9th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 14, Year A. August 10, 2014. (Text: Matt. 14:22-33.)
I don’t know any people who have lived their whole lives without sailing into some terrible storms. Failure, loss, grief, divorce, disease, depression, bankruptcy—the list could go on and on. There are life experiences that push us to our emotional or physical limits, or both. And when we’re in one of those storms, our horizons narrow down to just ourselves and our fear, or loneliness, or despair. It can feel like being in a little boat in the dark in a storm that feels like it’s going to last forever. We want to be rescued, but there’s nobody there who can save us. We’re all alone, except for the other people in the same boat, and they’re just as helpless and scared as we are.
In these storms of life, when we’re about to lose it, Jesus is known to come to those who have eyes that are able to see him —if they have known him well enough to recognize him behind the various disguises he is known to wear.
In the storm on Galilee, Peter and the other fishermen should have been right at home. They were practically born in boats on that very lake. On it, they spent nearly every night, since night-fishing was usually more productive than day-time fishing. There was no kind of weather they had not experienced before. Every one of them probably had a night-time storm story he could tell. So, how was this one different?
Did any of you see the movie, The Perfect Storm, back in 2000? This must have been a storm like that one—a storm that made veteran commercial fishermen wish they’d never pushed off from land. It was the “thousand year storm,” the deluge, the unimaginable disaster. It was the kind of situation many of us have been in at one time or another—in wartime, or in business, or in our families, or in dealing with a tragic accident of some kind, even if we’re people who’ve never ventured out on deep water in a boat. It was the kind of situation that makes us say, “I never imagined this could happen to me.”
Suddenly, in the gale, illuminated only by flashes of lightning, the terrified fishermen see a ghostly figure approaching their leaking little boat from the stern. Just when things looked like they couldn’t get worse, they do get worse. They’re about to be visited by a ghost! Now they’re not just physically afraid, with their stomachs tied in knots, they also feel a horror that makes their skin crawl.
Then a Voice calls to them out of the dark: “Don’t be afraid. Be brave, my friends. It’s me.” The Voice is familiar. It’s calm. It’s warm. It’s strong. —It’s Jesus! Peter stands up in the stern and peers out into the pelting rain. He can only see a blurred shape forty or fifty yards away across the whitecaps, standing on the water! Walking over the waves!
He yells, “Lord, is that really you?” And the Voice calls back, “Yes, it’s really me.” Peter hollers, “If that’s really you, Master, tell me to come out there to you, walking on the water just like you.” And the Voice answers, “Come on, then.”
Everybody else in the leaking little boat is watching and listening and wondering what’s going to happen. Peter takes a deep breath and steps over the side of the boat. His bare foot touches the surface of the water, and it feels like the hard packed clay in front of his house back in Capernaum. It doesn’t even feel cold! Exhilaration fills him. He puts the other foot down on the water and, sure enough, he’s walking on it! A big grin spreads across his face. “Yee-ha! Look at me, guys, I’m walkin’ on the water!”
Lightning flashes and thunder crashes and the rain comes sideways, driven by the wind. But Peter is having fun, walking on the waves to Jesus! Ten yards from the boat, twenty yards, thirty yards. He looks back over his shoulder and the little boat is hardly visible anymore. He looks down at the water beneath his feet and the thought comes to him, “It’s a hundred feet to the bottom out here. A hundred feet.” He peers forward, but now it’s totally dark and he can’t see the figure of Jesus through the rain. “Oh, my God,” he thinks, “There’s nobody there! I’ve been tricked by the devil!”
Suddenly the water beneath his feet feels cold… and mushy. We’d say it was like Jell-o. And it starts to give way beneath him. He’s going down—not like a rock in a pond, but slowly, like a waterlogged sack of worn out clothes. He can’t see Jesus anymore, but he still cries out, and now with tears: “Oh, No! Lord, save me!”
And right away Jesus is there, pulling him up to safety, saying “O, man of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Now, let’s stop and think about this story: Why did Peter figure this would be the acid test for whether the apparent “ghost” really was Jesus? —Why this…walking on water? It was because Jesus always expected his disciples to do whatever HE did. He wanted them to become like him. As I have said in sermons here before, the Biblical principle is that the disciple is supposed to reproduce the life of the Master. If the Master walks on the water and he tells the disciple to walk on the water, then the disciple can do it.
Jesus had already told his disciples to take on tasks that looked impossible—like feeding 5,000 people with five little pieces of pita bread and two dried fish. The gospel says Jesus had looked at the hungry crowd the day before and told his disciples, “You give them something to eat. YOU feed this mob!” So, it seemed logical to Peter that if that really was Jesus out there, and not a ghost, Jesus would say, “OK, Peter. You see me doing it. Now YOU walk on water, too!” Peter knew something else, too: when Jesus told his disciples to do something, he always gave them the power to do it.
Let’s learn from this story: It looks as if Peter tried something and failed. —But did he? He knew what Jesus expected from a disciple, and he went for it. He got out of the boat and walked on the water part way to Jesus. That’s not total failure; that’s partial success! He almost made it to Jesus before he got scared and lost his nerve. He got scared, and then he began to doubt. And when he began to doubt, he began to sink. But he DIDN’T doubt Jesus or what Jesus could do. After all, he cried out to Jesus for help and Jesus was right there to save him. No, Peter doubted himself!
He doubted his ability to do what he’d set out to do. He doubted whether he could be like Jesus, whether he could do what Jesus told him to do. Peter had both faith AND doubt. Jesus didn’t call Peter a “man of no faith.” He called him a “man of little faith.” In a fearful moment, his self-doubt won out. Somebody once said: “Every time you take a step in faith you run the risk of failing. But if you’re afraid of failure, you’ll never step out in faith.”
In principle, walking on water was like what all the disciples had done the day before when they’d courageously waded into the crowd and started breaking up the five little loaves and two hunks of fish that Jesus had prayed over, expecting to be able to feed five thousand people with just that little bit of food ….because Jesus had told them to do it.
John Ortberg, whose book If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat I heartily recommend to you—and some of whose ideas I have borrowed for this sermon—says the story about Peter walking on the water isn’t just about risk-taking, but about obedience. However, we have to learn how to tell the difference between what the Lord is really asking us to do and what might be merely a prideful impulse of our own.
We have found and we will find ourselves in some awful “storms” in this life. When we’re in the heart of the storm, we are going to feel scared, lonely, depressed, and hopeless. (And we may also be broke.) Maybe one of them will be that horrible, apocalyptic “Perfect Storm.” Courage by itself won’t be enough. Courage has to be accompanied by discernment, discernment by wisdom, and wisdom by knowledge of Jesus and his ways.
Jesus comes to those who love him, even in the midst of the perfect storm. He will always be there to help us, to teach us, and to tell us the next step to take—which may mean taking a step out of whatever little boat we’ve been depending on to save us.
At times we may doubt ourselves, we may doubt our abilities, and we may doubt our capacity to do what the Lord is telling us to do. But he’ll always be there in person to see us through, and he’ll never ask us to do the impossible.
Father Bruce McNab