HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
August 13, 2017
Matthew 14: 22-33 (CEB)
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
27Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
28Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
31Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind settled down.
33Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
Mark Twain was accompanied by his wife on one of his visits to the Holy Land. They were staying in Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a moonlit night, and the weather was perfect, which gave Twain the romantic idea of taking his wife for a boat ride on the lake. They walked down to the pier, and Twain inquired of a man sitting in a rowboat how much he would charge to row them out on the water. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes, and white Texas hat. The oarsman, presuming him to be a wealthy rancher from the US, said, “Well, I guess about twenty-five dollars.” Mark Twain thanked him, and, as he turned away with his wife on his arm, he was heard to exclaim, “Now I know why Jesus walked!”
Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water doesn’t explain why Jesus decided to trek across the waves that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. He had sent the disciples away with instructions to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and then he sent the crowds away before going up on the mountain to pray. As he prayed, a storm descended upon the Sea and from the sounds of it, the disciples were having some difficulty managing their boat. But Matthew doesn’t tell us that they were on the brink of certain death, or even that they cried out for Jesus in a moment of panic. Still, Jesus went to them, Matthew tells us, “early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.”
In fact, the disciples are so startled by this man approaching them across the water that they do not immediately recognize Jesus. They think it is a ghost, which, though silly, is understandable considering this man is walking across the water and over the waves in the midst of a great storm. Understandably, they were afraid. Some of that fear probably resulted from the storm itself, but I think it was really more because of this strange vision before them. So when they begin to cry out, Jesus reassures them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” Still, though, the disciples aren’t completely convinced. So Peter responds, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And that’s exactly what Jesus does.
This is where I want us to focus this morning. Like the story of the feeding of the 5,000 we considered last week, the account of Jesus walking on the water is one that is quite familiar to most of us, and it’s very easy for us to get caught up with Jesus’ jaunt on the water. What is revealed about Jesus and who he is as he walks across the water is important. But I think we really come to the heart of this story when we look closely at Peter’s words and actions.
Though it is clear that none of the disciples are completely convinced that it is Christ approaching them across the water, Peter is the only one to speak up. But it’s not like he says something docile like, “Is it really you, Jesus?” No, Peter is brash and even daring in his response, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” He might as well have said, “Lord, if it’s you, then prove it!” (As if walking on water wasn’t enough.) Yet Jesus is infinitely patient, as he has been with Peter before and will be again, and he calls for Peter to come to him. So Peter steps out of the boat. Now again, this is worthy of reflection. Peter did something that 92% of the disciples were not willing to do. In the midst of a raging storm and against unlikely odds, Peter placed his hands on the edge of the boat, swung his legs over the side and stepped down onto (not into) the water and started walking toward Jesus.
It’s easy for us to come away from this story looking down on Peter because Peter didn’t have *enough* faith to make it across the water to Jesus. But we cannot forget the earlier part of this story where Peter did something that 11 of his closest friends were not willing to do. While his companions were a huddled mass of fear in the boat behind him, he stepped out. If we want to belittle Peter because he didn’t have enough faith, we have to remember that even still he had more faith than his friends. There is a tremendous lesson here for the church.
There can be no doubt that the “church as we know it” is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Whereas churches were once community centers where neighbors could gather for everything from a softball game, to a Bible Study, to a family meal, people are increasingly finding community in different ways, enabled largely by the vast possibilities of the digital age and social media. It’s easy to connect with people who share our interests across the country and around the globe. We can coordinate efforts in different cities to do something like advocate for the victims of human trafficking, or we can get connected with people in our area who enjoy that rare trade, underwater basket weaving. The point is, people still want community, but they are not finding community through the church as they once did. But that doesn’t mean the church can’t still be an integral part of the communities that people are connecting to based on their common interests and shared causes. In order to do this, though, we have to step out of the safety of the boat and be willing to try some new things. I think it’s fair to say that about 92% of our churches are huddled up in the boat trying to weather the storm. But what if we were one of the 8% of churches that decided to step out of the safety of our “comfort zone” for the sake of helping people encounter Christ?
A few chapters after this story of Jesus walking on water. Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock upon which Christ will establish his church. Peter is the church. The disciples are the church. We are the church. And we can be like the disciples who sat in the boat and watched, huddled down in fear, hoping that the storm would pass quickly, or we can be like Peter who had faith enough to step out of the boat and walk toward Christ.
Now, there is still more to learn from Peter as he starts walking across the water toward Jesus. Indeed, he was bold enough to step out of the boat and had faith enough to walk across the water, but it wasn’t long before the storm distracted him. Fear overcame him, and he began to sink. Matthew tells us that when Peter cried out in fear, “Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him.” So here’s the thing. When we trust Christ enough to step out of our comfort zones, we are not guaranteed that it will be easy. In fact, it is almost guaranteed that we are going to face some storms. From time to time, life is going to get pretty difficult. And we all know how easily we can get distracted or off track when it comes to following God’s will in our lives. We may try and build a network of people around a common interest and begin talking to those people about Christ only to find that they are not at all receptive. This can be a very discouraging thing, and it might tempt us to throw in the towel and say, “Forget it.”
But here’s what we need to know: even in these challenging and difficult and stormy moments; even when we get distracted and let our faith falter, Christ is right there to pick us up. Sure, Jesus rebuked Peter for his “little faith,” but the thing is, unlike the other 11 disciples, Peter had enough faith to step out of the boat and start walking toward Jesus so that when things did get rough, Jesus was right there to reach out to him.
The thing is, we all have those moments in our lives when feel as if we’ve gotten in over our heads. Or we have those ministry moments when we wonder if maybe we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. And suddenly fear begins to overshadow our faith. We start to have these questions: What if I’ve done this and God does not meet me? What if I step out now and discover my faith is not strong enough? What if our church is not able to respond to the emerging needs of the changing neighborhood or the changing society? What if all our efforts to reach new people don’t succeed? What then? It won’t always be “smooth sailing,” But the truth we learn from this story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water is that whatever the storms, whatever the uncertainties, whatever the fears, the disciple or the church that is willing to risk a closer step toward Jesus has nothing to fear.
In the end, Jesus rebuked Peter for his “little faith.” And certainly, Peter could have gone farther if he hadn’t gotten caught up in his fear. We could all do a little better as Christ’s disciples and Christ’s church as we navigate this stormy world. But in the end, even Peter’s “little faith” took him a long way. And when he did start to falter, Christ reached out with compassion to save him. We can hunker down and pray that the storms of this life pass quickly, or we can have a little faith, step out of our comfort zones and move toward Christ who is calling us. It may not always be easy, but even a little faith can take us a long way.