Matthew 14:22–33 (NRSV)
Jesus Walks on the Water
(Mk 6:45–52; Jn 6:15–21)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This past week has been one of great spiritual stress for me. As I sit down for a break at work I begin to read the news articles and I begin to wonder are we on the brink of war? I look at the news for the past few days and I see a city in our nation being ripped apart over things I was taught were resolved over sixty years ago. I have felt as if everything I have every believed has been unraveling at the seams.
This week, as I read these verses many things passed through my mind, and there were several times where I sat to pray where absolutely it seemed as if God and I were just sitting together daring the other to speak. I sat there wondering.
I thought again about the potential emotions that those first century people might have been feeling just after they buried the headless body of their wilderness teacher, John. The man that was beheaded because the spoke boldly against the ruler’s relationship with his brother’s wife. This man spoke when everyone else remained quiet. I thought about that, and I also considered the actual scene where the decision was made to execute the Baptizer. Herod was taking pleasure in watching his step-daughter dance. This turned my stomach a bit, this ruler was enjoying his daughter/niece put on a provocative dance for the men of court, and to top it off his sister-in-law/wife was the one that sent this girl. A man lost his head because he had the nerve to tell a leader of Israel that incest was bad.
This man challenged the accepted cultural behavior and he lost his life. He questioned the accepted religious behavior and the religious leaders put him in chains. They sought to close his mouth but the only thing that kept him from dying long ago was the fact that people considered him to be a prophet. But the lusts of the world eventually dominated any fear of God.
The followers of John buried his body and they told his cousin Jesus who had crossed the sea to mourn the loss. These students along with others followed Jesus into the wilderness and Jesus in his great distress had compassion for them. And he miraculously fed them there on the hillside with a meager lunch equivalent to five slices of bread and a can of sardines. Those people for whom Jesus had compassion were sinners, marginalized people who were not accepted as worthwhile by those in power. They were students of a teacher who challenged conventional wisdom. They were people bound by illnesses. People with sorrow, people that needed hope, people who were lost without a shepherd. Wondering in a world that just seemed to be unraveling all around them. The prophet was just beheaded, and the voice crying in the wilderness they longed to hear was silenced.
Jesus fed the people, and sent them on their way. But just before Jesus sent the crowd away He sent the disciples with them, across the sea each with a basket of bread and fish. They left returning to their homes while Jesus remained there in the isolated place where he could mourn and pray as was his discipline. The crowd disrupted Jesus’ routine, yet as soon as he could reestablish his rhythm Jesus did. This time he even sent his disciples away because when routines are broken it takes greater effort to return.
Imagine the excitement that evening. Jesus had just feed thousands using something so insignificant. Compassion can inspire us to do the impossible. It allows us to get outside of ourselves and ease the burden of others. Compassion is wonderful, but can be dangerous if we allow the emotion to dominate. Jesus sent them away, so he could be alone to pray. Think about that for a moment. I will often be the first to say that service to others is the most important task for a church, but to serve we must make prayer or personal communion with God a priority in our lives. It is in prayer that the holy rhythm gains strength. It is upon a foundation of prayer that true life with God is built. It is in prayer that we repent or return to God. It is in prayer that we as fallen humanity can once again walk with God in the intimacy we were created to enjoy. Jesus withdrew often to pray.
Life continues to move even though we take on a lifestyle of prayer as Jesus prayed. Jesus sent the disciple toward the opposite shore before him. The crowds knew that the disciple left without their teacher. And as Jesus stayed in that wilderness to pray the disciples, the friends he invested so much of his time with, faced challenges of their own. They were sailing on the sea, a sea known for abrupt weather changes. They are sailing and suddenly the wind changes and the waves begin to batter the boat. They are caught out in the middle of a storm. Waves crash, the boat climbs and falls. The disciples, many of which are experienced sailors, struggle to keep the boat on course. Their world is quickly filled with trials. It is saturated with that chaotic fracture of routine. They struggle throughout the night. Nerves are shot, words are probably being exchanged. Patience has worn thin, and off in the distance they see something strange. The see a silhouette of a man.
Can you see that in your mind? You are sitting there on the boat, waves crashing all around you. You are struggling to stand as the deck below your feet suddenly drops out. If you begin to feel dizzy put your head between your knees and breathe. You look up only to see a man coming for you. You try to remember if you are still on the boat or have been swept overboard. The man continues to approach. Is this death coming for you?
So often we feel as if we are caught on that boat, miles from shore. We struggle to stay afloat and our nerves are shot. We are nearly to our breaking point, hope is eroding with each passing challenge. Is this the end?
They see the form of a man walking toward them, this phantom takes one confident step after another un-phased by the cyclical progression of the waves. You struggle and the phantom takes another step. You and your companions begin to scream because your death is sealed. And the ghost speaks to you. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
You are caught in a storm, everything is churning around you, and your stability wains. In your struggle you revert, you secure all you can and you fight with all your might just to keep your heads above water. The storm continues to rage and your energy is not keeping pace. You succumb to the fear. Take heart. Be bold, confident, do not be ruled by anxiety and fear.
Words between leaders of nations are exchanged, threats and counter threats are proposed. The ticker tape progresses across the screen as people passionately speak. Anxiety begins to rise. Another story of a tragedy, another instance of terror, another indication that all is not well and the darkness of fear begins to creep over the light we once reflected. Rocks from space fall through the atmosphere and we wonder if one of them might have a name like wormwood. We look behind us and we see the silhouette creeping closer with each passing minute. Take heart! Do not be afraid.
What exactly are we afraid of? There are several things really, and not to be too harsh but most of those fears are irrational, well except for snakes all snakes are deadly. What are we afraid of? I will tell you, we are afraid of God. We are not afraid of God, but we are afraid that maybe God just might hate us, or maybe even that God does not exist. We are afraid of entrusting everything of our life into the hands of a mysterious entity who may or may not like us, or who may or may not be a figment of our imagination. Take heart.
These men sitting on the boat. Well maybe not sitting, but rattling off the sides of the boat like a pin ball, are afraid that maybe they are entrusting their lives unwisely. They are existing in that place at that moment with twelve baskets of soggy bread and now even saltier fish sliding around at their feet wondering as the wave crash into them, is this real or some fantastical dream? And now a shadow is coming to get them.
Take heart. Do not be afraid. Jesus could take an insignificant basket of food enough for one person, and feed a multitude. Why are we afraid? He can provide for our daily needs, why do we still struggle to trust? Because the next wave we see is bigger than the one that we just struggled with. Sure, God helped with that one but this one is different, this one could kill us and I cannot trust even unto death.
One disciple was bold enough to say something. It was Peter the rock. “If it is truly you, call me out to walk with you.” It is ironic that Peter, the rock, is saying this. Peter the rock, is asking Jesus to tell him to come out on the water with him. I hope he is planning on skipping otherwise a rock will sink. Jesus does call to Peter. And Peter steps over the side. I want us to consider this as much as possible. The boat is still rising and falling in the waves, the wind is still blowing, the boat is still rolling and lurching. I am sure some of the disciples are still contemplating if they wanted to keep the divinely provided supper in their stomach or not. All this is still going on and Peter lifts his leg over the side and steps off onto the water, and begins to walk toward his teacher. Peter is walking on the water.
Think about the moment your feet hit the surface of the water and do not sink. Think about that first timid step as your hand still grasps the edge of the boat. You straighten your back and take another and another. You are walking on the water. Imagine the amazement you would feel. Each step would be a bit quicker, as you approach the one who called you. Think about that, how your response would be. With each step my confidence would rise, yet that is not what happened with Peter. Jesus had just feed a multitude, and now Jesus is right before you walking on the water. You left him alone on the other shore, yet here he is. Take heart it is I, do not be afraid. Peter is walking there toward Jesus on the water, yet even in that moment he is filled with doubt. Trusting but not entrusting. Living in that awkward place in limbo between belief and unbelief. He sees the next wave while he stands on the water and something goes through his mind. “Ok that wave was solid enough, but this one…this one is different, this one may not be of the same quality, my death is certain now. The next step, Peter begins to slip into the deep. As the water engulfs him he cries out. “Lord Save Me.”
Even the disciples who literally walked with the Lord doubt. Even Peter the perceived number two could not walk by faith on his own. There are always distractions challenging our faith. Twelve baskets of food, their lord walking on the water, and Peter standing there with Him, and even then, we see that faith is hard. Yet when Jesus gets to the boat the storm stops. This is the power of God with us. Peter sunk when distracted, yet when the focus was on Christ, he stood firm. Life might occur when the routine is broken but the routine is where we experience God with us. The routine of worship, prayer and service. Distract one area and we begin to sink. Take heart and do not be afraid. Our God fed thousands with one lunch basket. Our God walked on water and calmed a storm. Do not be afraid have faith.
As we enter this time of open worship I want us to consider the fears that we have, not the fears of snakes or spiders, but the ones that prevent us from boldly walking with God. What is at the root of that fear? Confess it and accept the hand of Christ. Take heart and take a step.