In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
The Gospel according to St. Matthew ends on a strong note. Jesus hovers above the 11 remaining disciples on an undisclosed mountain-top location, and after giving them the Great Commission to go out and open up the membership of their little Galilean project to all the peoples of the world, he reassures them of his continued presence in this outrageous mission: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Amen.” Bold words to cap off a story filled with such uncertainty. I would suggest that if Matthew had a penchant for the anti-climactic instead, an extra verse would go something like this: one disciple, timidly raising his hand before the exalted Christ, to say, “Yes, Lord, but how are we to know for sure?”
Doubt takes on a distinguished character in Matthew’s account. A verse before this last one says that “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” “If only you had more faith,” the Lord is known to say in this Gospel, “you could move mountains. You wouldn’t be so anxious about your finances.” Yet the haze of uncertainty follows his believers like a pall; and this is thanks in no small part to the Savior of the World himself. On the cusp of his betrayal into human hands, he also told the disciples, “You won’t know me when you see me next time. You’ll have just given some poor guy a cup of water like it was no big thing and it will have been me- but you won’t even know it till the end of time. Not only this, but a lot of people will claim to be me who aren’t, and a whole lot more will latch onto them for the sake of holding on to anything, while others fall away simply from being disheartened at my lack of presence. Stumbling blocks. False prophets. Cold hearts. If you can make it to the end, you will be saved.” As paranoid as this Jesus sounds to modern ears, he made sense to the community Matthew wrote his Gospel for. They were believers when the world insisted there was nothing to believe in. Most were converts to faith in a man whom they had never met except through the witness of his first disciples, and they were in the midst of being hunted down and killed for it. They are a people whom it is easy to imagine hunched and huddled, straining all together at the oars of some small ship buffeted by the insults of the world, faces wincing at the wind and rain of it’s terrible unkindness. These are a people whose faith comes at the price of mighty doubt, doubt that the world is as it seems, doubt in proclamations of assurance that come too easily, a faith that divides whole families in half.
It is little wonder then that the Gospel Matthew leaves us reads here and there as if it were a ghost story: a story of improbable mission haunted by a Jesus who can seem to be, at times, just out of reach. A Jesus who must be shouted after for attention, whose hem must be grabbed for healing; a Jesus from whose table one would even take the crumbs, if she could. There is Jesus, the shifting center of a crowd pressing in upon the object of their newfound faith; and disciples pushing out through to the edges, healing all they can along the way, giving words of comfort as they find them, giving food from strangely never ending baskets under arm. The disciples move, half-way sure that Jesus is just there somewhere behind them: a phantom presence tucked away among the masses who are always pushing further in, always looking over shoulders for the one who sent them. Seas of people by day become a sea at night tortured by the wind. Waves crash upon their meager ship with all the force of a family whose daughter has just died: coming, as they all do, always knocking, always asking for the one whom they have heard can save them. It is little wonder that these disciples see a man walking towards them on the surface of the churning waters, and do not have the faintest clue as to who he might be. Perhaps he is another demon coming to inquire of their Lord. In the life they have been living, it makes more sense to be seeing ghosts at sea than to be approached by the savior at the center of their tumultuous lives.
“It is I” he says. “Yes, Lord, but how are we to know for sure?” If it is really you, Lord, prove it: ask the super-human of me, then grant me strength to follow through. Fill me with the power to heal millions, to feed millions, to preach a single word and swell a congregation to the rafters with its speaking. Make me strong, make me handsome, make me well-loved by everyone. Prove me to these doubters always mocking with their stupid questions, exalt me high above them in perfection and quick wit! How else are we to know for sure? “Lord,” Peter cries, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
And the man upon the water, for his part, bids Peter in much the same manner as the devil might have bid Jesus, had he accepted his offer of undiluted power in the desert: “Come,” he says.
So Peter walks on water, too. And of course he sinks beneath it, because Peter is not God. But after all the healing and the preaching and the raising of the dead that he and his companions have done in God’s name, when Jesus grabs him by the wrist to wrench him from the waves and ask: Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt? I want Peter to look his savior in the eye and ask, “How else, Lord, was I to know for sure?”
What proof have we come here looking for that we are who we say we are? What proof do you require to know yourselves as children of the living God? Powers beyond belief? Visions of the Lord beyond reproof? Unwavering, steadfast certainty of mind? For as much as this ghost story tells us about all the things which we are not guaranteed on the journey of discipleship, it also tells us exactly what we can expect.
You will know the Lord is with you, it says, because your life in Christ will be like these disciples on the sea. You will be gathered with your family in God, you will know yourselves as sent. One minute you may sense that all the world bends to lift you in its wake, and the next you may find yourself sinking in its waves. You may be lost at times, wondering how you’re ever going to save yourself from the mess you’ve gotten into, and then find that you are gripping God’s very own mighty arm for dear life. One minute you’ll think that you’ve just seen a ghost, and the next you will remember that the dead have coming back to life again for years. But in the middle of it all the storm will cease, and you will see the faces of your sisters and your brothers gathered all around you, and you will weep for knowledge that the one who holds you in this peace is Lord of all creation, and you will praise God for giving you the faith to see it so. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” he will tell you; and you will raise your hands in worship and say, “Amen.”