Struggle and Strife
Last week we saw Jacob struggling with his life and with his relationships with his family and with God. Now we get a little glimpse of the next generation and we can certainly see the influence of Jacob, now called Israel. Jacob in his youth was quite open in his manipulation of others and this included whom he loved and whom he didn’t.
He had 2 wives and he loved one far more than the other. Family structures were very different in those days and it did not always make for harmony. Now we see that he loved his son Joseph, the son of his beloved Rachel, better than he loved his other sons, the sons of his other wife Leah and the sons of his wives’ handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah. And those sons all knew it! Joseph was the favourite. He knew that and he did not hesitate to rub his brothers’ noses in it. He told them of his dreams, dreams where they bowed down to him and he was the one respected and important. True or not, it was not going to win this little brother any friends. His relationship with his brothers was like that of many teenage rivals, only more so.
Perhaps his father was trying to bring them closer by having Joseph go and check how they were doing with their duties minding the flocks. But it was not to be. Many a teenager says to a sibling Get your nose out of my business. I’m going to kill you. I’ll . . . and they relish going into gruesome detail. Now, however, the brothers are plotting amongst themselves.
Reuben thinks he had better try to help little brother, so he comes up with an alternative imprisonment plan where he can intervene after the event and rescue Joseph. But that, also. was not to be. Joseph was sold into slavery. The deed was done but fortunately not the murder. And the foundation was laid for events both good and bad, near at hand and hundreds of years in the future. But for now, we will leave the teenager enslaved, and the brothers sorting out their story for the father. Israel’s favouritism has come home to roost and there will be a continuing struggle to find God’s presence and blessing for this dysfunctional family of promise. The one who is different may sometimes get it very wrong and sometimes get it absolutely right. Strong characters can be strong in both directions.
Peter is another strong character. Remember when Jesus fed the 5 000 people who had gathered to hear and to be healed? At the time, Jesus was looking for some quiet solitude. But they all appeared in all their need and faith and enthusiasm, so they were taught and fed and finally Jesus send them away to their homes. He sent his disciples off in a boat and he finally got that longed-for time alone to rest and pray and recharge. Until the early hours of the morning. What follows is a story often interpreted to mean, have more faith, step out boldly but keep your eyes upon Jesus. Don’t look down! This interpretation is valid and useful, but there might be even more happening here.
Imagine the scene. It is still dark and the Sea of Galilee can be a treacherous place of unexpected high winds and waves, with or without storms. Previously, Jesus was in a boat with the disciples when a storm arose and he calmed both them and the storm. But now the disciples are together in the boat, but without Jesus. They see him coming across the water. They have never seen anything like it. Is it really him or a ghost, an apparition of some sort?
Peter, the impetuous one, is the one who calls out, Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.
Peter has just seen, the previous day, the feeding of the five thousand. He knows that Jesus can do the seemingly impossible. And yet he still asks, IF it’s you, prove it like this.
Asking for divine proof? It is not generally a good idea to try to make God dance to your tune. Remember the temptation of Jesus, when he was asked to initiate a miracle and he said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
But here is Peter doing just that, so Jesus says, Come on then.
It was OK at first but then Peter looked at the waves, started to sink and cried out to Jesus for help.
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
We commonly think that this moment of doubt was when Peter took his eyes off Jesus and started to sink. But perhaps it was earlier, in the boat, when Peter asked, If you are who you say you are . . .
The other disciples are not rebuked for not leaving the boat. Perhaps Peter was meant to stay with the other disciples. But he sought a miracle and received a lesson.
A boat is a common symbol for community and especially for the church. We are all in this boat together. Mitzi J. Smith is a professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. She says, Yes, Jesus chastised Peter when he notices the winds and begins to sink; Jesus accuses him of doubting and having little faith. Sometimes faith is seeing the boat for what it is - a shared experience and the opportunity to lean on one another, to encourage each other in the storm while waiting on God. Peter was eager to leave his shipmates and to join Jesus, rather than to wait for Jesus to join them in the boat. Sometimes we want our own miracle at the expense of others who are in the same boat as us. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter, and they both got into the boat with the other disciples. It is when they are all in the boat together with Jesus that the winds calm down.
Like Israel and his sons, like Peter and the disciples, we all have a common commitment and a shared faith. May we also have a common concern to encourage and help one another whatever the storms and trials. Amen