“Be Not Afraid” #BCCSundaySchool2019

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Ivan Aivazovsky’s “Jesus Walks on Water” (1888)

Readings: Matthew 14–15; Mark 6–7; and John 5–6.

The other night, my husband and I heard our 7-year-old daughter crying in her room, around 10:30pm. We knew she had fallen asleep a couple of hours earlier, so we went to her together, hoping that one or the other of us could help calm her down from a nightmare. “Why do I have bad dreams sometimes?” she asked us. Dave told her that when our brains are sleeping, they are still active and still creating stories for us, and even though it is no fun to have a scary dream, it’s comforting to know when we wake up that none of it was real. I added that sometimes if she wakes up from a dream and can’t shake the scared feeling, and Mom and Dad don’t immediately hear her and come to her, she can pray to feel strong and safe, too.

At that last comment made by me, my 7-year-old looked at me very carefully, her little round eyes searching me to see if I really believed what I was saying or not. Her lip started quivering in that way that can’t be faked—my heart stung when I saw how emotionally taut she was, how on the verge she was of crying uncontrollable tears. I asked her gently if she was okay, and after a moment’s pause as she drafted her words in her head, she said, “I pray all the time. Jesus never talks to me.” And then her tears came, genuinely, desperately, tragically. My own lip started quivering this time, and Dave and I looked at each other, both of us sort of taken aback that our kid had already been experiencing those night journeys in which one wonders if there really is a Something There that hears and answers every child’s prayer, and if that Something There would deign to hear and answer even a child like ourselves.

I told my daughter that Jesus doesn’t always talk out loud, and that I had never heard words either, although I have had thoughts in my head that I believe Jesus inspired. Jesus can be a feeling, too, I told my daughter, that helps us to feel strong, safe, and loved. Jesus can help me feel less alone, and even if I still feel pain and sadness, I feel better knowing that Jesus is with me. I told my daughter to feel for something in her heart when she prays—a feeling that tells her she is good and she is loved.

“Be not afraid” is the thesis of this week’s selected scriptures. It references something Jesus tells the disciples when they are alone on a ship in stormy waters, and Jesus approaches them by walking on the water—which was not even the first of his miracles that day.

But let’s start at the beginning of Matthew 14.

Jesus Mourns John the Baptist

In John 5, Jesus will heal a man who had been ill for 38 years, and who could not enter the waters of Beth-zatha without help. Jesus asks the man to “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” which the man successfully, miraculously, does (John 5:8-9—all my quotations will come from the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, by the way). The Pharisees see this and get upset, pointing out that picking up mats is not an activity appropriate for the Sabbath Day, to which Christ replies, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:16-17). The Pharisees seek to kill Christ at this point, because aligning oneself with God was a blaspheme worthy of death.

In his defense, Jesus turns the tables on his accusers and makes himself their judge. Part of his testimony speaks of two powers God had given Jesus: that of a life-giver and that of a judge. Christ says in verses 21 and 22, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” This scene in John 5 showcases Christ’s power to heal and hints even at his power to resurrect.

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Bernardino Luini’s “Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist” (1515–25)

But Jesus does not resurrect John the Baptist, his oldest friend, whom he had known even while they had both been in their mothers’ wombs. John had told Herod that he shouldn’t have divorced his first wife to marry the wife of his brother, and this embarrassed Herodius, the wife in question. The story goes that Salome, Herodius’ daughter, danced for Herod on his birthday, and everyone was so pleased with Salome’s dancing that Herod promises her anything she wants. Salome asks her mother what she should request, and Herodius tasks Salome with asking for John’s head on a platter. Against his better judgment, Herod keeps his promise, and John was put to death.

Matthew records that “when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matt 14:13). There is a weight to this one line that haunts me. I think about the promise Jesus makes to us, that he will be there when we call for him and that his Spirit will comfort us and stay with us. I wonder if he felt alone during the times he withdrew from the crowds, or if a Spirit attended to him in his night journeys of pain and grief. When Jesus begins performing miracles, Herod thinks it is the ghost of John come to haunt him (Mark 6:16). Jesus had the power to raise John from the dead and fulfill Herod’s fear, but he doesn’t—Jesus mourns John, but does not restore him, at least not then.

Jesus Feeds His People

There are two instances in Matthew in which Jesus feeds thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and fish. In Matthew 14, Christ feeds 5,000 men and their wives and children with nothing but five loaves and two fish. Twelve baskets of leftover broken pieces remained (John 6:12 records that Jesus ordered, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”). In Matthew 15, Christ takes seven loaves of bread and a few more fish and feeds 4,000 more men with their wives and children, with seven baskets of broken pieces remaining.

John records a lesson Jesus teaches about this miracle, comparing it to when God sent manna from heaven to the Israelites. Jesus teaches,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty . . . I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:35, 49–51).”

Confused, the Jews argued amongst themselves, with one man finally crying out, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus replies:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and rink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:53–58)

Israelites weren’t supposed to drink the blood of any animal, so these instructions were likely very confusing. It was too much for many of the followers, and several turned away. When Christ asked the twelve if they, too, were interested in leaving, Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Jesus Walks on Water

John’s account: In John 6, Jesus goes up into the mountains to pray by himself after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. While he prays, his disciples enter a boat and start rowing towards Capernaum. When they are a few miles out to sea, a strong wind blows and the waters become rough. Jesus approaches them by walking on the water, and the disciples are “terrified.” Christ tells them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Mark’s account: In Mark 7, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells his disciples to enter the boat and head to Bethsaida while he went into the mountain to pray. The next morning, Jesus sees the disciples rowing with difficulty against the wind, and he walks toward them on the water. The disciples think they are seeing a ghost and scream in fear, but Jesus turns to them and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Mark adds that the winds ceased after Jesus enters the boat, but that the disciples were confused and “their hearts were hardened” (7:52).

Matthew’s account: In Matthew 15, after the first miracle of the loaves and the fishes, Jesus tells the disciples to get into the boat and row to the other side. He then goes into the mountain by himself to pray. When he returned to the shore, he saw, as in Mark’s account, that the disciples were rowing with difficulty against the wind, battered by the waves. As in Mark’s account, Jesus waits until morning to walk toward them on the water, and the disciples are again terrified, calling out, “It is a ghost!” Jesus turns to them and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Unlike the other two accounts, Matthew includes a second part of the story, in which Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matt 14:28). Jesus invites him to “Come,” so Peter steps out and begins to walk on the water himself. But then the wind starts to blow again, and Peter gets scared. He starts to sink and begs Jesus, “Lord, save me!” (14:30).

Jesus stretches out his hand and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Once safely back in the boat, the wind ceases and the disciples acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and worship him (Matt 14: 31–33).

I have always loved this story of Peter walking on the water, because it is so relatable to me. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water. Peter, himself, successfully walks on the water. Shouldn’t that be enough to never doubt himself or Jesus again? But then the wind starts, and the doubt returns, and Peter begins to sink. I’m glad that Jesus didn’t stand there on the water watching Peter sink and asking him why he started to doubt. I’m glad that Jesus first stretched his hand out and caught Peter. When I imagine Jesus coming to me and sitting with me, I imagine this sort of Jesus, that catches my hand first and then asks me why I stopped having faith and hope.

In the next chapter of Matthew, though, there is a trickier story about the woman from Canaan who begs for mercy and Jesus does not answer her (15:24). The Canaanite comes on behalf of her daughter, who is tormented by a demon. Even after being ignored by Jesus, the Canaanite kneels before Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” meaning that Jesus is there to help the Israelites and can’t be giving his time to Gentiles (15:26). But the Canaanite persists, answers, “Yes ,Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” To this, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was instantly healed (15:28).

In one story, Peter’s faith falters and Jesus catches him. In the next story, Jesus first ignores a desperate, pleading women, then rejects her (but, notably, doesn’t ask her to leave like the disciples want him to), then, finally, blesses her and heals her daughter because of her persistent faith.

Sometimes I feel like Peter, and Jesus holds me even in my impatience and fear.

Sometimes I feel like the Canaanite woman, begging and pleading but feeling no return.

I don’t know why Jesus immediately came to the faltering one but waited for the other to exhibit a persistent faith. Perhaps it is merely something cultural: Peter was an apostle, but the woman was a Canaanite, and outside of Jesus’s immediate jurisdiction. Perhaps Jesus might have helped the woman earlier had she faltered. Perhaps he would have made Peter struggle on the rough waves for longer had he showed more confidence and faith.

Scripture stories are funny like that. Jesus’s explanations often mystify concepts further for his questioning audience. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t immediately resurrect everyone he wishes were still alive. Sometimes Jesus is there, and sometimes he isn’t.

But his message in all three accounts is the same: Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. It’s me. I’m here.

QUESTIONS FOR FAMILY STUDY

  • What happens when we eat a lot of candy and junk food? What happens when we eat nutritious foods? What does it mean to eat the flesh and blood of Christ? How does Christ’s life and ministry nourish and strengthen us?
  • How is taking the sacrament like this story of Jesus sharing the loaves and fishes?
  • What can we do when we are feeling scared? Why do you think Jesus tells us that we don’t have to be afraid?
  • Why do you think Jesus kept leaving to be by himself? Are there times when you need to be by yourself, too? Why is it important to meditate and pray on our own, as well as with our families?

Comments

  1. That’s beautiful. Such a nice start to this week’s readings. I love the questions.

  2. ” I think about the promise Jesus makes to us, that he will be there when we call for him and that his Spirit will comfort us and stay with us.”

    And I think about Matthew 27:46
    “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    and
    D&C 121:1-2
    1 O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
    2 How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?

    I would teach youth that at times, even Joseph Smith and the Savior felt alone–abandoned.
    I feel within the church we set our youth up for disappointment and confusion because we give them the impression that everything is so simple. A+B=C But, the truth is everything is not so formulaic or simple. There is wide variation in how/when/if people have spiritual experiences. I remember being disappointed after being baptized that I didn’t feel “different” or that I didn’t “feel” the Holy Ghost when being confirmed. I also had the same reaction with my first and subsequent visits to the temple. The experiences I would describe as “spiritual” have not happened in a church setting. I’ve heard one or two adults in my 50 + yrs of attending church who say it took them many years before they ever had a spiritual experience, while others describe frequent spiritual experiences.

    (Sorry, if I’m hijacking this thread, but the story of your young daughter touched me).

  3. Nice post. I teach 6 boys in Valiant 9 (3 of whom have diagnosed ADHD). I need ways to “keep it hopping” and reach them at the same time. Any ideas for this week? How can I incorporate the thoughtful spiritual elements of the lesson while shooting nerf guns? I thought I might bake some bread…. and I’m stumped. Help!!

  4. That’s a great question, Jodie. Maybe our readers can help us brainstorm, and I love the idea of breaking bread with your class!

    Maddy, thank you so much for these thoughts and scriptures—you aren’t hijacking at all, and I really appreciate this perspective. I agree that talking about a variety of spiritual experiences and not reducing spiritual experiences to a calculation or a flow chart is far more effective, even for our little ones.

  5. OftenPerplexed says:

    I love how you contrast Peter and the Canaanite woman because I think sometimes we treat the scriptures as if they hold one right answer. I am a convert and loved my faith in Judaism. One aspect I miss of that great faith was the “wrestle.” My rabbi was constantly pointing out seeming contradictions in the Tanakh and asking us to think about how there wasn’t one right answer. He would say “Sometimes God is there and one can feel a divine, tangible presence. Sometimes God withdraws and waits. Sometimes the prophet gets it right and sometimes the prophet doesn’t.” This lesson is a great opportunity to remind our family members that there is no one size fits all experience with Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ.

  6. This was a great addition to our discussion today. I’d never thought to ask why Christ did not bring John back before.

  7. Maddy, what about bringing in a recording of Master the Tempest is raging? You could talk about weather for a bit – arms whooshing for the wind, pitter-patter on legs for rain, clap for lightning, stomp for thunder (make a pattern out of it). Then tell story of Peter and have kids act it out – some being the storm, one being Peter who is confident, then doubts, then starts to sink.
    Then play the music, looking for rhythms and repetion to put with movements. They can sing – loud with movement, but then soft calm for “peace be still”. Compare and contrast – maybe they can identify with the feeling of constant motion and thoughts vs feeling peaceful.
    Anyway, just some brainstorming.

  8. Thank you. I love this. I also have a thoughtful little girl (mine is six). She has initiated conversations I don’t feel quite able to navigate because her metaphysical fears, though simply articulated, are essentially the same as my own. She just has not yet been fully socialized to know that it is not culturally appropriate to verbalize them.

    It is good, though. For me, it has caused the rubber to meet the road in the ongoing evolution of my testimony in a way that a endless supply of nuanced articles, books, and sermons have not.