8/9/2020 Tenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 14: 22-33.
22 [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee], 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do you remember when weekly television shows would begin with the voiceover person saying something like; “last week, when we left so-and-so”, or “last time we saw so-and-so they we doing something, whatever”?
Well, this morning’s sermon is rather like that, the story we encounter and will discuss takes place immediately after last week’s gospel lesson. So, I thought I would begin the way the old-school TV narrators would have; “last week we left Jesus Christ the Son of God, in the desert, where he had just fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two paltry fish”. “And this week, Jesus has just sent the disciples away, in a boat so that he might have some “alone time”. “And we join the story already in progress, as the disciples find themselves in their boat, far from shore and battered by the wind and the waves”.
And to further set the stage, we ought to take a closer look at the timeframe this story occupies. We’re told that Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat right after the twelve leftover baskets were collected; so they must have set off from shore some time in the early evening. Next, we read that the boat was being pushed further from the bank by a strong wind that began a bit later. And that the disciples saw Jesus, although they didn’t recognize him for who he was, as he walked on the water toward their boat. Matthew tells us this happened in the early morning hours. So, we may conclude that they were being buffeted about in their boat from around 6:00 PM or so, until let’s assume 6:00 in the morning. So, it’s safe to say they were dealing with battering waves and winds that forced them ever further from the shore, for a good twelve hours. It’s a good bet they were already pretty frightened by the time they saw “something” or “someone” approaching them, walking on the tempestuous water!
We’ve thus set the stage with the timing of the event and the circumstances of the situation. Jesus then tells the frightened disciples in the boat, “It’s me, don’t be afraid”. And Peter, wanting more proof tells Jesus that if it truly is him, then call Peter to him and he will be willing to step out of the “frying pan into the fire”, so to speak. Peter sort of challenges Jesus to confirm his divinity and Peter will depart the windswept boat and walk to Jesus. He thus attempts to display his great faith by stepping out from the unsafe, tossed-about boat for the even greater danger of the open waves. And we know what happens next, even without the TV narrator telling us; Peter realizes that the wind and waves haven’t diminished, his faith dissolves and he starts to founder.
Over the generations preachers have used this gospel story to illustrate that, like Peter we should all overcome our doubt and have a greater faith. The other suggestion has been that we all need to have the courage to “step out of the boat”. As I said, these approaches have been the perspectives that have been preached on forever, it seems. The problem with both of these is that neither takes into account the real fear that Peter was attempting to overcome. The wind and the waves didn’t diminish just because Peter began his stroll on the water toward Jesus. The storm didn’t abate until Jesus eventually got into the boat with the disciples. Obviously, Peter tried to maintain his faith in Jesus’ ability to keep him from sinking, but the real, present dangers that surrounded him caused him to waver.
So, it’s unfair to tell people, that based on this story they must strive to have a stronger faith to give them the courage to step out of the boat, to meet whatever awaits them. Let’s not stumble down that path this morning. Martin Luther tells us that faith is a gift from God, through the Holy Spirit. Luther’s Small Catechism teaching states “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me”. Knowing this, why then should we be subjected to a pronouncement that our faith isn’t strong enough? Or that we ought to have the courage to leap from the boat to face any adversity with no regard for the danger that’s present?
The more reasonable lesson to be learned from this morning’s reading is that our faith is often not strong enough for us to lean on it fully; and that at these times, we need Jesus’ intervention. As he is rescuing the sinking Peter, Jesus asks him, “why did you doubt?” The Greek word used in the gospel literally denotes “standing between two places”. This is understood to mean that Peter, and each of us nearly always find ourselves somewhere on the scale that reaches to the two extremes at each end; “belief” and “doubt”. Again we turn to Luther; he writes that we are all, at the same time Sinner and Saint; “Simul Iustus et Peccator”.
And I submit to you that while each of us is both of these simultaneously, there are surely times when we find ourselves shifting our position along the spectrum, closer to one end than the other. Like Peter, there are times when our faith at its peak, when we are more than ready to leap out of the boat to embark upon whatever it is Jesus calls us to do. And, also like Peter, we sometimes find that the situation is not quite what we expected; there may be wind and waves that seek to batter us. And, sinners that we are, our faith proves to be not as strong as we thought. We find ourselves unable to stand up to the conflict, fear, or danger that confront us. When we slide toward the “doubt” end of the spectrum. And it’s then that we too cry out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”. Note that in Peter’s case, Jesus didn’t promise Peter that the winds would disappear after he started his water-walk. But, Jesus was standing by to rescue Peter when the waves sought to claim him. It’s the same way for us; whether strong faith or weak, we remain “saints” as well as “sinners”; saved and redeemed by the One who reaches out his hand to ensure we remain on the surface of the water.
And Jesus led Peter back into the boat; only then did the waves become calm and the winds die down. For it’s when we recognize that getting out of the boat isn’t the important part. It’s the returning with Jesus to the boat to be with him and our Christian siblings; that’s when we acknowledge that our faith grows and expands. When we recognize that on our own, our faithfulness may become strained. When we gather with the other “Saints”…and “Sinners” who follow the Way of Christ, that’s when we slide more toward the “faith” side of the scale.
I was once participating in a faith formation study group; there were a dozen or so of us in attendance. And the discussion came around to the very topic of faith and doubt. The question was raised; “who here never has never any doubts about their faith?” We all tried to avoid eye contact with the one, rather smug person who firmly raised his hand; for we all know that our faith is a journey, one that constantly evolves.
Like Peter, we’re all likely to be found standing somewhere in-between the two extremes that the Greek describes as “between two places”; faith and doubt. We will all falter, we will all doubt from time to time. Our faith tends to respond to the conditions and circumstances we find ourselves in. Yet, Jesus still calls to us, challenging us to move beyond our comfort zone; knowing that we might be a bit closer to “doubt” than “faith” in that space between two places. So, it may not be courage and blind faith that compels us to leap over the side to answer Christ’s call. But it should be the knowledge that that Jesus will be waiting for us and walking beside us, on whatever path we are called to tread. Odds are, it won’t be on the water like Peter, but it will likely be on a road that leads toward a goal that Christ knows is in our best interest. Or, more likely, toward an objective that Jesus feels is in the best interest of another. But, like with Peter, when Christ’s mission has been fulfilled, he will lead us back to the boat, where the winds will become still and our faith restored.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, we acknowledge that we allow our doubts to overshadow our faith; and that we don’t always remember that Jesus calls to us with outstretched hands. Forgive us when our fears keep us from seeing Jesus approaching us in our doubt, worry, and fear. As we stand between two places, reassure us that as “Saints” we are blessed and as “Sinners” we are forgiven.
And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who whom we cry, “Lord, save us!”. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.