The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
When I was at University, many years ago, I used to row. There was a certain sensation that every crew aspired to. Where the boat was running just right, and the crew were working together perfectly. It didn’t need you to be the strongest or toughest crew. It did need you to instinctively know each other. To trust each other. In another sport you might describe it as ‘being in the zone’. It is partly physical and partly psychological. At that moment the boat lifted, it seemed to glide over the water. You could feel air bubbles forming under the boat. And whatever work was then put in, so long as it was done together and didn’t put you out of the zone. Was far more effective. The crew became more than the sum of it’s parts. If you were distracted, by remembering what happened the night before, or trying to remember which lecture you were going to be late for, or even by the sudden realisation that you were in the zone, it would be the end of that magic spot.
Today’s gospel is a classic. The story of Jesus walking on the water so well known I’ve seen cartoons of Mary trying to bath a toddler Jesus who simply refuses to be submerged, but unlike the average toddler who uses extreme acrobatics to hold onto the side of the bath with all feet and hands. Jesus simply sits on the water.
In this familiar story, as Jesus walks towards them through the storm, Peter doubts it is him and asks him to prove it by inviting him to walk out to Jesus. Peter begins walking out, focused on believing that this is possible, trusting Jesus, walking with confidence - He is ‘in the zone’. Then he gets distracted, he remembers the storm, the waves, the wind, that he’s walking on water - and - he begins to sink.
This miracle was, according to the Indiana Jones series, a favourite of God’s. Indy walks not on water, but on air, at the very end of his search for the Holy Grail. Only in that case the writers, who had no trouble with the holy grail offering endless life, felt that there had to be a surprisingly thin, and therefore invisible, bridge of stone to cross over the great abyss. Indy does and then uses the holy grail to save his father from a bullet wound - nothing to question the scientists mind in that film them. There are some who propose that this miracle in Matthew could be explained by a series of hidden stepping stones that Peter loses confidence in and slips off.
On this occasion, I would argue, it doesn’t much matter whether it’s Peter’s faith in Jesus or his faith in the path Jesus had shown him which falters allowing him to slip. Because regardless of his faith, Jesus picks him up and gets back in the boat with him.
For a crew of 8 to reach the point where the boat is gliding over the water it is important they don’t start judging each other - that’s why a coach is so important. I once actually had a coach throw his bike down and start stripping off his clothes because somebody in the boat had started trying to coach his fellow team. The coach had decided that if the oarsman felt so keen to coach they should swap. The point was that from the midst of the crew it is very difficult to judge. The coach, in his or her elevated position is better placed to understand the situation of each crew member. The job of the crew is not to judge but to trust one another and to work for each other.
Peter’s stumbling in the sea was another step in his complex journey towards being the cornerstone of the Church after Jesus’ ascension. Jesus could see the bigger picture, that Peter’s faith was not something which could simply be proven by a test, his faith was a life being lived in a way which allows it to be transformed by faithful relationship with Christ.
Here the analogy of a rowing crew being in the zone falls apart. Rowing is all about repetition. The reason you can trust in a crew of 8 people is that you are trusting, in part, in the muscles remembering and repeating the exact same movements, the exact same timings. In the Gospel story Peter is doing something completely new, he’s never walked on water before, he doesn’t know it’s going to work, or he doesn’t know the stepping stones are there. He’s not trusting his experience, he’s believing and trusting Jesus - somebody who’s just sent them out on their own in a storm! You could say he’s being rather foolish, you could say his judgement with regards to Jesus is pretty flawed. Perhaps Jesus judging this Peter character to be the right sort of person to follow him was pretty flawed too.
It can be far too easy to judge another person, to assume we understand or know them based on appearances or behaviours. To think we have a coach’s elevated position. First impressions are massively influential. A friend of mine once explained the training he had when he was beginning to volunteer for a help line for young muslims in distress. One of the exercises they had to do was to explain to a blindfolded person on the other end of a room how to fill a bucket with water using a jug. The trick is that from where they were they couldn’t see that the bucket was already full. The message was simple, when you are listening to a person who rings up, don’t assume you understand their situation, that you understand their life, that you should be judging them, or, in that case, advising them. You are there to listen and to let them know they aren’t alone.
Today’s gospel (and the letter to the Romans) reminds us that Jesus didn’t come to judge the world, but to save it. To do so by accompanying us all in our lives as we are transformed through faith in God. In our baptism we are called to follow Jesus, to become part of his body - the Church. By being welcomed into that body we take up this task, not to judge one another, but to accompany each other, so that we can be transformed together.
Today James is being baptised, before he is, we are reminded of the task of accompaniment when we are asked to affirm that we will support him. I know James is keen on Thomas the Tank Engine. Of course his namesake, James the Red Engine, is known for judging others, proud of his lovely red paint. He refuses to pull trucks which might make him dirty because he is superior to the other engines, particularly the blue ones. He does, however have to apologise when he is rescued by those he thinks aren’t as good as him. Despite of the way he treats the other engines, they still come to help him.
The last three weeks of violence in the middle east, and acts of antisemitism in other parts of the world, have made it all too apparent what happens if there is a lack of trust between people. If we go too far down a line of categorising or characterising one another or ourselves. It plays out there on a major scale, where a litany of errors or failings by the opposition can always stand in the way of any attempt to find peace. A similar lack of trust and understanding can be at the heart of issues in the relationships between groups in our own diverse neighbourhood. It can also stand in the way of many human relationships on a much smaller and more individual scale.
Being distracted by our own prejudices, by the seeming impossibility of peace, and by the need to be right can lead to our own faltering. The trust which allows the world to be transformed is reliant not on a set of predictable and repeated movements which we know get us ‘into the zone’. The trust we need to develop comes from an ongoing faithful effort to be there for one another. And to seek to understand the bigger picture, not so that we can judge, but so that we can truly follow in Christ’s act of loving all of creation fully.