Matthew 14:22-33 (Pentecost 11A)
St. John, Galveston 8/13/23
Rev. Alan Taylor
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace and peace to you, from God our Father from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The disciples found themselves in the midst of a frightening situation. The crowd of people that Jesus had just fed were looking to make Him a bread king. In order to protect His disciples from their mistaken wishes, Jesus sent them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. To isolate them, if you will. The journey itself wasn’t an uncommon one for the disciples to make. In fact, they could usually make it across the Sea in 3 hours or so, which would have put them on the other side by about 7 or 8 in the evening.
In this case, however, what was common, soon became uncommon. A storm rose up on the Sea, and no matter how fiercely the disciples rowed they weren’t making much progress in their journey. When Jesus came to their aid, it was the fourth watch of the night, which is about 3 or 4 in the morning. Increasing the disciples’ fear was their mindset regarding tempests at sea. In the ancient world, the tempest represented the chaos and the utter uncertainty of life. There was even a notion that evil itself lurked within the tempest. It’s little wonder that when they saw Jesus walking on the water, the disciples thought He was a ghost.
While the situation probably seemed to the disciples to be chaotic and uncertain, it had actually been orchestrated by God Himself. He was testing the disciples faith. He does that from time to time, you know. He tests our faith, not mind you, to weaken it, or to harm it, but to strengthen it and to purify it.
When the disciples cried out for fear, Jesus immediately spoke to them. “Take heart (He said), it is I, do not be afraid.” Jesus always speaks a calming word when chaos and uncertainty seem to be winning the day. “Take heart (He says). It is I. Do not be afraid.” What Jesus said to the apostles is implied to you and me through all the promises He makes. “If God is for you, who can be against you?” If God is your Mighty Fortress, the Valiant One whom God Himself elected, who, or what, can defeat you? “I am with you always, Jesus says, even to the very end of the age.” So, “take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
As I’m sure you are aware, fears and worries come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, as it were. Some of us worry about big things, world events and global disasters and the like. Others worry about more personal matters, family crisis and so forth. And, unfortunately, some people worry about virtually everything. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, worried that he might not actually exist, that he might be nothing more than a character in someone else’s dream. And so, he coined the phrase, “Cogito ergo sum.” “I think, therefore, I am.”
In a Christian sense, there is a similar consolation when we struggle with doubt and fear, or with being afraid because we seem to experience so many doubts. “You doubt and are troubled, therefore, you believe.” In other words, doubts and concern about those doubts doesn’t exist where is no faith because, if you don’t believe something to be true, then you have nothing to doubt.
I offer that little bit of practical counsel because it can be of some comfort when you are plagued and troubled by your own doubts. After all, when you and I doubt, we soon begin to worry that our doubt is evidence that we’ve lost our faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. You doubt and are troubled by it, precisely because you believe.
I recall a story that was told by one of my professors at the seminary. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this before, but it bears repeating. Luther, the professor said, was sitting in his study one day when a young pastor came in and sat down across from him. The young man’s head was drooped low and he was clearly struggling with something. Luther asked him, what was wrong. The young pastor said, “I am so ashamed. I oftentimes have trouble believing the very things I preach.”
The professor asked our class what sort of council we would give to the young pastor. Nearly unanimously we agreed that the young man should probably find another calling. I mean, a man in the ministry who struggles with doubts didn’t seem to any of us like a good thing.
After we spilled our sanctimonious opinions as to why the young man didn’t belong in the ministry, the professor said, “would you like to know what Luther said to the young pastor?” We were all taking the class for credit, so, of course we wanted to know. The professor said, “Luther raised his head and with a big smile on his face, he said to the young man, ‘thanks be to God! I thought I was the only one.’”
While I don’t mean to encourage doubt, or, even to trivialize it, the fact is, we all have our doubts. Unfortunately, it’s part of the human condition. That said, “doubt is always in vain and left unchecked it can be quite dangerous.” When Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, he was filled with faith. He reasoned that if Jesus’ commanded him to do it, he could do it. That’s how faith works, isn’t it? If God commands it, it’s done! If He says you are forgiven, you are forgiven! If He says bread and wine are His body and blood, they are His body and blood. If He says water and the word bring you new life, then water and the word bring you new life! Faith believes that what God says!
When Jesus commanded Peter to walk on the water, he walked on the water! Unfortunately, moments later, Peter said, “wait a minute. What am I doing? I’m walking on water!” “People, you know, don’t walk on water. Especially water like this! It’s roaring and foaming! It’s eerie and maybe filled with all sorts of evils. What am I doing? Why didn’t I stay in the boat where I belong?”
In a matter of seconds Peter began to believe what he saw and experienced, over and above what God promised. It’s hard for us to fault him for his little faith because we’re quite often in the same boat, so to speak. We tend to believe and trust what our eyes see and experience over what God promises.
In desperation, Peter did what a person of faith does. He looked to the One in whom His faith resided, Jesus, the author and perfecter of his faith. And He called out to Him, “Jesus save me.” “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
I’d like to go back for a minute to the tempest at sea as an image of chaos and uncertainty. There is another image wrapped up in this whole story, the image of the boat and the church. It isn’t by accident that, when Peter began to sink, due to his doubts and fears, Jesus picked him up and put him back in the boat. I mean, He could have set him safely, but all alone, on the shore on the other side. But, He didn’t. He picked him up and put him back in the boat with the other disciples.
It is also important to note that Jesus’ presence in the boat calmed the storm and the disciples then acknowledged who He is and worshiped Him while they were in the boat. The boat became, as it was in the days of Noah, a safe haven, a place of salvation and certainty in the midst of a world of chaos and uncertainty.
St. Augustine, a 4th century church father, equated to the wood of the boat to the wood of the cross on which Jesus saved, not just Peter, but the whole world. The wood of the cross, said Augustine, “is like the wood of the boat. Jesus shows us that he himself is the way to the homeland, but "there is no way to cross over to the homeland unless you are carried by the wood."” Peter, though he did so in faithful exuberance, really should have never gotten out of the boat!
Folks, we are in the boat now! Out there is a tempest of chaos and uncertainty. In here is the living presence of Christ. Jesus comes to you here in order to go with you there. Day by day you cry out “Lord, save me,” and He does just that. His arms stretched out, His hands pierced and bloodied, He grasps hold of you and He shelters you.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +