Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday 10th August 2014 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Faith / Miracles / Do not be afraid / Facing life's storms

Sentence: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)


Almighty God,
in your Son Jesus Christ
you have created a people for yourself;
make us willing to obey you,
till your purpose is accomplished
and the earth is full of your glory. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33


1 Kings 19:9-18

Elijah (and Elisha, introduced in verse 19) are the two prophets of old whose ministry is closest to Jesus in respect of amazing miracles of nature occurring.

In this reading Elijah has been part of an amazing miracle (1 Kings 18) but now finds himself like a balloon that has been punctured. In his deflated state he wishes he could die (19:4) - a state we may find ourselves in after a period of intense spiritual activity.

When we look across to Matthew 14:22-33 we see no signs of Jesus feeling deflated after the Feeding of the Five Thousand but we do see Jesus, like Elijah, seeking aloneness.

In that aloneness, God visits Elijah, as it happens with some mighty natural events (11-12) but it is only when 'a sound of sheer silence' (12b) envelopes Elijah that the voice of God comes with the next step of his prophetic career charted out for him (13-18).

One point of the reading is that the word of the Lord (9) is greater than the power of nature. Nature shouts at Elijah but its message is unclear. Silence permits the word of the Lord to be heard in all its divine clarity.

Psalm 85:8-13

This psalm is appropriate to associate with the gospel reading. In that reading great 'works' are done by Jesus, works that no god other than the God of Israel can do through his Son. To such a God, the nations are envisaged as bowing down and worshipping him. So we find Jesus the Son of God worshipped at the conclusion of the gospel story.

Romans 10:5-15

This reading is just a bit, or even quite a bit complicated! But, despair not, we can make sense of it!

Recall that Paul arguing through the whole of Romans that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for all, for Jews and for Gentiles, is turning his attention through chapters 9-11 to the specific Jewish question of the salvation of Israel, given the covenantal promises God has previously made to them. More simply, when Israel after Jesus Christ asks, 'What about us?', what answer does Paul give?

In Romans 9, lays out what could be called a 'history of salvation' of the Jews, which highlights the instances in which not all Jews were saved. (That sentence is a bland summary of a subtle argument in which Paul engages with God's role (election) in the matter and with Israel's mistakes, leading to a remnant being saved in some episodes of Israel's history).

In the first few verses in Romans 10, Paul is remarkably clear and un-nuanced: Israel's failings are (a) lack of enlightenment or ignorance of the 'righteousness that comes from God' (2-3a), (b) consequential non submission to 'God's righteousness' (3b) with (a) and (b) being measured by 'Christ [as] the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes' (4).

With this in the background, let's see if we can make sense of Romans 10:5-15 which here is divided in 10:5-8, 8-13, 14-15


First, Paul is doing something familiar to Jewish exegetes of his day, but a little obscure to us. He takes two texts (Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 30:11-14) and works from one to the other. Leviticus 18:5 is cited in v.5 whereas Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is cited in vss.6-8. But Paul does something we might - in the light of cold, hard logical consistency - consider a bit dodgy: he pits Leviticus as the voice of Moses against Deuteronomy as the voice of 'righteousness that comes from faith' (6). That is, Paul pits 'righteousness that comes from the law' versus 'righteousness that comes from faith' by citing two pieces of Moses' writings!

As if that does not go against the grain of how we, today, might ideally strive to read the Bible, he also seems remarkably obscure in the way he cites Deuteronomy 30:11-14 in 10:6-8. Again, we need to allow for Paul the Jewish exegete to have his own - to our eyes, peculiar - way with the text. By citing Christ in verses 6 and 7 he is, in a roundabout way, saying that true righteousness is found in Christ but Christ is not found by righteousness striven for by strict obedience to God's commandments. Thus he speaks of 'the righteousness that comes from faith says ...' (6).

But faith is not an alternative to works in the sense that faith is a better pathway to find Christ. So we find that what the righteousness that comes from faith says is 'Do not say in your heart ...' (6). Rather, faith is a response to 'the word' (Deuteronomy 30:14 which Paul interprets as 'the word of faith that we proclaim' i.e. the good news of Jesus Christ).

In other words, in a form of biblical reasoning which is obscure to our usual way of handling biblical texts, Paul is arguing the superiority of 'faith righteousness' over 'works righteousness', and doing so on the basis that Scripture itself supports this argument.

From this point Paul segues towards something clearer to our minds: the word of faith which he proclaims (8) becomes the word spoken of in Deuteronomy 30:14, a word on lips and in hearts, a word which saves.


Implicit in what Paul writes in Romans 10:8-9 is the correct response to the gospel consists of two things. The two things he spells out, using the language of Deuteronomy 30:14, are (1) 'if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and (2) believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.' Verse 10 is a supporting explanation and verse 11 (citing Isaiah 28:16) is a supportive encouragement to be such a believing, 'righteousness that comes from faith' person.

Note that the belief re the resurrection is not that 'Jesus was raised from the dead' or that 'Jesus is alive'. No, it is belief that 'God raised him from the dead', that is, belief that God's seal of approval is on Jesus Christ as the new and living way to God, Jesus is God's anointed one (Messiah=Christ) and thus is properly considered 'the end of the law' (4).

In a neat and decisive twist, backed up by his argument through Romans 1-8, Paul is saying that in the righteousness that comes from faith, there is a new commandment (to use language of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) to follow, a living commandment or, better, living commander, the risen Lord Jesus. To submit to his lordship is now decisive for 'righteousness.'

Verses 12-13, building on this twist, make the point that Jews and Gentiles may both claim Jesus as Lord, may both believe that God raised him from the dead. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (13, citing Joel 2:32 and applying it to Jesus Christ).


From the aforegoing Paul segues again, this time to the mission of proclamation of the 'word of faith'. How can people call on the one they are yet to believe in if they have not heard the message? (14a) How can people hear if noone proclaims the message? (14b) And how can there be proclaimers if no one is sent? (15a).

(Much more can be said, especially when we look over from verse 15 into the succeeding verses where Paul kind of reverses the direction he goes in since he does not talk about proclaimers being sent but about the continuing spiritual plight of Israel as a people for whom 'not all have obeyed the good news' (16).)

Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew has 'form' when it comes to stories involving the combination of Jesus, water, storm, disciples and faith. In Matthew 8:23-27 he tells the story of Jesus and the disciples together in a boat in a storm which leads the disciples asking Jesus to save them and to Jesus rebuking the disciples for having little faith after telling them not to be afraid.

In this story the disciples are alone in a boat in a storm but Jesus comes walking towards them. He urges them to not be afraid. Then Peter asks if he could be commanded to walk on the water towards Jesus. When he does so he is initially successful but when he takes is eyes off Jesus and looks at the waves around him he begins to sink and cries out to Jesus to save him. As Jesus reaches out his hand to save him he says to Peter, "You of little faith, why do you doubt?"

This story of Jesus walking on the water is comfortable enough in gospel terms as other gospels also tell the story of Jesus defying the usual rules of gravity-plus-water (Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21). But when we get to Peter walking on water at the conclusion (albeit briefly) we are in uniquely Matthean territory as no other gospel conveys this story to us.

However a case could be made for the other gospels being a bit coy about this embarrassing-for-Peter story. Whatever we make of Peter walking on water, we can make sense of the fact that it was brash Peter making the attempt and not one of the others. Actually we can make some sense of Peter being inspired by his Lord to emulate him. That he only made it for a few steps before sinking becomes the occasion for a plausible message to us all about faith, as we shall see below.

A further point of comparison concerns the ending of the story.

Matthew's earlier storm story concludes with the disciples saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (8:27)

Here the storm story concludes with, "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (14:33)

This is a clear instance of Matthew developing his understanding of who Jesus was and is ("christology") as he unfolds the story of Jesus: a question about what kind of man Jesus is is replaced by a statement about who Jesus is in relation to God; and a question about who Jesus is gives way to an act of worship.

Since writing last week's comments, and when preaching on the Feeding of the Five Thousand yesterday, I have coined a phrase, 'every story in Matthew is a sermon'!

What is Matthew's message as he tells us this story in his own unique version of it? (Each point is numbered, but not each point is intended to have 'equal value.'

1. Time alone with God is important. Jesus tried to get that time after John the Baptist died (14:13) but the crowds thwarted him. His determination is not deterred and this time he succeeds. Crowds do not climb mountains. Where do we need to go so that distractions do not follow us? (To a region without cellphone coverage?)

2. If the message of the first storm story (8:23-27) was that Jesus is in the boat with the church when it faces storms, the message here is that even when the church thinks Jesus has deserted them, he is not far away. The church should never be afraid, no matter what storms batter it about. Jesus is present, we do not need to be afraid.

3. Jesus' comfort is to individuals as well as to the church collectively. Peter stands here for all individuals walking in the way of Jesus who take brave steps of faith in the face of life's storms and then lose sight of Jesus and are overwhelmed by the storms. (Step forward all those who have succeeded where Peter failed! ... What, not even one of us?) Jesus is ever at hand to save us, ever gentle chastising us for our little faith.

4. What is the appropriate response to Jesus who walks on water and calms stormy seas? It is to worship Jesus. But not some kind of 'Superman' or 'Magician' Jesus. He has not performed party tricks on a cosmic scale. What we see through Matthew's eyes is the Son of God, the creator of the universe rule over his world. Nature obeys the Son of God, humanity should worship the Son.

No comments:

Post a Comment