But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”
(Preached on Sunday, August 13, 2017)
Have you ever been on a large body of water, in a small boat, in the midst of a storm? It is a most frightening experience, I am sure. I have never been in exactly that situation, but there was a time canoeing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota when I was on a large lake, several miles across, late in the day, with a strong wind blowing against us as we attempted to cross. That was frightening enough for me. This did not happen on this most recent trip. My brother and I did not face this extreme situation.
No, this experience was on one of the trips I made back in the early 1980s when I was co-leading groups of high school youth for the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the UCC on summer wilderness trips. This one trip we had planned to camp on this rather large lake after a long day of paddling. I was in a canoe with two teens and our canoe was also loaded with several packs. This meant we were riding very low in the water. When we entered this lake from the river that fed into it from the south we discovered that we were facing a very strong headwind blowing across a wide expanse of open water. This condition created some pretty large swells for such a lake, 12 – 18 inch waves. Now to you who have been out in the Atlantic or on the Gulf Stream, 12-18 inch swells sounds calm. But in a 17 foot canoe, fully loaded, with about 6-8 inch clearance from the top of the sides to the waterline, those are pretty large waves. So we were fighting a strong headwind, with large waves, and needed to cross the southeast corner of the lake to reach the nearest campsite, which we hoped would be available. It took all the remaining energy, muscle, and calm heads we could muster to make the crossing.
I am sure the storm the disciples of Jesus found themselves in on the Sea of Galilee was much stronger than that I faced, but the experience did give me a good appreciation for their struggle. The Sea of Galilee is known for its storms which can blow up suddenly, without much warning, and catch small fishing boats in a precarious position far out from shore. When I was in Israel, the day we enjoyed a cruise on the Sea of Galilee, the weather was perfect; beautiful blue skies, calm waters. But the day before, we witnessed a very rainy day with the wind blowing from the east across the lake striking our hotel in Tiberius with a broadside. We watched a small fishing boat just about 50 yards off shore, with two fishermen in it struggle mightily to make it back to port. The remains of the fishing boats from the time of Jesus which they have found are not much larger than most large wooden lifeboats on modern cruise ships. Equipped with a central sail and several oars, they might hold 12-13 people, but they would be fully loaded and riding low in the sea if they did.
Whatever the size of the boat, the storm was obviously getting the better of the disciples. Even though several of them were experienced fishermen and sailors, they were obviously nervous and anxious and working with all their might to try to make it across the section of the Sea they are attempting to cross. Under such great stress, clearly worried about their fate, it is no wonder they cried out in fear when they saw Jesus approaching them over the waves, thinking he was a ghost, perhaps the angel of death, come for them.
This is one of those stories where you can get way off track by arguing over whether Jesus and Peter actually walked on the water. Whatever anyone says about that topic may be interesting, but it misses the point of the story! The question is not whether Jesus, by the will of God, could or could not, did or did not, walk on water. After all, if God wanted Jesus to walk on water, Jesus could, and would, do so. Not by magic, but by the power of God. The important question is why was this story so treasured by those early followers of Jesus who spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire? Why did nit end up written down in three of our four biblical gospels?
The answer to that, of course, is that it spoke to them in a special way. It spoke to them of their situation in the world and of their relationship with God. They lived their faith in a hostile environment. It was a risky think to be a Christian in that first century. At the beginning they were persecuted by the same rigid, orthodox religious leaders that put Jesus to death. As they took the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire they encountered more resistance, facing floggings, imprisonment, even exile by the Roman authorities. Eventually they were even made scapegoats by Emperor Nero and blamed for the disastrous fire in Rome and became traitors and enemies of the state. To be a follower of Jesus in that first century was like being at sea in a storm in a small boat; beating upwind, rowing against a strong current; always fearing you were going to sink. Life was most insecure.
Yet through it all they knew and they kept hearing the words of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid! Take courage! I am here!” He came through the storms to their side. He walked over the waters to Ephesus, Patmos, Corinth, Crete, Malta, even imperial Rome. And when he was with them, they found peace which surpassed all understanding. The storm could not destroy their faith. The worst seas could not separate them from the Lord. Even in death itself, Jesus was there to accompany them to a safe shore where stormy seas would be no more.
There is another strange question though which lies at the heart of Matthew’s telling of this story. That question is this: “Does it take more faith to stay in the boat, or to walk on water?” Matthew is the only gospel to add this little account of Peter trying to join Jesus on the waves of the sea. The other two gospels that tell this story don’t include this bit. So what is Matthew trying to get at by including Peter getting out of the boat and walking to Jesus on the water?
The traditional answer has always been to hold Peter up as a role model of faith: the only one courageous enough to get out of the boat and try to follow Jesus. But is that really what is going on here? Look back at Peter’s initial question to Jesus: “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” There is a note of doubt in that question: “If it is you.” What is that about? Didn’t he recognize Jesus’ voice? His question echoes the other times Jesus’ identity is questioned: by Satan in the wilderness – “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread…” and by those who mock him on the cross – “If you are the Messiah, save yourself!” Before Peter ever gets out of the boat and walks in the face of the storm there is a note of doubt in his question.
Jesus would have been utterly justified in saying, “Peter, sit down and shut up. You’re embarrassing yourself. Forget the heroics and get back in the boat.” But Jesus doesn’t reproach Peter at this point. Instead he gives him what he asks and beckons him to “come.” Of course, once Peter gets out in the storm his doubts increase and he begins to sink. Only then does he cry out for Jesus to save him. That appears to be what Jesus wanted to hear from him all along. Not, “Hey, Jesus, if it is really you, help me do something great and spectacular for all to see” but rather, “Thank God you are here! Please help us for we can’t do it alone and we need your strength, your presence, your guidance in the storm.”
Notice that Jesus only rebukes Peter for his lack of faith. To the others seat in the boat who didn’t even attempt Peter’s spiritual gymnastics, Jesus simply comes, gets into the boat with them, and there is a great calm at the ending of the storm. Maybe faith, great faith, is the calm, non-heroic but still impressive conviction that enables you to stay at your place in the boat, even though there’s a storm raging around you, confident that God is with you and will see you through. After all, at the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus reminds his followers, which includes us, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
Finally, staying in the boat doesn’t mean doing nothing. In the story the disciples were not panicking or despairing; they weren’t passively waiting and hoping and praying for some kind of miracle. On the contrary, they were working through a long dark night to make progress, and they were seemingly doing so. Nor were they overcome with fear, until they saw what they thought was a ghost.
The lesson we can take away from this story is that no matter what storms come our way in life, we need not be frozen with fear; we need not doubt God’s presence, love and care. Rather we are to live our lives and do the work God sends us to do with courage, trusting God to be with us always. We can also remember that even when we stray from the boat and strike out on our own; even when our doubts get the better of us and we challenge God to prove God’s love for us; even when the storms begin to overwhelm our courage and trust – even then, God will be there to reach out and grab us and bring us safely back to the boat. So, whether we get out of the boar or not, we are never out of God’s hands. We are never out outside of God’s care. That is the power for living.