, death, and the devil to reach to us, to help us. Jesus bought and paid so He would never have to leave us or forsake us no matter the problem or circumstances. He can't fail to come to us with the promise "It is I" and the command that we don't have to be afraid. Even if the painful situation is one of our own making, or our own sinfulness contributes to the wind and waves, we're still not on our own. Jesus comes in His Word even then. He doesn't promise never to leave us or forsake us on the condition that we're good let alone perfect boys and girls.
But when the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, they are even more troubled concluding "It's a ghost." The disciples have a problem with this. In the upper room after Easter, Jesus invites them to touch and press Him so that they can see He has flesh and bones and realize ghosts have neither. And He asks them for something to eat because ghosts don't eat either.
This is us. Jesus without fail comes to us every Sunday in Word and Sacraments. His whole ministry of taking our place under God's Commandments, keeping them in our place, and dying in place of us was so that He could come to the aid of sinners in their time of need. Their sins and sinfulness can't stand in the way because He himself has taken them out of the way. There is no reason on earth, in heaven, or under earth that Jesus can't or won't come to our aid.
But some people don't recognize the trouble they are in. They sail the sea of life and think they are doing just fine with the wind and waves and so have no need of Jesus' prayers let alone Jesus coming to them. Others are tortured and tormented on the sea of their life, but the prospect of Jesus coming letting alone helping with a few drops of water, some words from a pastor, or bread and wine seems foolish, powerless, pointless.
Is this us? Does my Baptism which is a lifegiving water, rich in grace seem no match for the billowing breath of Sin, Death, and Devil that are pushing waves of guilt down my throat? Do my Words of Absolution sending your sins farther away from you than you can imagine seem no use against the Sin, Death, and Devil creeping through your veins chanting "sinner, sinner?" Do we fail to see Jesus in the Bread and Wine of Communion concluding the promised Presence of His Body and Blood are no match for the Sin, Death, and Devil we see present all around us?
The question really is "since" or "if". If Peter says to Jesus as the insert translates: "Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to You on the water," that's a big "if." He's not sure it's the Lord but he can be convinced by a miracle. But it's a wicked and perverted generation that asks for signs and miracles Jesus says. And Jesus has just commanded, "Be of good cheer" that's how KJV translates revealed Himself as Yahweh (ego eimi), and promised they don't need to be afraid.
Is this us? Do we approach our Baptism saying, if I really am clothed with Christ by it, if I'm really buried and risen with Him in it, do something to prove it? If the pastor's voice of absolution really is that of my Father in heaven, show me? If that Bread really is Your Body and that Wine is Your Blood as You say, then enable me to do a miracle?
But is "since" much better? "Since" means Peter does recognize Jesus as Yahweh who the Old Testament says treads down the waves of the sea. After all, He does call Jesus, "Lord" and "since it's you" is a perfectly correct translation, so why don't we go with that? Well, then we have Peter showing that initial burst of boldness that puts him before the other disciples and always sinks him. He's the first to confess correctly Jesus is the Christ but moments later Jesus is calling him Satan. He's the first to say, "I will never deny you," and he's the only one to deny 3 times. He's the first apostle to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, but he is the one who denies the Gospel in Antioch by pretending they aren't on the same level of purity as the Jews.
In the sermon on this text from 6 years ago, I pointed out that "Get out of the Boat" is probably the most popular sermon theme for this text. I don't see myself either in getting out or staying in the boat. I see me in slip sliding between "if" and "since." This may not be us, but this is me. I waiver between "if" and "since" in my tormented, tortured boat of life to the point of being seasick. "If" that's really Jesus coming to me in Word and Sacrament, why don't I feel better, get better? Why doesn't He get me out of this boat already to the other side, out of the wind and waves?
But then the seas roil again, and I'm saying, "Lord since it is You," You can do anything. You can keep me still inside a storm. You can bring me safe to the other side. You can give me the wings of the eagle and soar me above this tormented, tortured, worried, desperate state I feel. "Since it is You" one drop of Your Baptismal Water "pours down on me the abundance of Your mercy." Since it is You, one syllable of Absolution is Your still small voice quieting my conscience by forgiving me the things for which my conscience is afraid. Since it is You, You are always ready to hear more than I to pray and more ready to give more than I desire or deserve. You give me not a crumb of Your Body or a drop of Your Blood, but all Your Body and all Blood for forgiving, for living, and for dying.
This is us forever wavering between "if-ing" and "since-ing", but that is not where this text turns or focuses. The climatic point of this text is not Jesus forcing the disciples into the boat; it's not Jesus in prayer for 8 hours for them; it's not even in Jesus walking on water. No, the central point, what you want to walk out of here with, is Jesus saving Peter.
This is us thanks be to God. Whether Peter meant "if" or "since," had he not gotten out of the boat, He never would have cried out, "Lord, save me!" It was not until Jesus brings him and remember Jesus did command him, "Come" to the point of despairing of self, giving up on self that Peter cries for the Lord to do the saving.
This is us; this is us despairing of us. We don't need to understand why we are in a tormented boat toiling against a wind that keeps blowing and waves that keep surging. We need only to know Jesus put us here. We don't need to understand how Jesus can come to us by Words and Sacraments that are as scientifically impossible as walking on water. We only need to know Jesus meets us here. We don't need to sort out our constant weaving between "if'" and "since," we only need to know it's not our faith that keeps us afloat but the hand of Jesus. See, this really isn't us. This is Him. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (20170827); Matthew 14: 22-33