Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 8:23-27
January 29, 2017
“The Captain of the Ship”
Jesus gets into a boat, and his disciples follow. Then a great storm arises. It must have been a really great storm. At least four of Jesus’ disciples are men who fished on this sea six days a week for years. They were familiar with the weather. They have been through storms before, and I’m certain that, being men who made a living with their hands and their back, they were not the type of men to show fear easily. But when they come to wake Jesus up, they cry like terrified children, they humiliate themselves: Lord, save us! We’re dying!
I’ve known Christian men who were dying. Men don’t want to admit fear of death and God’s judgment in front of another man even when death is imminent. Yet these fishermen in the boat cry out to Jesus in terror.
This must have been an incredible storm.
I am sure that you have had storms like this throughout your life, whether you are listening on the radio or here today. You may very well be in one right now. It may be that the doctor told you how many months he thinks you have left; it may be that the doctor isn’t sure what to tell you. Or it may not be a storm that threatens you with literal death, but it’s bad enough that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning, or it’s hard to bring yourself through the doors of the church.
Then there’s the storms the Church goes through, which is really what this story is getting at. The boat that holds Jesus and the disciples is a picture of the Church. Look up there, at the ceiling; it kind of looks like the bottom of a boat. That’s why the Latin word for the part of the church on your side of the altar rail is called the nave; it comes from the navis, which means “ship”, which is also where we get the word “navy”. The Church of Jesus is a little boat or an ark. It sails through the rough waters of this world, the storms of persecution, the flood of God’s judgment, the depths of death and hell, and lets those inside out on the dry land of the new creation. And Jesus is in this boat with us. We aren’t sailing ourselves to heaven. He is the Captain of the ark of the Holy Christian Church.
But the whole way on this voyage the boat is hit by storms. And throughout the 2000 years since Jesus ascended to the Father, the Church has cried out in desperation, feeling like the ship was sure to sink, and the Christians inside would perish.
Anyone who’s a member of this congregation and cares about it at all, for whatever reason, knows this feeling. This Gospel reading today is your story, isn’t it?
And if the Church sinks, it’s far worse than when storms hit us individually. We come to the Divine Service, to other Christians, to the pastor, to find help when the storms hit us privately. We rely on the Church to be there when our child is going astray, when we are laid low with illness—to tell us what God says; to correct us when we live or believe contrary to His Word, and above all to proclaim to us the forgiveness of sins in His name. We come to the Church when our father or mother, husband or wife has died. We bring the bodies of the people we love most so that the Church—or rather Jesus through the Church—will preach to us that our loved one will rise again.
But if the Church goes under, destroyed by persecution or twisted and mutated so that it no longer proclaims God’s Word—who will bring us the Gospel of Christ crucified? Who will tell us that it applies to us too? Who will forgive our sins in Jesus’ name? Who will baptize our children? Who will give us the body and blood of Jesus? And not only us: if the Church goes under the waves, who will proclaim the coming judgment of God and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to the world that falsely believes it has God already, without Christ?
+Our storms at St. Peter are not unique or new
–when all of Europe was supposedly Christian, a false gospel of salvation by human effort made the true Gospel for all intents and purposes unknown, until 500 years ago God worked through Martin Luther to restore it
–Since then the devil has worked to almost extinguish the pure Gospel again through luxury and wealth, through doctrinal indifference.
+Yet very few Christians realized that this was a storm that threatened to destroy the Church; very few even realize it today. We are only starting to realize in our Church that true faith in Christ was being eaten away for a long time; we started to realize it because this congregation is almost underwater.
We aren’t the whole Church; but what is happening here is happening all around us.
+So we go to Jesus, like disciples:
And notice: when the disciples wake Jesus up, they don’t have quiet confidence, fearlessness. That’s what firm faith brings. Instead they have terror and fear that Jesus is just going to sleep while they drown.
Their prayer comes from fear more than from faith. It seems to express anger at Jesus—“How can you not care that we are going to die? What are you doing, still sleeping?”
When a ship has no captain, or the sailors don’t trust the captain and they think the ship is going to sink, all hell breaks loose. Sailors stop working together and letting the captain direct; they all start trying to save the ship as individuals, which is absolutely not going to work, or maybe they try to mutiny and set up a new captain. And when all these things become hopeless, people start grabbing something that floats and taking their chances in the sea. When no one listens to the captain anymore, the ship is doomed.
But Jesus is the captain of the ship of the Church; He will safely bring it through all storms into the eternal calm and peace of eternal life.
When Jesus gets up from sleeping, notice who He speaks to first—not the wind and the waves. Not to the thing the disciples think is the danger.
He speaks to them first, because the danger is not the storm. In our day, the danger is not the declining numbers in the Church, or declining bank accounts, declining prestige in our society.
The danger is within us—unbelief. That instead of Jesus, we trust in what we see and feel, in our own thoughts, in the wisdom of the world and the false religion pushed by the devil and the world.
Unbelief is the danger because it is idolatry: we think the storm is more powerful than God; we fear it more than God. The first commandment: You shall have no other gods—We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. The storm is more powerful than God, and we know better than God’s Word what is necessary to save ourselves or the Church.
So Jesus speaks first to the disciples, rebuking the storm in their hearts, the storm of unbelief and the cowardice that comes from it.
Why are you so cowardly, you of little faith?
Jesus understands why they are afraid. What He is telling them and us is that we don’t have anything to fear. Not if we have Him.
+Really? We have nothing to fear? Nothing. How can you say that, if the boat is about to sink and the disciples are going to perish?
Because Jesus rebukes the winds and the sea and there was a great calm. Not only does Jesus know how to steer the ship safely. He simply speaks and nature obeys. Who does that?
The answer is, only God does that. God was with the disciples in the boat, living with them, sharing their bread, sharing their storms, sharing their sins.
The prophet Jonah brought a great calm when he was thrown into the sea. The storm came because of Jonah’s rebellion against God, when Jonah ran away from the presence of God. It went away when the sailors handed over Jonah to certain death.
But God rescued Jonah from his rebellion and its punishment; from certain death, sending the fish, who vomited him onto dry land.
Jesus also brought great calm that lasts forever; He took on our rebellion against God as His own; He willingly was thrown into the boiling, angry flood of God’s wrath, making our sins His own and being nailed to the cross. Then He stepped out of the belly of death into the land of the living, having put our sins away forever. Now there is a great calm; peace with God.
That great peace comes rolling across the storms of this world to us from the eternal God in our flesh; not a temporary calm, like the one in Matthew 8, but an eternal one.
Jesus is the captain of the ship of the Church. He can be trusted to lead us safely through the storms of death and hell, because He has already gone through them and destroyed them.
Jesus will not fail to bring His church safely to land.
His Church includes the weak in faith.
But those who reject Jesus’ word are not Jesus’ Church; they are not in the boat where He is. They are mixed with the saints around the Word, but they don’t believe in Him. When storms come, they mutiny against Jesus, don’t listen to His Word. They try to take over the boat from Him, or jump overboard because they think it’s doomed.
Brothers, we are weak; we do this in spite of ourselves. But let us be comforted and listen to Jesus. He is worthy to be trusted. He isn’t a fool or a con artist. He tells us, “You have me in the boat in my preaching, in my pure doctrine, and my Sacraments. Hold on to me; you have nothing to fear.”
We have many sins, but He doesn’t cast away sinners who trust in Him, the Savior of sinners, the sin-bearer.
He will not let the floods overwhelm us or let His Church sink. Our traditions will perish, our will that contradicts the will of God will not be done. But Christ’s Church is more than that—it is the whole company of saints throughout the world, through time and eternity, who cling to Jesus alone.
It will never perish, and neither will those who trust Him. He cannot perish; He died, and He lives forevermore. And we who are baptized into Him have been joined with Him who joined Himself to us—we also have died and risen. The new creation that will appear on the last day has already begun in all who believe.
Ev. Luth. Prayer-Treasury (1881)
Lord God, heavenly Father, You who out of such love and mercy have given to us Your Son, letting Him become man and die on the cross: give us Your Holy Spirit in our hearts, that we place all our confidence in Your Son, and through Him believe as firmly in the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life as the centurion here believed that Jesus would help his sick servant with a word. Yes, we too have His word: “Whoever believes in Him shall not see death in eternity.” Grant now, dear Father in heaven, that we believe this with unwavering hearts, and firmly remain in this faith until our last end. Amen.
74. Prayer on the Fourth Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany of Christ (2014)
Ev. Luth. Prayer Treasury (1881)
Lord God, heavenly Father, out of fatherly wise counsel toward us, Your children, you place us under the cross here on earth and let various storms overtake us, in order to curb sin and exercise us in faith, hope, and love. We beseech You, have mercy upon us, and answer our prayers in all attacks of the devil and in every need and distress. Graciously make a way of deliverance for us so that we see and recognize Your grace, that You stand by us and aid us as a father, that at last in eternity we may laud and praise You, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit alone are the eternal, Almighty God. Amen.
And when he was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him. And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!
III. THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF THIS NARRATIVE.
10. Christ pictured to us in this narrative the Christian life, especially the office of the ministry. The ship, signifies Christendom; the sea, the world; the wind, Satan; his disciples are the preachers and pious Christians; Christ is the truth, the Gospel, and faith.
11. Now, before Christ entered the ship with his disciples the sea and the wind were calm; but when Christ with his disciples entered, then the storm began, as he himself says, Mt 10, 34: ”Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace but a sword.” So, if Christ had left the world in peace and never punished its works, then it would indeed have been quiet. But since he preaches that the wise are fools, the saints are sinners and the rich are lost, they become wild and raging; just as at present some critics think it would be fine if we merely preached the Gospel and allowed the office of the ministry to continue in its old way. This they would indeed tolerate; but that all their doings should be rebuked and avail nothing, that they call preaching discontent and revolution, and is not Christian teaching.
12. But what does this Gospel say? There was a violent tempest on the lake when Christ and his disciples were in the ship. The sea and the wind allowed the other ships to sail in calm weather; but this ship had to suffer distress because of Christ being in it. The world can indeed tolerate all kinds of preaching except the preaching of Christ. Hence whenever he comes and wherever he is, there he preaches that he only is right and reproves all others; as he says in Mt 12,30: ”He that is not with me is against me”, and again, Jn 16,8: ”The spirit will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness and of judgment;” he says that he will not only preach, but that he will convict the whole world and what is in the world. But it is this convicting that causes such tempests and dangers to this ship. Should he preach that he would allow the world to go unpunished and to continue in its old ways, he would have kept quiet before and never have entered the world; for if the world is good and is not to be convicted then there would never have been any need of him coming into the world.
from Luther’s Church Postil