Trinity 9 2017 | St. Paul’s Athens
Romans 10,5-13; St. Matthew 14, 22-33
I had dinner the other evening with a couple I haven’t met before. They are Athenians but now live in America. They are here on a family holiday. The reason we met up is because we have a mutual friend who works alongside them in New York. So as we were chatting away Kosta came up with a phrase I hadn’t heard before and I immediately liked it. Here it is:
‘It is very difficult to teach a pig to dance, and what’s more it irritates the pig’.
I understood this to mean that often we set impossible challenges for ourselves, and more to the point, it just isn’t going to be possible because it is not a natural thing to do.
It seems to me that we are facing something of that in this morning’s gospel story. Peter tries to walk on the water and he doesn’t get very far, because however much you and I as human beings practice it, it just isn’t going to happen because it goes against what is possible. If you set yourself a challenge to learn how to walk on water you will end up more than irritated. You will feel downhearted, you will feel disappointment, and you will end up feeling that you are a failure.
So let’s not irritate the pig.
Last week we reflected on our Lord’s transfiguration on the mountain and how that impacts on us as people who pray to be transformed into who God calls us to become. In today’s gospel Jesus has again gone into solitude, into a place where he prays on a mountain. It is in this prayer with his Father that the nature of our Lord’s divinity and humanity becomes revealed with the greatest clarity. After prayer this time the glory of our Lord is revealed in a miraculous walking on water; not face shining bright and with dazzling clothes, but in a supra-natural display of something that no human being is able to achieve. Peter proves that when he attempts to do the same, and despite him straining every sinew of blind faith to do it, he fails. Peter so often fails, we so often fail, and there is a big chunk of Peter in each one of us.
However in Peter’s failure God is glorified – Lord save me! And Jesus reaches out his hand. Peter’s faith, you see, is not proved by being able to walk on water. He is saved because he calls on the name of the Lord. Jesus is Lord.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul touches on this. Don’t be concerned about how we sort out heaven, nor the abyss, because that simply overstretches us, it is beyond our ability, and to do so will result in frustration, disappointment, and failure. But Paul tells us, ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’, and ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved‘ and also, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Peter as he begins to realize rather acutely the limitation of his humanity calls out and names Jesus as his Lord, and so he is saved.
So often in our lives we set ourselves impossible aims. Quite rightly we should have high expectations of what our faith asks of us, and we should rightly aspire to a life of knowing God in prayer, for it is in prayer that we are transfigured by the glory of God. The big problem is whether we can actually match the standards we set. I’m reading at the moment the writings of St. Porphyrios, who through his constant use of the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me – attains to a high level of what we call hesychasm. As he writes about the discipline needed to attain to this graceful state of living he is constantly advising – you just do this, you just let go of that. However, despite it leaving me with a great sense of admiration that such holiness is possible, and I feel enriched reading about it, it also leaves a tinge of feeling dis-spirited because I know that to follow his advice, his example, his life patterns, are just beyond me. However, I am not left despondent, because I know that I need only call Jesus Lord, and I am saved. Marvellous though Porphyrios is, and inspiring, we also know that salvation comes through Jesus, not through a tough prayer regime or deeply ascetic life, absolutely honourable and desirable though these might be. Porphyrios, of course knows it also.
Jesus says to his followers, ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid’. How necessary is that we hear those words.
Over the years that I am with you as your priest, it will be my hope and desire that we will grow together in prayer, in study, in being enveloped by God’s glorious activity in worship, into a deeper holiness; but we will do this together, and we will not set up false hopes and expectations for ourselves. So often clergy talk about how we should be people like this, or that, or that this is how you should feel in prayer, or experience God in your life – but actually it just terrifies people, paralyses them, and the result is the feeling of being a failed Christian. This can lead to judging each other against our own failures; jealousy because in our failure with think so and so has ‘got it’ and I haven’t; and it can lead to a hollow church going practice that connects in no ways with life-giving holiness.
So Jesus has the final say, ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid’. We will travel forward together with this same Jesus, and as we travel we will explore where it is we are being called by him, and we will be obedient to the call.
However, we will always be mindful how difficult it is to teach a pig to dance, and how irritated the pig becomes when we try.