With us Always

With us Always

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

August 13, 2023

With us Always

Homily for August 13, 2023
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 14:22–33

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

In just a moment, I want to turn to this morning’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel.  But first, I want to visit  the novel Silence, by the Japanese Christian novelist Shusaku Endo.  If you haven’t read the book, perhaps you’ve seen the movie and know that the novel is set during the persecution of Christians in early 17th-century Japan.  To make a long story short, the protagonist, the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Sebastien Rodrigues, is captured, tortured and—in order to save the lives of his fellow Christians—finally apostatizes, which his Japanese captors ritualize by forcing him to step on an icon of Christ.  As Rodrigues approaches the icon to step on it, he sees in the icon a worn-away area in the shape of a footprint.  He realizes that he is not alone in his apostasy, that countless others have apostatized with him.  Now, on to this morning’s text from St. Matthew.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” said Peter to Jesus.  The three others (or groups of others) in Matthew’s Gospel who say to Jesus, “If it is you…” [εἰ σὺ εἶ] are:

  • Satan: “If you are the Son of God,” said Satan to Jesus, tempting him in the wilderness, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3).
  • Caiaphas, the high priest, as Jesus’ trial: “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” said Caiaphas (26:63).  And…
  • The mockers at the cross: “If you are the Son of God,” they shouted at Jesus, “come down from the cross” (27:40).

In asking, “Lord, if it is you…” Peter keeps company with Satan, Caiaphas and the mockers at the cross—not exactly what we expect from the one whom Jesus called “the rock” on whom he would build his church (Matt 16:18).  And Peter’s “if it is you…” is not the only passage in Matthew’s Gospel that sheds a less-than-favorable light on Peter.  For example,

  • In Matthew’s Gospel, in the courtyard of the High Priest, in a phrase that only Matthew uses, Peter did not merely deny Jesus but denied Jesus “before all” (26:70)… which could put Peter in the company of those whom Jesus said he would deny: “Whoever denies [not just me, but denies] me before others,” said Jesus in Matthew 10, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”  (Matt 10:33).
  • In Matthew, after denying Jesus, Peter not only “broke down and wept,” as Mark reports (14:72), but Matthew adds that Peter “went out” to weep bitterly (26:75)… which could put Peter in the company of those who, at the king’s wedding banquet in Matthew 22, were thrown out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:13).
  • In Matthew, in a story carried only by Matthew, Peter’s offer to forgive seven times comes off as extremely stingy, for Jesus rebukes him and says that Peter should forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (18:21–22).
  • In Matthew—though Mark reports that Jesus said to Peter only, “Get behind me, Satan” (Mark 8:33)—Matthew adds, rubbing it in, for “You are a stumbling block to me” (16:23).
  • And in today’s Gospel—never mind that by asking, “Lord, if it is you…” Peter keeps company with Satan, Caiaphas and the mockers at the cross—[in today’s Gospel] Peter first 1) doubts that it is Jesus, then 2) “puts Jesus to the test” (e.g., 4:7), and 3) then doubts the miracle itself and begins to sink.

If one were looking for ways to impugn Peter’s character, more than Mark or Luke, Matthew’s Gospel offers possibilities.

Matthew is often regarded as the most “pro-Peter” of the Gospels.  Why, then, would Matthew include potentially defamatory details of Peter?  Perhaps Matthew is trying to make Peter more approachable, to take Peter down from any pedestal on which readers might set him.  Perhaps Matthew wants us to know that even Peter, the “first” among the disciples (10:2), is—like many of us—of “little faith”?  Or perhaps Matthew is suggesting that it is a normal and to-be-expected dynamic of Christian discipleship to sometimes put God “to the test,” or to resist or even deny Jesus.

I’m not sure why Matthew offers less-than-flattering details about Peter, but I wonder if Matthew’s not-always-favorable portrayal of Peter results from the persecution we suspect Matthew’s community was undergoing.  Not a persecution by the state in which people were put to death (as in 17th-century Japan), but a persecution that set Matthew’s Jesus-believing synagogue at odds with the surrounding synagogues that did not believe in Jesus.  These surrounding synagogues were so at odds with Matthew’s, that families and neighbors were bitterly divided.  As Matthew writes, “one’s foes” were “members of one’s own household” (10:36).  To offer his community hope and encouragement, perhaps Matthew tried to portray Peter similarly to the way he portrayed Jesus; that is, as one who is “with us.”  Recall that for Matthew, Jesus is “‘Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us’” (1:23).  If in their persecution, those who believed in Jesus saw Jesus as someone who was with them and who shared in their sufferings, so it might encourage them if they could see also Peter as one who was with them as they themselves (like Peter) perhaps doubted and put Jesus to the test and resisted Jesus and maybe even denied Jesus.

Toward the end of Silence, when Fr. Rodrigues has (at least outwardly) abandoned Christianity, having taken a Japanese name and living as a Japanese person in Japanese society, an old follower secretly comes to Rodrigues to make his confession.  Here Rodrigues prays (in silence), “Lord, I resented your silence” [when you did nothing to help those Christians who were being killed].  “I was not silent,” he heard Jesus answer, “I suffered beside you…. When you suffer, I suffer with you. To the end I am close to you.”  Which is the way in which Matthew ends his Gospel: “And remember,” Jesus said to his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).

None of us is perfect in our discipleship; and all of us experiences suffering.  The witness of Matthew’s Gospel—Matthew’s Jesus as “’Emmanuel…’ God with us,” and Matthew’s Peter as one who (like us) doubts, tests, resists and denies—is “God is with us”; “When you suffer, I suffer with you.  To the end I am close to you.”  I pray that, when we may falter in our faith, we might remember that Peter, the “first” among the disciples, was less than perfect in his discipleship; Peter is with us.  And I pray that we might remember, too, that when we suffer, Jesus suffers with us, and that he is with us always, to the end of the age.

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