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Sunday, August 9, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Our passage this morning—of Jesus and Peter walking on the water—comes immediately on the heels of Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 that Nanette preached on last Sunday. Both texts have long been beloved passages in Sunday School classrooms, but there is certainly a sense of wonder and awe—or perhaps just abject curiosity—for us as readers of the Gospels as well. Part of what piques our interest, I think, is that we as listeners and readers are given far more descriptive details than we would typically find in biblical texts, to the point that we too feel as though we are alongside the other disciples in the boat.
After dismissing the crowds from last Sunday, Jesus sent them across the sea while he withdrew for a time to pray. We are told the boat was being battered by waves as the wind pushed them far from shore in the early hours of in the morning. The Greek phrase used indicates that it would have been sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 in the morning, so it’s little wonder that the disciples can’t recognize Jesus as they see a figure approaching the boat—and little wonder that they are terrified as well. The way Matthew describes the scene is so vivid: it’s easy to understand the disciples’ terror, to sense their disbelief at not only Jesus walking on the water but that Peter might try it as well, or to feel Peter’s confidence wane as he takes his first steps outside of the boat.
To us, to the other disciples, perhaps even to Peter himself, the idea of him walking on the water is madness. It’s hard enough to wrap our minds around Jesus doing so. But, if only for a moment, we’re told that Peter does—until his fear and doubt take over and he sinks down, crying out for Jesus to save him. Jesus obviously does so, but his question—“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”—returns to a common theme of faith versus doubt that runs throughout Matthew’s Gospel. If we, as disciples, are truly to follow Jesus, at least as the common interpretation of this passage goes, we must learn to live through our faith rather than our doubt.
But the way this passage has typically been understood leaves us with a intriguing question: could Peter have been able to continue walking on the water, and if so, could anyone do so provided that they had enough faith? Every time that I hear or read this passage, I can’t help but think about a story that my mom told me from her childhood in which she put that question of having enough faith to the test. My mom’s family often went up to the northern woods in Wisconsin for vacation, staying in a cabin near one of the lakes up there. If you’ve ever been swimming in a northern woods lake, regardless of the time of year, you know that the water could never really be described as warm. But when my mom was somewhere around nine years old, she was quite taken with this account of Peter walking on the water—and she decided that this vacation to the lake would be the perfect setting to test out her faith.
The place where they were staying had a wooden pier that extended out into the lake, so after a brief refresher about where it was that Peter had gone wrong, she marched out to the edge of the pier, paused for a moment, and prepared to take a step off. In my head, I always imagine this looking something like Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade when he takes an exaggerated step out into what looks like a bottomless abyss below him. Those of you who have seen the movie will know—spoiler alert—that Indy’s faith was rewarded; he steps out and is caught by a camouflaged stone bridge, able to walk across unscathed. The same, however, cannot be said for my mom and her step of faith. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped out onto the lake, only to faceplant into some frigid water as tendrils of seaweed wrapped around her ankles.
Gasping her way to the surface and pulling herself back up on the dock, she contemplated what it was that had gone wrong. Perhaps, she reasoned, she shouldn’t have hesitated before walking off because she was showing doubt. So she walked back to the middle of the dock and took off at a run towards the edge. I have no idea why she thought this would be any different, but the result was exactly the same, albeit with a harder slam onto the surface of the water. Now, most people would have stopped at this point, but our family can be a stubborn bunch. My mom tried a variety of different techniques: walking at a regular pace with her eyes closed, walking at a regular pace with her eyes open, stepping off the pier backwards, even slowly lowering herself onto the water. None of it worked, of course, and by the end of the day she was left soaked and ultimately saddened, feeling like maybe she just didn’t have enough faith to follow Jesus after all.
This struggle of faith versus doubt, and the idea of Peter being able to walk on the water, is what so many of us—myself included—have taken away from this passage over the years, but there is another way to understand it that perhaps gets a little closer to how Matthew’s original audience might have heard or read it. This text is not only rich in evocative and descriptive language; it also alludes to several important events from the Old Testament—from the Hebrew Bible—that are meant to help us better understand Jesus’ identity.
Scholars, by and large, believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind: Old Testament scripture is quoted and alluded to quite frequently, there is a focus on Pharisees and scribes as Jesus’ primary antagonists, and the Gospel has clear Hebrew and Aramaic language influences. For a primarily Jewish audience, water would have represented the great unknown: in the psalms and in other texts, water represents chaos, destruction, and death, even while being a vital and necessary source of life. The first chapter of Genesis begins by describing the earth as “a formless void and darkness covering the face of the deep”—a watery chaos to which God brings order in the act of creation. Throughout the Old Testament, whether from the destructive power of the flood to the confused language used by the author of Jonah when the prophet initially sets out in the uncharted waters of the Mediterranean, it is clear that water is something that can only be controlled by God.
When Jesus walks across the water towards the disciples, it is oddly reminiscent of God’s spirit hovering over the face of the waters in the beginning of Genesis—a connection that is further developed when Jesus greets the disciples by saying, “Take heart; it is I.” The two Greek words behind “it is I”—ego eimi—can mean “it is I,” but it can also be translated: “I AM.” “I AM” is the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus—the holy, divine name of God. When Jesus says in the face of the disciples’ fear, standing on the face of the water, “Take heart; I AM,” he is making a powerful proclamation that Matthew’s original audience would have heard and understood. Jesus is stating that he is God, a proclamation that goes well beyond the healings, teaching, and even miracles that Jesus has done to this point in the Gospel.
This revelation about Jesus’ divine identity leads the disciples to worship him at the conclusion of this passage—a vital moment that sometimes gets lost amid this wider miracle. But it also helps put Peter’s response to Jesus—as well as his subsequent failure— in some level of perspective. Understandably Peter wants to imitate Jesus—that, in many respects, is what it means to be a disciple—and so he asks Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Maybe I’m playing with semantics, but I think it’s very telling that Jesus only invites him out of the boat with a single word: “Come.” What if Jesus’ invitation to Peter wasn’t an invitation to walk on water? Perhaps it was merely an invitation to step out of the boat—to step out of the places where we are comfortable and instead out into the chaotic waters of our lives and our world and to be engaged deeply in them. Perhaps it was an invitation to trust—not to believe that nothing bad would ever happen or that having faith would mean that we could just walk on water through our lives, but to trust that God will be there even when we feel like we’re sinking, even when we’re uncertain about what is next. Like Peter, we all might try our best to imitate Jesus, but eventually we know we will find ourselves in the water rather than walking on it.
Knowing that, the temptation is always there to stay in the boat—to stay away or turn away as the chaotic waters of life rage around us. In a year that has been defined by loss, by tragedy, and by uncertainty, that temptation is as great as it’s ever been. But while there are times when we need to give ourselves a break from the seemingly never-ending stream of bad news that we are all facing, we also know that we aren’t meant to stay in our boats forever. Jesus’ invitation, “Come,” has been extended to every disciple—an invitation to be engaged, to advocate, to assist, to contribute, to support whomever, however, and whenever we can.
Nothing about being in the water is easy. There will be times, just like with Peter, when it feels like we might go under, but we go out with the assurance that we will never find ourselves completely over our heads. Cliff Kirkpatrick, a longtime leader in our Presbyterian denomination, once wrote that this passage tells us that “stepping out in faith is not a guarantee that we will not face troubled waters or be filled with fear, but it is always accompanied by the assurance that Jesus will not abandon us; that when we need it the most, he will extend his arm to lift us up.”
My mom may have felt like her faith failed her all those years ago when she fruitlessly tried to walk on the water, but perhaps she was given an important lesson instead. We may not be meant to walk on water through our lives, but that does not mean that the promise given at our baptisms is any less true: we are reminded in the water that we are God’s people and belong to God forever. There will be moments of great beauty and triumph, just as there are moments of great pain and sadness. There will be times when we wish we hadn’t been called out of our boats, that God had called us to something easier as disciples. But no matter what season of life we are in, no matter what struggle, no matter whether we are swimming towards a goal or just trying to stay afloat, we believe and trust that God will be there with us through it all.
Friends, I know that so many of you are watching this at different places in your lives. Maybe you are feeling a sense of God’s call in your life, asking you to love or serve in new ways—knowing how great the need is in our world. Maybe you are watching this and you feel physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, uncertain about what tomorrow will bring for you or your family, and you’re just looking to get through one more day. Maybe you even oscillate between those two places several times a week. But wherever you are—whether you’re like Peter responding to Jesus’ invitation or whether you’re like Peter crying out to Jesus “Save me!”—know that God will be there to lift you up. Thanks be God for that promise. Amen.