Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 4, 2008
WALKING ON WATER
Texts: Matthew 14:22-33
Today we have the story of Jesus walking on water -- and Peter trying to. There are storms which rock the boat -- literally “torture” the boat -- and terrify the disciples. There’s the “little faith” of Peter, and there’s the hand of Jesus reaching out and saving Peter from drowning. There are all kinds of places this text intersects our lives.
It begins with the words “then he made the disciples get into the boat” and “go before him to the other side.” Jesus sent them ahead of him in the boat. It seems a bit odd, a little disconcerting. We want to follow Jesus, not be sent ahead of him. Go ahead, he says, I’ll catch up with you.
So we, the church, launch out into the deep at his word, following his commands. Don’t worry, he says, I’ll be there.
In Luke 10 Jesus sends the seventy out on mission -- “on ahead of him,” the text says, “into every town and place where he himself was about to come” (Luke 10:1). But for awhile they would be on their own. We want, I want, Jesus here every minute. But sometimes he sends us on ahead.
What does Jesus do in the meantime? He stays behind to pray. He needed time to be alone with God. So do we. Alone with God, alone with self, alone with the Alone. Jesus had been through a flurry of activity, healing, teaching, feeding the five thousand. He had just heard that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod. He needed to be alone with God.
As the disciples moved into deep water a storm arose. The boat was tortured by the waves, the wind was fiercely against them.
Life can grow stormy, terrifyingly so. Storms within. William Styron called his depression a storm in his brain. Storms without. A member came to me last week and spoke about how scary these economic times are to him.
We are at sea. It is dark. The storms are fierce. Jesus is back where we left him. Can’t he do something more useful than pray?!
Then the miraculous, the unexpected. It was the fourth watch, between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. in that early morning dark or half-light.
In the monastic rhythm of daily prayer called the Service of the Hours, the first prayer of the day is called Vigils. Monks walk under the stars in the pre-dawn dark to the church. It is also known as Matins, the night-watch, the time, says Brother David Stendle-Rast, of “learning to trust the darkness.”1
The only light in the church is the lectern light. They start their prayers. They look to the coming of the light. It is the fourth watch.
Suddenly the disciples see a figure walking toward them on the water. They are terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they cry. Not “Here comes Jesus up to his old tricks!" But “It’s a ghost!” They cry out in fear.
Immediately Jesus speaks, “Take heart [or take courage]. It is I. Be not afraid.”
For some this miracle of walking on water is a stumbling block. A young boy in our church told his mother he could not believe this. It made no sense to his awakening mind and everything else he was learning.
There have been rationalizing attempts to explain away the miracle by some scholars: He was walking on the shore; it only appeared to be the water. Or, it was the north end of the Sea of Galilee where the water is shallow. These are only variations on the joke: He knows where the rocks are.
One suggestion by scholars intrigues me: that this scene was a resurrection appearance of Jesus that over the fifty years between Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels found its way into the middle of the Gospel. It looks and sounds and feels like an Easter appearance to me: Jesus appearing suddenly in spiritual body transcending the normal categories of space and time. The disciples not recognizing him at first, thinking he’s a ghost. Jesus saying the Easter words: Be not afraid. It is I! The mixture of doubt and faith in the disciples. The worship of him as “Son of God.” Even Peter jumping overboard, as in the Easter story of John 21.
The Gospels are a “fusion of perspectives,” to use the thought of Paul Minear: the perspective of the historical Jesus, the perspective of the disciples and early church, the eternal perspective of God. The Gospels are like those sets of transparent maps of a country; you can lay one on top of the other so you can see all the details at once. This story may have been first an Easter story. Now it’s back in Matthew 14.
What I love about the Easter interpretation of this story is that this is how I can experience it: Not as a meeting with the historical Jesus, but a meeting with the risen and living Christ, the one who comes across the stormy waters to take my hand and lift me up.
The Easter antiphon of the Orthodox church echoes Jesus’ words here:
Peace be unto you, it is I, alleluia: be not afraid, alleluia.
Now Peter speaks, and it’s a remarkable expression of faith: “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water!” Peter takes the initiative. He’s ready to walk on water! It’s more than I would have tried. Jesus says: Come!
Peter jumps into the water and begins to walk toward Jesus. Then he notices the strong wind and becomes frightened and begins to sink.
This is a parable of our lives. If we keep our minds on God, on Christ we’re okay, but we get distracted by conditions! We change our focus from the power of God to the strength of the wind and waves. I can identify.
Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” It is the elemental cry. It is as ancient as the psalms, as contemporary as a hospital room.
Lord, I’m sinking, I’m drowning. Save me.
And Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him and saves him from the waters.
What he said to Peter seems a bit rough at first. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I wouldn’t have gotten out of the boat! Was Jesus scolding him?
So let’s probe deeper. Five times in Matthew Jesus describes his disciples as having “little faith.” When he was teaching them about trusting in God for daily sustenance (6:30); when he was with them in a boat earlier in the Gospel and a storm came up (8:26); in today’s text; when Jesus was about to feed the hungry multitude (16:8). And when they had had no success in casting out demons (17:19-20).
“Little faith” is a description of us, of the humanity of the church. It’s like our Native American name: Little Faith! It is our wavering human faith that trusts one moment and grows fearful the next, that takes our eyes off the power and goodness of God and focuses on our human weakness. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, and the word “doubt” is not the word for skepticism but the word for wavering, faltering, vacillating.
“O you of little faith,” he said, as he stretched out his hand and caught Peter’s descent and helped him into the boat.
Jesus comes and keeps coming to us “little-faith” ones. He is Immanuel, God-with-us. God with us always.
I do not think, deacons about to be ordained, and church, God’s ship at sea, that we are called to walk on water. Only the Risen One can do this. We are called to keep walking, keep traveling through all life’s storms focused on Jesus, focused on the power and goodness of God, focused on our mission and calling in Christ.
We are sent by Jesus out into the deep trusting that when we need him, he’ll be there.
I asked a group this spring where they had experienced what felt like a miracle, like a healing. Lewis Sykes told this story. He had left to serve in the Korean war, with a new wife, Virginia, and a two-week-old baby left behind, and flew fifty-five missions. On one of them he was headed back to base when the weather socked in so he couldn’t see a thing. His instruments suddenly malfunctioned so he didn’t know where he was. He was disoriented, lost. He was terrified he’d never see his wife and child again. He cried out, Lord, help me.
And he said he heard a voice, or something like a voice -- it was a clear message put into his mind: “Fly to the west and do the standard let down.” He did and when he cleared the last clouds he saw directly below an aircraft carrier and knew how to get home. He’d never experienced anything like it before, nor since, but it was the salvation of God to him the moment he most needed it. And it still brings goose bumps and the hair stands up on his neck.
There are days like that for us all. Can’t see the hand in front of your face. Instrument panels are out. Don’t know what to do. You cry out, “Lord, save me.” You feel a hand catch you. You hear a voice, “Take heart. It is I, be not afraid.”
Andy Catlett, a character in a Wendell Berry novel, has lost his right hand in a farm accident. This terrible loss has disoriented him. His right hand had been a way he connected to the world, held on to the world, and now it was gone. “When he lost his hand he lost his hold.” He felt like a man falling down a steep cliff unable to catch hold of anything. And he heard these words:
He is held, though he does not hold....
Though he does not hold, he is
held. He is grieving, and he is
full of joy.2
And with this scrap of faith we little-faith people go on, in good times and bad, trusting the One sometimes near, sometimes far, who says “Lo, I am with you always,” through storm and through calm, trusting the One who reaches out his hand and hauls us out of the deep.
Sometimes there’s a panic that rises in my chest so I can hardly breathe. I do not know where all it comes from. Then I hear his voice:
Take heart, take courage. It is I. Be not afraid.
And I cry Alleluia, sometimes soft, sometimes loud. Alleluia.
1 David Stendle-Rast, Music of Silence (Berkeley, California: Seastone, 1998), p. 20.
2 Wendell Berry, “Remembering,” Three Short Novels (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2008), pp. 142, 167.