God’s Signs: Building on the Foundation, Walking the Sea

1 Corinthians 3:9-17; Matthew 14:22-34
Isaiah 8:13-18; Psalm 107:23-31

Our Scripture passages for this Sunday’s Divine Liturgy are well known. The epistle reading speaks of our identity together as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The gospel reading narrates that marvelous story of Jesus encouraging the apostle Peter to walk upon the water. At first there seems to be no relationship between the two: and then, we see the common denominator! It is the person of Jesus himself, that One who is both the Foundation of the Temple, and the Foundation of Peter’s faith.

There are two mysterious Old Testament passages that illuminate and point forward to both the teaching of St. Paul and the miracle upon the sea. The first is the glimpse of the prophet Isaiah into that time which WE have seen, that time when the Lord himself would visit humanity in the deepest manner possible, by taking on humanity. The prophet says,

“The LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.
And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.
Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples.
I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.
Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isaiah 8:13-18 RSV)

Isaiah looked forward to most dramatic action of the awesome Lord of hosts: he envisaged that time when He would himself become both a sanctuary AND a stone of offense, both a cornerstone of God’s building, and the sign which some would ignore to their peril. The Light can, we know, both illumine and blind. A stone is so solid that it can both provide a place to stand and cause stumbling — or even crush those under it. There would be those who would receive Christ’s teaching and those who would reject it, those who would receive the Lord as the Sanctuary from death and sin and those who would not regard him as holy. Those who have the grace to receive, suggests the prophet, become themselves “signs and portents” from the Lord, lights in the darkness.

The second Old Testament passage that helps us with our New Testament readings comes from the Psalter. It describes, in poetry, the wonders of the Lord among humankind, and in several verses, it speaks particularly about his mastery of the sea:

“Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress;
he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!” (Psalm 107:23-31 RSV)

Here, in the long list of God’s wonders recounted by the Psalm, we hear about God’s deliverance of sailors from trouble in the deep, when they cried out to him, and he delivered them. This is a general call for thanksgiving, of course, but fits our story in Matthew 14:22-34 very well, since the Lord Jesus there shows his wondrous works, walking on the water, helps those who are struggling in the boat against the wind, rescues Peter when he falters, and brings them to their desired haven.

Jesus’ actions are not a magic trick. Here, before his disciples, he does up close what God does characteristically when he helps us in our daily lives. By word and deed Jesus identifies himself with the Lord of the Psalm: he calls out to the disciples, “I AM,” uttering the Lord’s name, “the existing One!” and assures them, too, that he is no ghost, but real. Here is the God-Man in the midst of their extremity, as he had been in the midst of the hungry crowd before the disciples took to the boat. His name and his walking, are signs to them, by which he assures Peter of his intention to make the apostles like himself, signs of God’s presence in the world. Peter is willing, but not yet up to the job—and he is rescued. He is a “man of little faith,” but the object of God’s attention and intention—and so they reach their destination safely. As the Psalm puts it, “he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven! Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!”

Besides the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the most spectacular of God’s wonderful works is to make us everything that he intends for us to be. This work of the Holy Spirit for our theosis is implicit in God’s entire action of Incarnation: “He became what we are that we might become what He is.” We are God’s field, God’s building. But his work on our behalf is not simply an external thing, something that he works “with his hands.” It is also internal. Just as God molded Adam and then breathed life into him, so God makes us, but also infuses us: we are not simply God’s field, but God’s Temple within which He dwells. Just as Jesus was the Temple of the Holy Spirit during his earthly life, so we are called to become God’s Temple together, luminous signs for the world to see! Remember how Jesus BREATHED upon the apostles in the upper room, and told them to “receive the Holy Spirit?” A new creation had begun—a creation more intimately bound up with the life of God than we can even imagine. Adam received the life-breath from God, but by the resurrected Christ, we receive the very Holy Spirit! The natural is transformed into the spiritual, taken up into God’s very life.

And so St. Paul reminds the Corinthians not to boast in human accomplishments or to align themselves with human leaders as they live in the Church, but to recognize God himself at work in their midst:

“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” (1Cor. 3:9-17 RSV)

One is holy, one is the Lord: yet holy things are for the holy! Astonishingly, God calls us holy, because our life is hidden in Christ. These things call for amazement and thanksgiving, but also for awe. Consider that even the apostle Peter almost sank; consider that he was challenged to more faith by the Lord. Consider the warning of St. Paul that if we build poorly, we will suffer loss. Consider the dread warning against destroying the temple of God—or trying to! There is, St. Paul implies, suitable material for building upon the foundation, and some things do not fit; indeed, some human efforts are only suitable for burning.

This leads us, then, to ask, what things must we NOT put upon the foundation? What things are NOT worthy of it? It seems to me that there are several things that are being claimed for God’s Temple today that will not stand the test of time, and others that may threaten even to destroy. There is at large in the USA the gospel of prosperity, the “purpose-driven” understanding of our corporate life in the Church, and sometimes (closer to home) an over-concern for external niceties of liturgy at the expense of our single-minded attention to the Lord, or a preoccupation with our own ecclesial identity that ignores those who are not yet in the Church. Such things may well turn out to be “straw” that must be consumed. Seeker-friendly worship that is offered more for those who come than for God himself, utilitarian teaching that subordinates worship to practicality, the attitude that everything done in the Church must please our aesthetic or cultural sensibilities: these things do not build up God’s people, but soften them and make them content with the status quo. How can theosis take place when we are distracted or complacent? How can we be a light in the darkness when we are using the light to look only at ourselves? Such attitudes and actions creep in because of our weakness, when we take our eyes off the Lord, as did Peter on the water. The Lord is compassionate, and will save us—but we want more than that! We long to be like him.

Then there are the more dangerous attempts to build something upon the foundation that contains within it a ticking-bomb or a pestilent virus. These things we can detect because they contradict what we have learned already from the Lord. Envy of those who have more than we do, party-spirit among members (or jurisdictions) of the Church, racism or ethno-phyletism in the name of the gospel, ungodly and unchaste sexual expression championed as alternatives, destruction and exploitation of the weak among us (for example, the pre-born) tolerated as “liberation” and “medical progress.” (Consider the shocking advocacy of Planned Parenthood’s abominable practices by some who name Christ!) Such commendation of doctrines and actions condemned by Scripture and Holy Tradition are among those things that threaten. Concerning these things that would, if not stymied by God, destroy “the Temple,” St. Paul is very clear. These things lead to judgment, for they hold within them the seeds of death.

Yet we are called neither to fruitlessness nor to destruction but to holiness. We are assured by the apostle Jude that Christ is able to keep us from falling (Jude 1:24), and so we should act with wisdom and deliberation: “And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 1:22-23, RSV). It is not enough to have the right opinions; we are to be concerned, and when we can, speak to those who are not on the right path, or who have left it! We are to be the very Temple of God, signs and portents of the Lord’s presence in a confused and alienated age. We are called, in our “earthen vessels” to show forth the light of Christ by what we say and do, and by who we are becoming. To us, and through us to the world, Jesus says, “Take heart, I AM! Have no fear” (Matthew 14:27).

One comment:

  1. Dear Edith Humphrey

    Thank you for this wonderful blog! It is very edifying reading your weaving together of the Testaments; and your relating the biblical texts to current themes in our culture. For my own part I am of the opinion, that one can not truly understand NT without knowing OT.

    Would you consider relating the OT/NT texts for our major feasts to each other on this blog as well as the sunday texts?

    I recently purchased your “Scripture and Tradition,” and look forward to reading it!

    What do you think of Eugen Pentiuc’s “The OT in Eastern Orthodox Tradition”?

    Kind regards
    Robert Johannes Ulrich

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