You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website or read on.
I live with an almost constant battle going on inside my head. On the one hand, I am an unreserved Church Nerd with an especially deep love for our history and our liturgy. That side of me cares about the language we use and wants to be very careful to call things by their proper names. So, for example, I wouldn’t flinch to tell you that the sign-up sheet for the last few Backpack Blessing supplies is located on the Mule Chest in the Narthex. On the other hand, I am deeply committed to evangelism and I want Saint Paul’s to be an open and welcoming congregation. That side of me doesn’t really want to bother with archaic language because it can be clumsy and hard to understand. It is that part that would rather tell you that the sign-up sheet for the last of the Backpack Blessing supplies is on the cabinet in the foyer or the table in the entrance way. I am usually able to strike a delicate balance between these two parts of me by deciding what is most edifying to the faith and therefore worth teaching about. Given my example, and since you suffered through a word-history lesson last week, I don’t really think we need a lecture about how the word narthex in classical Greek meant “a scourge” or “a whip” and how historically, it was the place where the unbaptized and those who had unconfessed sins were forced to watch the service from afar. Instead, since we aren’t all standing out there waiting to confess our sins, but it is, for us, really more of an entry-way, I’m more comfortable calling the narthex a foyer and letting that be that. There are plenty of clergy who would disagree with me on this, but we all draw our what’s-worth-keeping line in different places, and that’s ok.
There are certainly other words that I think are very helpful for our faith and seem to be worth knowing and teaching about. This is why I try to be very careful to not refer to the building we are currently in as “the church.” The church is not a building. It does not have four walls, stained glass windows, an altar, pulpit, pews, and a steeple. The church is people. It is the community of the faithful who gather in worship and profess a faith in Jesus Christ. While it isn’t necessarily wrong to call this building “the church,” it seems to me to miss the point. Instead, I try to use the proper terms for the various spaces within the building. Depending on where I’ll be meeting someone, I might say, “I’ll see you in the…” vestry or sacristy or sanctuary or the choir loft or, most likely, the nave. The nave is the largest area in most classically designed worship spaces. This makes sense because it is the seating area for the congregation, which, if you’re doing church right, constitutes the largest number of people. The word comes from the Latin word “navis” which means ship, and if you look up at the ceiling, you’ll note that architecturally it sort of looks like the keel of a boat flipped upside down.
This nautical language is not accidental. The image of the church as a boat is one of the earliest Christian symbols. We know that it was used by two early Church Fathers: Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria who both lived and wrote in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. It also appears in today’s Gospel lesson and is the first place the church gathered in worship of Jesus. That might not be what you get out of the story of Jesus walking on water, but I’m beginning to think that maybe it really is the point of it all.
Our Gospel lesson picks up right were last week’s lesson ended. The sun is setting on that long and terrible day for Jesus. What started as a boat ride in search of some quiet time to deal with his cousin’s death turned into a full day of healing disease, casting out demons, and feeding a crowd of upwards of fifteen thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. With the leftovers picked up into baskets, Jesus dismissed the twelve disciples each carrying a basket of their own, insisting that they get back into their boat and return to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Then he sent the crowd, now healed and full of good food, home for the night. Finally, Jesus was able to make his way up the mountain for some time alone in prayer. Jesus spent the whole night praying while his disciples fought against tormenting waves and a hostile wind. He stayed on the mountain until the fourth watch, somewhere between three and six in the morning.
The way the story reads, it seems as if what happened next was nothing out of the ordinary. Finally, as the sun was about to rise, Jesus started out toward the disciples’ boat, walking, almost nonchalantly, on top of the water. Given what we know about water, namely that a human beings can’t walk on top of it, and that this passage is often titled “Jesus walks on water” and knowing the disciples’ response to this scene, it seems clear that this is not a normal occurrence, and yet Matthew almost seems to downplay it in order to highlight other things. The disciples, frazzled from a hard night fighting uncooperative seas, were terrified by the sight of the specter walking toward them, and they cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost!” But Jesus was quick to calm their nerves, “Take heart,” he said, and then invoking the name God told Moses from the burning bush, he continued, “I am. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter, dumb-as-a and soon to be sinks-like-a box-of-rocks Peter, isn’t quite convinced. “It if really is you, Lord, then tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invites him to come, and so Peter takes one step out of the boat and then another and then another. Quickly, however, he realizes that while Jesus isn’t a ghost that he needs to be afraid of, those tumultuous waves and that howling wind are still doing their thing. Fear quickly settled back into Peter’s heart and he began to sink. This time, there was no qualifying statement, no “Lord, if it is you,” just the cry of a scared young man, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and pulled him up from the water. After a brief teaching moment about faith, about how maybe “Lord, if it really is you” isn’t the best way to address the guy who just spent the day healing hundreds of sick people, who fed thousands by way of a miracle, and who just came walking toward you on top of the water, Jesus helps Peter back into the boat. As they crossed over the gunnel, immediately the wind stopped blowing, the seas calmed down, and the disciples fell on their faces and began to worship Jesus, calling him for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel, “The Son of God.” There the disciples were: exhausted, soaking wet, their hearts still pounding from the events of the past few minutes, lying face down in their nave worshipping the Lord Jesus.
Most of us haven’t had an experience with Jesus that can be compared to what the disciples saw from him over the last 24 hours, and yet we gather every week, some of us more often than that, in our own nave to worship the Lord, giving thanks for his grace and mercy. We’re here, as Paul reminds us in Romans, because somebody told the story of Jesus. In time, the disciples went out and shared the Good News. Eventually it got written down. Churches were founded. Buildings were built. The ship grew bigger and bigger, and today, we take our place as the Church, the body of Christ, gathered in worship. Whether it is in a nave or a narthex; in the car or at home; we are the Church, committed disciples of Jesus who offer him praise and share his saving love with a world full of chaos and stormy seas. Hallelujah! Or should I say, “Praise The Lord!”? Amen!