Sunday, 13 August 2017

Seeing the Wind

Usually when I sit down and write a sermon it ends up largely how I planned it when I started. Not the other day.

The readings set for this Sunday were from 1Kings, where Elijah encounters God in the 'still small voice' on Mount Horeb after the wind, earthquake and fire; Romans 10, in which St Paul discusses faith and righteousness; and Matthew 14, the story of Jesus walking on the water and calling Peter to come to him. I had thought of the wind - which is very present in both the Kings and Matthew readings - as a metaphor for all the things that hold us back and discourage us, which was all very well.

But like many people I'd always been befuddled by that detail in the Gospel story that Peter walks towards Jesus on the water but then 'saw the wind and began to sink'. Why is it seeing the wind that makes him realise what he's doing is impossible?

I found myself thinking this way. It seems fairly clear that, in the mists of unrecorded history, Yahweh God of the Hebrews was a storm deity: that was how they originally conceived of him. Some of the Psalms, possibly the oldest stratum of Biblical text, refer to him in this way; he makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the winds, they say. Gradually the Israelites come to read the calamitous power of the storm not as a direct sign of the presence of God but as an image for his righteous wrath, provoked by injustice and oppression. So when Peter sees the wind churning up the surface of the lake, that's what he thinks of. He remembers his own unworthiness and the awesome righteousness of God; his fears and doubts about his own acceptability are re-awakened ('go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man') - and he sinks. 'Why did you doubt?' Jesus asks him, and his doubts are not about whether Jesus has the ability to enable him to do this impossible thing, but whether he, Peter, is worthy of it. Which of course isn't the point.

I sat and looked at what I'd just written a little surprised. I can't quite bring myself to believe that nobody has stumbled across this gloss on the text before, but I've never heard it.

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