August 08, 2008

Rocking the Boat

by Debra Dean Murphy
I’ve been following a blog debate over at between a scientist of some sort, hostile to religion generally and Christianity particularly, and a pious defender of the faith. In my view, neither has been very impressive in articulating his case against the other, and the back-and-forth accusations and “gotcha’s” and outright vitriol have only escalated as the debate has gone on (and on and on). I tried briefly to weigh in on it earlier this week, calling for a little charity and humility from both sides, but, like a sister trying to pull her two brothers off each other in a backyard brawl, I was roundly ignored. Lesson learned.

The gospel text from Matthew 14 this week strikes me as the kind of passage over which science guy and defender guy would go at it, arguing past each other all the while—as they have been doing all week. The ghostly Jesus walking on the water is too much for the rationalist to take in; it’s laughable, even—easy pickins. The mocking denial of such an archetype biblical image of Jesus (and the sacrosanct truth it represents) is scandalous to the defender’s deeply-felt piety. You can almost hear defender guy quoting Jesus back at his opponent: “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” (14:31). Disagreement. Accusation. Counter-accusation.


What to say about such a text when there are probably many science guys and defenders guys (and gals) in our congregations? Whose side does the preacher take?

I hope I’ve given some indication of how futile such a side-taking exercise is (which I know you already know). One thing seems clear: since biblical writers never seem particularly interested in exploring or explaining the mechanics of Jesus’ miracles, we should probably check our own such preoccupations at the door. For Matthew’s audience, it’s probably Peter’s fear (and, by extension, the fear in each of us) that he wanted to deal with. And if, as some scholars suggest, the boat in the story stands in for the church (the ark of salvation), it’s interesting to wonder where an exploration of verses 32-33 might take the preacher.

It’s in the epistle lesson for this week (in the Revised Common Lectionary, not the Lectionary for Mass) that we’re given an illuminating word about lack of belief—about how to treat those, like science guy, who reject Jesus. Romans 10:5-15 is part of a larger set of material in which Paul struggles to articulate the place of Judaism in the new Jesus movement. Through his own internal debate and his wrestling with scripture, Paul concludes that God has not abandoned his promises to Israel; God remains faithful to his covenant people.

While Paul does indicate that there are those who have, for now, missed the boat, all is not lost. “The same Lord is Lord of all” (10:12). It’s ultimately by resting in the mystery and sovereignty of divine love, a love made incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, that Paul comes to trust in a God who saves and who will save.

It’s a big boat.

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