Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
You know one of the things I really miss about not gathering for worship, besides seeing all of your faces…Sandy’s announcements and comics about the Scripture texts each week that she would have on the monitor in the Narthex. It always gave me a good chuckle before leading worship.
I have a thing for looking at a church marquee when I’m out and about driving. I don’t generally pay attention to the service times or the pastor’s name written large.
What I look for is a good word, a funny saying, some pithy call to the Christian life. I am disappointed at times. Some jokes fall flat, some scriptures are ripped from their contexts, and often the theology is an abuse of all that is good and beautiful about our faith. But some of the signs are just right.
I recently saw a few online that gave me laugh or at least a humored groan:
- “Honk if you love Jesus, text if you want to meet him.”
- “Adam and Eve, the first people to not read the Apple terms and conditions.”
- “This too shall pass, it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”
Then one day I say online one that said: “We are praying for scientists that they may find a vaccine.” There was something in that message that didn’t sit well with me, a problem that I couldn’t quite figure out. It wasn’t that I am against scientific inquiry or that I think praying for scientists or even a vaccine is a bad idea. Much of my own life has been formed by scientific modes of understanding, But still, I had some sense that there was another message the church should have been offering.
It wasn’t until I began to read the scriptures for this Sunday that I started to have a sense of what the problem was. It is a question of fear and how we find our way out of it; on faith instead of false hope.
Today, in Matthew 14, we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time. The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Actually, they’re out on it all the time. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch.
A quick look back at chapter 8 reminds us of one traumatic experience they had not so very long ago. You may recall the story: A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped, and it begins to sink. Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed. And they question who this man with such great power to control the sea.
Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. By now, they can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that. No, today they are frightened by something else—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry, but Jesus reassures them. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Afterward we are told they worshipped Jesus as their Lord. What a difference a few chapters make.
These comforting words (let alone the ability to defy gravity) do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. So Peter asks, not Jesus requests, to come out on the water saying “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus agrees, “Come.” And so, Peter does. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter 8. It’s déjà vu—right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. But make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” seem to be some of Jesus’ most repeated words both before and after his crucifixion. In this week’s Gospel we hear the story that can be seen as a story of faith, doubt, and reassurance.
Typically, in the midst of reading and preaching about this piece of scripture, Peter is not one that is lifted up as a hero or one to look up to, but as I read this piece of Scripture I give thanks for Peter and his story. In the midst of a storm and of this terrifying scene of Jesus walking on water, Peter’s request is to step out into the storm to be with Christ. He was brave and willing to step out on the sea in order to join Jesus. He quickly learns he is not the same as Jesus, and fear and doubt overtake him. He calls out to Jesus in his sinking, and is lifted up and returned to boat safely.
Pretty relatable isn’t it? How many times have you gone out into the world and said, “Ok Jesus! I’ve read the Gospel, I’ve went to church, I’ve studied how to live a loving and grace-filled life, let’s go!”, and then promptly fell on your face and had the need to reach out for help from both those around you and your Creator? How many times have well intentioned Christians went out into the world, trusting they were doing good work on God’s behalf, and had to pray for God’s grace and guidance after doing more damage than help?
Discipleship is hard! Discipleship is messy! Discipleship is a continual process in which we are asked to step out onto the sea knowing that we are not Jesus, and trusting that Jesus will help us to walk through the storm. In the midst of this process, we hear Jesus’ infamous words echoing through our lives: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
- Jesus does not cast Peter out in the midst of his fear and shortcoming.
- Jesus does not brutally embarrass him in front of his friends and family.
Rather, Jesus asks him the question: “Why do you doubt?” Then Jesus continues to teach and guide Peter in the hopes that someday Peter’s faith might overcome his doubt.
This faith that Jesus is teaching Peter to have is not a blind faith though.
- Jesus is not saying that all of Peter’s difficulties will magically disappear mysteriously because Jesus showed up in his life.
- Jesus is not saying that Peter should live his life as a daredevil maverick with no regards to his safety or anyone else’s.
Rather, Jesus is showing Peter, and us, a lifestyle in which a community is gathered together to live in ways that create hope, love, kindness, grace, and trust as the baseline of how the world lives. Through Jesus’ relationship with Peter, Jesus teaches Peter that these things are possible. That through Christ, all things are possible, if you follow his ways and live in that light alongside of those who walk with you.
So, why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would we ever lack faith?
Well, one answer is fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road.
But it’s not just wind and rainstorms that scare us; so do the metaphorical storms of our lives.
Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, and economic downturns can shake us to the core. In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, and it’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight. All Jesus does is ask why.
Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer to the question, but he wants us to know it, too. Simply put, it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways. When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind. For that reason, we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.
So I don’t think Jesus is asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than safety. Faith is the foundation of human life, as important as food, water, and shelter. Only after faith is secured can safety add value to living. This is the message of the Cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. And faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come.
Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. In other words, even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God.
- Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions.
- It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory.
- It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith.
We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in, but the important thing is to recover from those doubts and return to a place of faith.
We live in a strsnge time in the world. There is the pandemic and its uncertain end, our politics in uproar, our climate in chaos.
- We want something to guide us through and so we look to something like science.
- We hope that somehow science can save us from our vulnerability to viruses, the fragile reality of our mortal lives.
- We hope that somehow technology will save us from the death not only of ourselves but our world.
- We hope that our national life can be solved like a puzzle by the right politics.
But when we place our hopes in such things as science or the next election or an economic policy we will go out onto the waters and find ourselves quickly sinking in the chaos.
So yes, lets pray for scientists, they need God’s grace as much as anyone. If scientists come up with a vaccine for COVID19, I’ll be thankful. My hope though, does not lie in science or technology, just as it does not lie in politics or policy. I’m a fragile creature, one day a virus or bacterium or a speeding car or one of a million myriad of other possibilities will kill me.
Until then and after then what will sustain my life is God’s love and reign, and if I really want to live into the fullness of what life has for me now my hope is in Jesus’ words “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” That’s the word the church must proclaim to our world. That’s s a message worth putting on a marquee.