A Biblical Anachronism?


Movies that take place in the past always run the risk of including some sort of  unintentional anachronism – that is, a chronological inconsistency.  For example, in this famous scene from the 1985 film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where his parents first met on a Gibson ES-345 guitar that wasn’t introduced until 1958. (1)  This is usually the result of poor research by a prop department or a lack of availability of something of the era.  More often than not, the general population doesn’t notice the flaw because most of us wouldn’t know a) what model guitar that was and b) when it came out.  And, quite frankly, most don’t care either.


There are always a few folks who do notice and do care, and so lists like Mental Floss’ “15 Obvious Movie Anachronisms” are published and the general public giggles at both those who notice such things and the multi-billion dollar movie industry that can’t spend the five minutes checking these things out.

If people don’t care about anachronisms in movies, I’m certain that nobody at all reads their Bibles looking for the same.  Yet, here I am, that one weirdo, who always struggles with the disciples initial reaction to seeing Jesus in the story of Jesus walking on water, which we will hear read on Sunday.  The NRSV renders it this way.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.”

Every time I read that part of the story, I wonder to myself, “did first century Jews believe in ghosts?”  It is well established that thoughts about the afterlife were still very much in flux in first century Judaism.  The Pharisees, Jesus’ main adversaries in Matthew (and another anachronism, but that’s for another post), believed in resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8), while the Sadducees didn’t believe in any of those things.  Further complicating the issue is that the word translated as “ghost” in the NRSV is a hapax legomenon in the Canon of Scripture.  It appears twice in the Gospels, but it seems Matthew took it directly from Mark when he brought this story into his Gospel.  Thayer tells us that the word is common in Greek literature, appearing in Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and others.  In Greek, it seems to mean something more like a supernatural appearance, which flows well from its Hebrew equivalent that connotes a vision.

Did the disciples believe in ghosts?  I can’t be sure.  Certainly, they experienced Jesus on the water as something supernatural, something they would not normally expect to see, something worth being scared witless over, but I wonder if our 21st century understanding of ghosts (see Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, and Scooby Doo) create an anachronism in the story that clouds our understanding in an unhelpful way.  Or, maybe I’ve just fallen down another infamous Steve Pankey rabbit hole.  Either way, there’s another 500 words for you to ponder.

NB. If you are an astute reader of this blog, you’ll note that I wrote on this topic, with much more certainty, three years ago.  I only realized it when I saw that “Ghosts” was a tag I had used before.  But that’s why you read, isn’t it?  To see what new useless thing I’ll glom on to next.


Subtle Drama Lost

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Shortly after 6am this morning, I sat down in a rocking chair on my front porch to sip my first cup of coffee of the day.  It is the first day of school here in Bowling Green, so everything had to be moved ahead of the slower paced summer schedule.  I noticed, if only for its lacking, that the sun was not yet over the trees.  What had been an overwhelming brightness over the past several weeks was replaced by the redness of the newly risen sun, just barely peeking through the trees.  It was cool, the street was quiet, and I thought to myself, “this is the calm before the storm.”

By the Roman time keeping standard of the 1st century, 6am is the end of the fourth watch, the time stamp given for this week’s Gospel lesson in the Greek version (and honestly most others outside of the NRSV).  After a night spent in prayer, Jesus set out to meet up with the wind battered disciples on a boat somewhere near the middle of the Sea of Galilee by walking across the water.

I note the time of day as the fourth watch because I think it helps add in the subtle drama of the story.  We don’t know what time of year it was, so we can’t be for sure when the sun rise would have occurred on that particular morning, but the sky most definitely starts to gain light toward the waning hours of the fourth watch.  Unlike Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus seems to teleport from one location to another, Matthew tells us that somewhere during the period between 3am and 6am, Jesus walked to meet his disciples.  It would have taken him some time to traverse the roughly four mile hike from the south-western shore to mid-lake.  As he walked, the sky began to wake.  First light came, and as the sun approached the horizon, the twilight grew until the figure on the water began to come into focus for the disciples.

It isn’t so much that the time of day really matters for preaching, except that it kind of does.  When we miss these details, the story loses some of its power because we are no longer able to put ourselves within it.  With the return to a fourth watch translation (and the requisite teaching required to help people know what that means), we can begin to imagine ourselves within the story.  Many have experienced the twilight of the morning.  We know what it is like as what was once darkness gives way to light and more and more things come into view.  Sometimes, all it takes is one small detail of subtle drama to allow us to experience more fully what the disciples were feeling, to understand the story more fully, and find our place in an ancient encounter with the Savior of the World.

Experiencing God with all the senses

Given its scriptural context, my sermon on Sunday focused on the eyes.  “Where have you seen God today?” was the recurring question, and it is, I believe, an important one.  This is not to say, however, that God is not made manifest through our other senses as well.  In fact, Sunday’s Track Two Old Testament lesson comes at the tail end of a story that all about how God makes himself known in unexpected ways.


If you didn’t click the link to read the lesson, I’ll remind you that it is the story of Elijah’s flight to Mount Horeb.  After Ahab married Jezebel and worships her God, Baal, the Lord God of Israel withheld rain from the land for three years.  So it begins with God being manifest in the parched tongues of the thirsty and the empty bellies of the hungry.   Over and against Baal, the god of the storm, Elijah’s God is fully in control of sun and rain, ground and harvest, and even life and death.  Elijah, following the command, that is the voice, of God, departs for Zarephath where he is to find a widow who will care for him.  Here again, God is made known in water, oil, and flour, even the very taste of bread upon the lips of Elijah, the widow, and her son.

As the story unfolds, Elijah ends up in a spiritual battle with the priests of Baal over who’s god can bring fire to the earth.  God’s power is is made manifest in fire that consumes damp wood, stones, dust, and even water.  God was felt in the heat of the flames, and the smell of burnt wood.  For the priests of  Baal, the impotence of their god was known in the pain of their wounds as they tried to appease Baal with a sacrifice of their own blood.  After that amazing and ridiculous story, Elijah once again leaves town for safer quarters, and our lesson opens with Elijah hiding for safety atop Mount Horeb.  There God isn’t in the earthquake or the rock-splitting wind, or even the fire, as before.  Instead, God makes himself known to Elijah in the still, small voice.

God is willing to find us by any means necessary.  Through sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing, God calls us each in our own way.

Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.


At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Worship in the Nave – a sermon

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[1] 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 cant 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!


[1] http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/ship.htm

Being Called Out of the Boat

Over at the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center, suggests that the well-worn story of Jesus walking on water should be read less as a literal event and more as a real-life parable of the Kingdom of God.  This isn’t, I don’t think, intended to start a Jesus Seminar style debate on the historicity of the story, but instead to open our eyes to a new way of reading the text.

The standard read, one that I have used in the past, is summed up in the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.”  The assumption there is that Peter’s initial action is to be emulated, he stepped out of the boat, but his doubt caused him to sink.  Good disciples, therefore, will have a stronger faith and will walk on water right alongside Jesus.  This fails, I think, because of Peter’s attitude before he got out of the boat.  “Lord, if it is you,” Peter says, “then call me out to join you.”  Peter doesn’t walk on water because of his faith, but rather because of his doubt.

Parabolically speaking, however, Jesus’ word to the doubting Peter is his word to each and every one of us, “come.”  From the earliest of days, one of the images used to describe the Church is that of a boat.  As time went by, our architecture began to mimic this imagery and churches were built to look like upside-down ships and the large area where the congregation gathers took on the name “nave” which comes from the Latin “navis” which means ship.

“Saint-Sulpice, Nave, Paris 20140515 1” by DXR / Daniel Vorndran – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

While Peter’s testing of Jesus is not to be emulated, the reality is that every day in the life of faith is an experience of getting out of the ship.  We might return to the nave on Sunday and/or Wednesday and/or every day of the week, but we don’t get to stay there.  Just as Jesus compelled his disciples to get on the boat and go on ahead of him, we are called to leave the ship and join Jesus out in the chaos of life.  Sometimes, the waters are calm.  Often, the waves are swirling and wind is howling.  It is more than likely that we will begin to sink on a regular basis.  But Jesus is there, hand out stretched, saying “Be not afraid, I AM.”

It is a ghost!

As a child of the 80s, I am obliged to be a big fan of the Ghostbusters movies.  I’m even getting excited that an all-female reboot is being discussed as a possible Ghostbusters 3, though the lack of Harold Ramis is tempering that a bit.  For all my love for the Ghostbusters movies, I’ve never been real big on other forms of paranormal activity.  I don’t like scary movies, Casper the Friendly Ghost has always felt hokey to me, and the rash of ghost spotting shows that are just people whispering in the dark that hit reality TV in the last 5 years or so leave a lot to be desired.  Being a paranormal skeptic and one who subscribes to the Orthodox view of angels (that we don’t become one when we die), I’ve always found the response of Jesus’ disciples to his walking on water to be peculiar.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.”

The Greek word provides perhaps the best transliteration in all of Scripture, phantasma, which means apparition or specter.  N.T. (Tom) Wright has a short article on the various understanding of the afterlife in first century Greek and Jewish philosophy.  In it, he suggests that ghostly visitations were an understood part of life in Greek culture.  It makes sense then, that the disciples, living in a highly Hellenized Israel would have had it in their minds to even consider Jesus walking on the water as a ghost.  It follows then, that their reaction, being terrified and crying out in fear, makes sense.  Of course, even if they didn’t believe in ghosts, the night and the water would have been enough to have their nerves on the edge anyway.

As I ponder the reaction of the disciples, I can’t help but think of those times in my own life when despite my faith in God and his divine providence, I’ve been terrified.  Certainly not of ghosts, mind you, but of any number of other silly things: exams, job interviews, asking my wife to marry me, moving to Foley, becoming a dad.  It seems as though fear continues to be a part of normal life, even when we claim our faith in Christ.  Perhaps that’s why “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” was a part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  We will find ourselves tempted to choose fear over faith.  We don’t have to look very far to see evil at work in the world.  We are rightly terrified from time to time, but then Jesus calls out, “Take courage!” or “Take heart!” or “Cheer up!  I’m here, you need not be afraid.”