A sinking ship?

Sermon for 9th Sunday after Trinity
Preached (in Japanese) at Holy Trinity Church, Fukui City.

It is a dark time in Jesus’ life. He goes home to preach and is rejected, a prophet without honour in his own house, and because of the people’s faithlessness, he works no miracles there. (Mt 13.57f.) He finds out that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, has been executed by the authorities. (Mt 14.12) And so he tries to get to get away, to a lonely place apart. (Mt 14.13) Away from the memory of his headless corpse. Away from the faithless crowds.

But for all their unbelief, however deaf they were to his words, they follow him, in throngs. (Mt 14.13) This time he does not preach, but heals and feeds, miraculously. No great words, no promises of a better world for all: just a one-off act of great compassion (Mt 14.14) for those who were there right then, sick and hungry at that moment, that little island in the great sea of faithlessness.

Perhaps Jesus did not want to speak. Perhaps it was in frustration that he worked this miracle: talking to these people about God’s love had failed, so he showed them, instead. Perhaps he just wanted to get it done quickly, because, as it is written, he dismisses the crowds, sends the disciples off ahead without explanation, so that at last he can and be alone (Mt 14.22-24).

Alone. Alone for what? This is key: Jesus goes away to pray. Only when he has prayed does he walk out onto the water to calm the storm and bring peace to his disciples in distress (Mt 14.28). The root of his work of divine compassion is solitary prayer.

There is a monastery I go to near my parents’ house in Worcestershire, England, called Glasshampton. It is the novice house for Franciscan brothers in the Church of England. Many people do not know that we have monks and nuns, since Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries and stole their wealth to fund his wars at the Reformation. But in the 19th century, there was a revival of the Catholic tradition, and with it, to the religious life. The founded of Glasshampton, Father William, saw these religious houses as vital to the life of the Church. “The Church is weak in mission,” he said, “because the Church is weak in prayer.”

The Church is a boat which often looks like it is sinking. Church leaders often seem to think that they can calm the storm by a frenzy of words and actions. Yet Jesus throughout this episode of darkness hardly speaks at all. No sermons on structural sin and social inequality, no blueprints for hospitals and mills, so the people can heal and feed themselves, just instant acts of compassion born of prayer.

In themselves, Jesus’ miracles are not great acts. What does it mean to feed thousands when millions go hungry? To heal a few when the world is riddled with Coronavirus? To walk on water and calm a storm when the ship of the Church is sinking? Not much. If Jesus founded his Church to solve the social problems of the world, he failed.

If we want to know what these miracles mean, we need to look to Peter, because Peter stands for the Church. He rushes out into the storm to meet Jesus on the water and begins to sink. It is only when he cries, “Lord, save me!” that the wind ceases. It is only when he prostrates before Jesus, worships him as a good Jew should worship God alone, that he sees who Jesus really is: “truly, you are the Son of God” (Mt 14.33).

“The Son of God.” Peter will say those words again, after Jesus has fed the crowds a second time, and asks the disciples, “who do you say I am?” (Mt 16.15) But just before that, the disciples are worried that they do not have enough bread to feed everybody, and Jesus has to tell them explicitly that his miracles and his message are not about that kind of bread at all (Mt 16.11). He is the one who could have turned stones to bread, after all (Mt 4.3)! 愛jわ The bread he gives is the bread of his body, the bread of his teachings, the bread of life, and this bread is eaten by faith, digested not by the stomach, but by prayer.

When we meet Jesus in the storms of the final judgment, do we want to say to us as he said to Peter, “You of little faith? Why did you doubt?” (Mt 14.31) If we want to see him as he really is, God and Son of God, to be transfigured and illumined with his glory, then we must grow in faith through prayer. This curious bread which God has given us to nourish the world is one which we can give only in as much as we receive.

But make no mistake: if the Church’s prayer is strong, then her mission will be strong.

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