A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33
Last week we reflected on the story where Jesus fed 5000 plus people from five loaves of bread and two fish. This no doubt is a comfortable way to grow in faith. If the bread is an image of spiritual nourishment, the story of the 5000 could be an image of the church. We gather together, receive nourishment from God’s word, and we, hopefully, leave satisfied. The story of Peter walking on water with Jesus is a much darker, more dangerous journey into faith, one in which he would had very little control or choice. Often this story seems to be presented as the failure of faith. Peter sunk because he lacked faith. As I’ve wrestled with the passage, it seems to me more about the dangerous process of acquiring faith.
Let’s remind ourselves what sort of faith the disciples would have had at this point in the story. They’ve seen Jesus heal the sick. They’ve seen Jesus cast out demons. They’ve seen Jesus teach with astounding authority. They’ve heard Jesus call himself the Son of God without much explanation. They just saw Jesus miraculously feed thousands of people. Oh, and they witnessed Jesus calm a raging storm with a word. Note their response when they saw Jesus calm the storm. They asked — “what kind of man is this?” They had faith that they were dealing with an exceptional human being. They didn’t yet have language for anything beyond that.
So let’s see how their faith grows. Jesus sends his disciples out to sea while he sends away the crowd he just fed. I didn’t say that right. Jesus forces the disciples to get into the boat. Maybe the disciples saw the bad weather coming and resisted, but Jesus insists. He forces them into rough waters. Jesus didn’t give His disciples choice. He forced them into rough waters. This journey into deeper faith begins with being forced to go it alone, in dangerous territory, and it’s not their choice.
Jesus stays alone on the mountainside. He is in the presence of His Father. After praying through most of the night, Jesus discerns it is time to rejoin his disciples who are alone, in the middle of the sea, battered by the wind and the waves. He will rejoin the disciples by walking across the waters. I’ve been trying to imagine this week what it would be like to be conscious that you have power to walk on water. I have no idea what that would be like.
It’s easier to imagine myself in the boat, in the middle of a stormy sea. I can imagine some alarm that something strange is out their on the waters. At first you wonder if you’re seeing things, like when you close your eyes tight and see stars. But this shape doesn’t go away, it comes closer, and closer. During every break the wind gives, you look up at this figure, and it keeps making its way closer. The other disciples keep looking as well, until everyone is driven to distraction and fear. Yet the storm doesn’t stop. By this time the wind, the rain, the waves, the storm have taken on a more sinister character, cloaked with the supernatural. You’re wrestling to keep the boat from being swamped as this being continues its approach. Maybe this is a ghosts of some lost fisherman, wondering the sea. Maybe this is some demon come to deceive and destroy. Your mind struggles to find categories to make sense of this experience as you continue to fight for survival in the storm. Suddenly, a voice finds its way through the wind: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” And now you being wrestling with a reality even stranger, perhaps more terrifying. The voice belongs to Jesus, and again you ask, “what sort of man is this?” Who is this one who heals the sick, this one who casts out demons, multiples loaves, teaches with authority, and calls himself the Son of the Father? Who is this One walking across the storm towards your boat. Your mind is crashing like the waves. Tossed like a boat in the wind. What does it mean to have faith, when God has overwhelmed all your categories of doctrine and theology, and is coming at you with His real and powerful presence.
Peter calls out. He alone seems to have remained afloat in this sea of confusion and mystery. “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come.” And so Peter steps onto the water, taking footsteps towards Jesus. Picture yourself taking steps towards Jesus. Utterly overwhelmed. You’re walking towards Jesus, the wind howling through valleys of waves, ripping across the sea. Where is your faith in that moment? What does inn that moment? Do you rehearse everything you know to be true about God? Do you say: “I think I can, I think I can”? Or do you say: “I think He can”? Or do you simply continuing taking steps despite being completely out of your depth?
And the one who called you is walking on water. You are walking on water. You’ve moved from a chaos in which you still had some control, in the boat which you know how to navigate, and row, and maybe keep afloat. That’s far behind you, and now you’re in a chaos Beyond anything you know. How could Jesus bring you here? Look at him. Look at His face. You are encountering the incarnation of the incomprehensible God. You look also at the waves crashing around you. Hold onto your sanity a moment longer and you’ll see the wind howling, its a freight train coming at you. In that moment your mind collapses. A moment earlier you might have thought, I can’t handle anymore.” Now, “the more” has come and its moved you beyond your ability to cope. The ground falls out from underneath you, and you sink. The cold water shocks your senses. It overwhelms you. You’re flooded. You’ve forgotten how to swim. You’ve forgotten about the boat. You’ve lost your ability to cope. Your utterly submerged. You’re drowning. All you can do is gasp, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus grasps your hand. He lifts you up. “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” I don’t hear this is a rebuke as much as it is an invitation to face our fears: “Why did you doubt?” I don’t think its a rebuke as much as its an invitation to reflect on the goodness of the one who lifts you up out of the waters. Why did you doubt?
Notice what happens — back on the boat, the wind immediately is tamed, and Peter is forever changed. He’s encountered the incarnate God in the storm, he’s been overwhelmed, fallen through the water, nearly drowned, but also rescued. Peter came out of this baptism utterly changed. All the disciples are changed. they‘ve new eyes of faith. Instead of asking, “Who is this man”, they bow down and worship, They say — “Truly you are the Son of God.” This journey deeper into faith had a significant price.
We are on a constant journey away from little faith. Sometimes this journey is pleasant. Sometimes it’s the experience of being nourished with spiritual food. Enjoying company with fellow believers, resting in the sun. Yet sometimes the Lord forces you on a journey far more dark. A journey where you’ll feel adrift at sea, alone, battling the wind and waves. Sometime’s you’ll be confronted with what you have no name for. Sometimes you’ll find yourself completely off the map — threatened by what you can’t control — by powers far too overwhelming for your mortal ability to cope: sickness, unemployment, betrayal, heartache, loss, war, failure, death. When encountering God in that chaos, you might be terrified of this God whom you thought you knew. You may find yourself completely overwhelmed, crashing through the surface of your sanity, having lost your ability to cope and all you can do is cry out out “Lord help me.” Faith is waiting for the hand of God to pull you out of the water. Faith is waiting for the voice of Jesus to say, “see, you had no reason to doubt.” Faith is believing He will take you to solid ground when you’re drowning. Faith is hoping that when all is said and done you will bow down, worship, and confess, “Truly you are the Son of God”.