Our Gospel this week picks up where we finished last week. If you remember, Jesus had just heard the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod; Jesus had withdrawn to be by himself but the crowds had followed him; miraculously, Jesus had been able to make sure they were fed with food to spare. In today’s passage, Jesus first sends his disciples away in a boat and then dismisses the crowds. Have you ever wondered why they were sent away before the crowds? It is one of those details that makes me curious but for which I have no answer. Faced with a crowd of some 5000 (with women and children beside) you would have thought a little help may have been useful ensuring the dispersal of such a large group but maybe it was the very departure of the disciples that signalled that the day was over and the people began to head home. Who knows!
Then without the pressure of people around him demanding his attention, Jesus withdraws and goes up the mountain by himself to pray. To go again to where he had been before being pursued by the crowds – the move to solitude, to quiet is central to Jesus and we see it right through the Gospel stories. At the very beginning of the Gospels, Jesus withdraws to the desert after his baptism and at the end we find Jesus needing to be alone in the garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. In between times, like today and last week, we find Jesus withdrawing from the hurly burly of life and from the adulation of the crowds. It becomes a familiar pattern and one that we would do well to notice and attend to in our lives.
Why are times of solitude important? Firstly, Jesus said so! Whenever you pray go into your room and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Mt 6.6. We can dismiss it with references to our own busyness and all the things that we must attend to, but we do so at our peril. Remember that it is precisely at times of pressure that Jesus chose to withdraw – remember Gethsemane (Mt 26) and his prayer for the cup to be passed from him for example. It seems to me the move is less one of withdrawal but more one of remaining centred in the presence of God. If you think back to the time in the desert and the temptations Jesus faced – for survival and physical comfort (stones into bread), for worldly power and adulation ( I give you the kingdoms of the world) and for spiritual certainty (throw yourself down from the Temple) it was in Jesus’ turn to God through the word of Scripture that enabled him to weather the storms of temptation.
Sometimes people use the image of charging your batteries to describe times set apart but these days that image becomes less and less helpful to me, in the main because it suggests something happening whereas setting time apart is less about achieving or adding anything but more about letting go; less about shoring up our identities, and more about reminding ourselves as to the source of our wellbeing. Not so much about doing something, but rather paying attention.
Paying attention without being forever distracted by the cares and concerns of daily life. There is a whole industry that is coming to dominate our world whose aim is to capture our attention, driven by the technology that is more and more pervasive as shapers of our desires, of our goals and values. I have been reading an interesting book by an ex Google employee who is now based at Oxford University called Stand out of our Light. His name is James Williams and he is looking precisely at this area of how we are increasingly under the thrall of the major internet giants, whose express aim is to capture our attention. It is worth a read. He says that distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity – forever feeding us in ways that shape both what we want to want and where we look for meaning and happiness.
Of course, we have choices, and as Christians we tell a different story of where it is that we need to pay attention if we are to surf the waves of contemporary living. What you might say has all this to do with today’s Gospel? Or indeed to Christian living in the world today, scarred as it is by so many troubles and injustices on both a personal level and in the wider world? Let us go back to the story.
In todays passage, Jesus has spent the best part of the night alone up the mountain, while his disciples were wrestling with a storm on the lake. In the dark before the dawn, the disciples saw him walking towards them on the lake; their first response was one of fear but not because of the waves battering the boat but because they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus reassures them and says Do not be afraid. Peter’s response is to test Jesus: Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. He did not say but he might have said If it is you, enable me to do the impossible. If it is you, make magic happen so that I will be dazzled out of all doubt! His fear leads him to suspicion and distrust. To challenge Jesus to prove himself.
As Jesus says Come, so Peter makes a move toward him. As far as we know things begin well but suddenly Peter becomes distracted – his gaze shifts from Jesus to the winds howling around him and he begins to sink. He shrieks in desperation Lord save me and Jesus hauls him back into the boat and to safety. And as the wind drops those in the boat say truly you are the son of God. Their trust in Jesus is complete – at least for now, as there will be other testing moments as the Gospel story moves toward the climax in Jerusalem.
Is it too much to say that this story, heard as a metaphor, speaks volumes to us today? We are buffeted by the storms of life; there are continuing demands on us as we try to chart our way through personal struggles; how many temptations there are to take us away from what we want to want; to frustrate our goals and values for ourselves and the world around us; to refuse the command of love – of God, ourselves and our neighbours as ourselves. Like Peter we pay attention to the howling winds and we find ourselves slipping beneath the waves, but we too can find in those moments of darkness and terror that if we ask, God’s loving embrace will surround us.
The practice of prayer – which the writer Simon Weil described as paying attention – will deepen our relationship with God who so loves us and help us remain centred through the storms of life and so to savour the wonder of being alive. No need to go to the mountain, rather as Jesus says:
Whenever you pray go into your room and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Mt 6.6.
Revd Jonathan Morris