Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?
Rt Revd John Dennis, 13 August 2017
Romans 10: 5–15; Matthew 14: 22–33
Now last time, which was actually not all that long ago, at the end of June, I got my leg pulled after I preached by neatly ducking out of talking about the difficult bits of the gospel that morning and talking instead about ordination. Well, it was, after all, the weekend of ordination, when hundreds of young people and older people were getting ordained, and I’d just come back from an ordination in London the evening before.
But I can’t avoid it twice running, I don’t think. So the difficult bit about this morning’s gospel is of course the walking on the water. If you Google that you’ll find umpteen references, most referring to Jesus’ walking on the water, but a lot of other ones as well. And in this modern age, it does seem a tad unlikely. I think the only things that could walk on water are those little scuttly things that don’t break the surface tension, or human beings when the water is frozen, providing it’s frozen deep enough for even me to walk on it. And yet, unless you’re going to knock all the miracles sideways, you’ve got to accept that our Lord, the Son of God, had power over his own creation, and therefore miracles have got their proper place in the story.
Unless you’re going to knock all the miracles sideways, you’ve got to accept that our Lord, the Son of God, had power over his own creation.
‘Oh, I’ve never seen that happen – I’ve never seen anyone walk on water.’ Well, no, you haven’t, because you’ve never actually met the Son of God face to face, in the flesh. But there is a problem about it nonetheless. And that isn’t quite what most people would expect. Certainly there are three occurrences in three gospels – Matthew, Mark, no, not Luke – Matthew, Mark and John, the walking on the water. And in them what worries me is the reason for Christ walking on the water.
For the whole thing about Christ’s miracles was that they were always for the sake of others. And in fact in the temptations, the story of him being hungry and being tempted to turn these stones into bread, was very firmly knocked on one side, wasn’t it? And indeed, just before he’s talked of as walking on the water, he had come down from feeding the 5,000, when a little had been turned into abundance. They’d all been fed: 5,000 men. (Isn’t it a bit sexist not to mention the women and children in brackets?) However many there were, they had been fed. And that fits in to the miracles – healing miracles; nourishing, feeding miracles; inspiring miracles.
But unless you actually take the St Matthew’s account, the other two seem to me to be – excuse me, Lord – all it really is, is saying, ‘Calm down, I want to walk across you because I want to get to the other side’. One account is that he was aiming at passing them in the boat and not stopping until they shouted. That’s just mine, but everybody has got to take it as they wish. We’re a free country, we’re free-thinking and belong to a church that doesn’t impose such things on us. And there’ll be all sorts of interpretations of this particular thing.
The other one that people sometimes take is to say, ‘Well, isn’t it a bit like Christ saying to the disciples, “If you have faith, you can move these mountains; tell these mountains to move and they will move”’. Which we all put down as hyperbole, don’t we? He didn’t really mean it literally. ‘Hyperbole’, dictionary definition: ‘Exaggeration, not intended to be taken literally’ – that’s what the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as. Maybe it was coming from that; it was really a story that had grown from Jesus saying, ‘If you believe in me you could walk on water’? But we don’t know, do we?
However – and this is the big ‘but’ – in Matthew’s gospel, which we’ve had this morning, there is a reason for the whole incident of Christ walking on the water. And that is the testing of Peter’s faith; Peter, who saw him coming and said, ‘Lord, let me come too!’ ‘Well, come on then’, said Jesus, and Peter got out the boat. It was a rough, rough sea, so that was quite a business anyway, and he set off across the water. And then as he began to doubt he began to sink.
So actually I think the story in the gospel, whether it is basically, fundamentally true in the sense of historical truth, it certainly is true in the sense of the realities of life – that we are being encouraged to examine how well, how much we trust God. Because the more we trust him, the more he is able to work through us and with us. And that, perhaps, is where our eyes are being directed this morning.
I think the story in the gospel, whether it is basically, fundamentally true in the sense of historical truth, it certainly is true in the sense of the realities of life – that we are being encouraged to examine how well, how much we trust God.
But that is very difficult. How do I know how much I trust him? I know I don’t always. Sometimes I don’t even believe in him. We’re all a bit like that too, aren’t we? There’s belief in – do we believe God exists? You get doubts about that sometimes (well, I do). Or belief in, meaning trust in – that he will care for us, look after us and lead us in the way that is right for us and for him. It’s very difficult to know how much we trust in him.
But I think within this story there’s something else that helps. Come with me on a quick, whistle-stop trip round what we know about St Peter, whose name was Simon, brother of Andrew, called by Christ and named Peter, the Rock. Because for most of the story he’s not very rock-like, is he? You get Peter – and this is no particular chronological order because in the gospels what happened before anything else is variable – you get him being taken up the mountain on the feast of Transfiguration and seeing the glory of the Christ momentarily, in a time-out-of-time moment. And when he comes down being asked, ‘Well, who do you think that I am? Who do people say that I am?’ ‘Oh, well, Lord, some people think you’re John the Baptist come to life; some people think certainly that you’re one of the prophets’. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And Peter said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God’.
They said the same thing when he had got into the boat on the day that we’re talking about: ‘You are the Son of God’. But it was no time at all until Peter, who had affirmed him so strongly, was saying to him, when Jesus said, ‘We must now go down to Jerusalem and face what is coming’, ‘No, no, no, Lord, no, we mustn’t do that, you’ve got that all wrong. No, no, no, that’s dangerous.’ ‘Get behind me, Satan’, says Christ to poor old Peter, Peter the Rock.
We know that he had a mother-in-law, so presumably he had a wife, but we haven’t heard anything of her at all. But he had a mother-in-law – Christ was called in to heal her. Whether Peter called him in or not we don’t know, but maybe that’s a sign of a sort of faith, in Peter’s eyes.
But the closer they got to Jerusalem, the closer they got to the end story of the Passion, the worse it got. Peter – ‘Oh, I’ll never deny you, whatever’s coming, I’m prepared to take it with you, I’m your companion, I’m your loyal servant, I am the Rock’ – and within 24 hours we’ve got him in the High Priest’s grounds, saying, ‘No, no, no’, and three denials from Peter. What’s that got to do with trust?
And then we move on to the Resurrection, though there are lots of other things about Peter that we could focus on. The one Resurrection appearance which, to me, is absolutely wonderful, and is quite often passed over – you don’t ever get it at the centre of the reading when I’ve been in church – and that is in St Luke’s gospel, when the two disciples have gone on the road to Emmaus and have realised that the person who is walking with them, who is eating with them, was in fact Christ, risen from the dead.
When they dashed back to tell the others, they couldn’t even start to say what they’d just seen, because they were told, ‘He’s appeared to Peter’. Well, they actually said, ‘He’s appeared to Simon’ (as if the Rock wasn’t quite back yet). And that very intimate, sensitive, personal, unpublicised appearance – what went on there? I’d love to know. Peter being penitent to our Lord, our Lord being forgiving, our Lord being understanding, our Lord saying, ‘Well, I knew it was going to happen, Peter. Don’t worry, it’s all over now.’ Whatever it was, it must have been a wonderful moment for Simon, who became Peter very firmly after that.
Now, this is where it gets important: when Christ appeared to the disciples on the lakeside, which is in St John’s gospel, there is that lovely passage where Christ asked him a question. ‘Do you …’. He didn’t say, and this is really what strikes me so forcibly, he didn’t say, ‘Do you trust me now?’ What did he say? He said, ‘Do you love me?’ Not, ‘Do you trust me?’ Not, ‘Do you believe in me?’ But, ‘Do you love me?’
‘Lord, yes, I love you.’ And again, ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ ‘Do you love me?’ And that, I think, is the answer to the puzzle that I have posed. How do we know how we trust, how far we trust and don’t trust, the risen Lord, who is at the centre of our life? It’s very closely related to how much we love him.
Do you love him? He loves you. John, who recalls that encounter by the lakeside, is also the disciple, the evangelist, who recalls so powerfully the fact that God is love. We love because he first loves us. And that’s really where it all is. He loves us. He loves you. He loves –hard to think why – but he loves me. And he loves each of you individually, not just corporately – yes, as a community as well – but each one individually. And the more we become aware of that – and that’s something for us to open our eyes to, our heart to, our mind to (it’s within our power to do that) – then the more our love for him grows, and the more our trust in him grows.
Do you love the Lord? He loves you. And the more we become aware of that – and that’s something for us to open our eyes to, our heart to, our mind to (it’s within our power to do that) – then the more our love for him grows.
I suggest that in these next few minutes – some of you who are here for the first time may be surprised that when I finish talking, which I almost have, we just have a silence for several minutes to think and open, and think to ourselves, and be with God – that you spend that time just thinking, just counting up how much he loves you and how well you can be able to love him. Amen.