Yr A ~ Pentecost 12 ~ Matthew 14:22-33
Everybody calls this the ‘Jesus walks on water’ story. That’s curious to me, because I think that bit is actually the least important part of the story. Well, the specific thing, not the symbolic metaphor. This is yet another example in the Jesus story of what I characterize as a story that never happened – and always happens! I hope that doesn’t put you off. What I mean is that, for me, whether Jesus actually physically was able to walk on top of the water is utterly irrelevant. If you were to ask me if I think it really happened I’d say no. But not because of why you might think.
What would it accomplish if we said he really walked on the water? Would that make you respect or listen to him more? I don’t know about you but magic tricks and special effects are nice but they don’t contribute much of substance. And if we get sidetracked (like I already have) pondering whether water-walking is plausible we don’t take enough time to talk about a part of the story that’s really important and helpful for us. And isn’t that the point?
I mean, I’m a card carrying member of the Jesus appreciation society but what I need is not to admire him more but to learn something that helps me navigate my life and helps me live more lovingly and abundantly. If we get hung up on the water-walking the story ends up being about how awesome Jesus is (which is true) – but that’s not what this story is really about.
It’s about Peter. It’s about me and you.
So let’s dive more deeply into this story and get beneath the surface (pun intended).
Witness the story through the eyes of Jesus’ disciples. They’ve just watched Jesus go off by himself to pray after getting news about his friend John the Baptizer being beheaded. Then the disciples watched the crowds find Jesus and mob him, so he taught the crowd, and healed them, and fed around 5000 of them. Then the disciples watched Jesus go off and pray again, as he sent them to the other side of the lake in a boat.
Jesus’ followers have watched him do some significant things in ministry here.
He’s taught, served, healed, and broke bread with people – and he’s grounded it all in quiet prayer. Now he sends them out on their own.
How will the disciples, the followers of Jesus, us, react?
And more to the point, how will Jesus’ followers react when the storms of life start to batter our boats?
The disciples are in a boat being battered by ‘waves’ – and not just a few waves. The suggestion is that the storm is raging all night long.
Loneliness and isolation?
Frustration with not connecting?
Always being leery of touching things or being near people?
Battered by waves indeed!
You see, it’s not a story about a stormy night on a lake 2000 years ago.
It’s a story about the storms we encounter every single day!
The stormy season we’re struggling to navigate right now.
So what happens? Are we just left alone to battle the wind and waves and make our own way?
Hardly! But it’s not what we want.
Jesus doesn’t just come riding in on a fine stallion and save the day.
Look at the details in the story.
Matthew 14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.
Early in the morning.
Over and over again in scripture we have examples of how deeply spiritual things seem to happen in the wee hours of the morning, just before dawn. The world looks and feels different ‘early in the morning’ – we’re usually quieter then, more apt to notice, and listen.
It says that Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. Don’t be too literal. Perhaps it’s just an engaging way to say that Jesus appears in the midst of our struggle. And as his presence is felt it’s confusing because we can’t quite understand it. We’re up to our eyeballs in our challenges so sensing a holy presence while we’re flailing around is a bit beyond our comprehension in the moment.
The miracle isn’t that Jesus defied gravity and physics and tip-toed across the sea.
The miracle – well, it feels like a miracle to us in the moment – is that ‘Something More’ is present in our storms – that we’re not alone.
Minds blown and brains boggled the disciples – who have just spent days immersed in watching Jesus embody and share the love of God – forget everything and are terrified by the presence of Jesus, and they cry out in fear.
Funny isn’t it?
The very thing we want more than anything else in moments of challenge and struggle is to feel God’s loving presence and yet when we really do encounter the Holy in a deep and significant way it freaks us out.
Matthew 14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Here’s where English lets us down a bit but the Greek word can help.
“Take heart” Jesus says. That can almost sound like a comforting reassurance or a gentle “there, there!”
But it’s more like a call to arms. Take heart!
The Greek word is tharseó which means ‘be warmed up and bolstered from within, have unflinching confidence, radiate social boldness because you’re warmed up from the inside.’
The disciples are afraid in their moment of trouble and Jesus ‘appears’ to them and says, “Come on people! Dig deep! You’re loved by God, you’re blessed, you’re filled with Spirit. It’s time to put it into practice. Of course it’s storming. It’s always storming! Be bolstered. Be bold. Have confidence. You got this! Get moving!”
Jesus isn’t comforting them – he’s goading them into action.
And Peter, of course it’s Peter, the one who flings himself into everything – takes this challenge to heart, feels that warmth stirring inside, and boldly leaps into action.
Matthew 14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Doesn’t that sound exactly like every one of your prayers when you’re on the verge of feeling like you’re answering God’s call to do something but you just need that last bit of reassurance to take that step in faith? Command me, please!
Matthew 14:29 Jesus said to Peter, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
Now, if the story stopped there Peter would be the hero and we’d come away with a lesson about how if you answer Jesus’ call you can do miraculous things just like Jesus.
(And that may well be true, I hope it’s true, but that’s not the message here.)
The story doesn’t stop there. Instead, the story gets remarkably true.
Funny how in the midst of an incredible story with supernatural overtones that we get such a profoundly real lesson.
Peter started out great. He was ‘walking on the water’ toward Jesus.
Inspired, warmed up, and bolstered he boldly steps out in faith and with his eyes on Jesus he’s doing it; he’s walking on water.
Verse 30 But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Peter was doing so well.
He was bold, he was trusting, he was living in faith.
I bet everything got super quiet in that moment and Peter was completely immersed in the presence of the Holy, focused on nothing but Jesus – and then he got distracted.
He noticed the strong wind.
He saw the big waves.
He remembered that he was in a boat in a storm and things were hard.
And he became frightened.
And he started to sink.
Look, I’m not saying that if we just keep our eyes on Jesus all the time that we’ll be water-walking miracle workers who can solve any problem and calm all the storms in our lives.
I am saying that when we keep our eyes on Jesus that we do better.
And when we lose sight of Jesus because of the howling winds and crashing waves rocking our boats that we don’t do as well.
Matthew 14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I don’t think Jesus is accusing Peter of anything.
He’s not scolding him, or putting him down.
He’s teaching him, like a parent would to encourage a kid.
“Hey, you were doing so great! I’m so proud of you! See, you can do it. No need to be afraid. You got this. Trust! Now get up and try again!”
And then they got into the boat, and the wind ceased (v.32). Not because their problems had all magically disappeared, but because the lesson had been learned. The disciples had been watching Jesus do ministry. He had given a masterclass in how to share God’s love with people, and how to refuel in prayer as you go. Then, like any good teacher, he sent his students (his disciples) out to try it on their own.
I find it pretty comforting that the disciples couldn’t do it perfectly every time. It makes my frequent toe-stubbings much more bearable knowing I’m just human too – like them.
But it also makes me want to dig deeper, and try harder – like Peter.
What will inspire you to take that step in faith?
What encouragement will you need to hear the call of love, and live it out?
What will embolden and bolster your confidence to put your faith in action?
I’m not saying you’re not doing so already. You are!
But we all get distracted by the storms from time to time, and take our eyes off Jesus and his Way.
You don’t have to be perfect. No one expects you to be perfect.
Our calling is to be faithful, to be loving, to be a blessing to all those we encounter.
Even when the waves are rocking our boats.
And friends, take a look around us. It’s storming!
I could go on and on about all the massive issues facing us in the world today.
Not to mention all the personal issues we each have to deal with from day to day.
The wind and the waves are all too real.
And so too is our ability to do something loving about them.
I want to acknowledge how challenging living the life of faith that Jesus calls us to is.
Despite our desire to walk on water, sometimes it feels like our feet may fail us.
The truth is we’ll do (and are doing) some amazing good – and another truth is that inevitably we’re going to sink.
Step out anyway.
Boldly. Confidently. Faithfully.
And as you go, you might want to say a prayer like this one:
O God, *you call me out upon the waters, the great unknown where feet may fail.
And there I find you in the mystery, in oceans deep my faith will stand.
And I will call upon your name and keep my eyes above the waves.
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace, for I am yours and you are mine.
Your grace, O God, abounds in deepest waters. Your sovereign hand will be my guide.
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me, you’ve never failed and you won’t start now.
Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders.
Let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Saviour.
(*lyrics to “Oceans – Where Feet May Fail” by Crocker/Houston/Ligthelm, © 2012 Hillsouthern Music Publishing)