Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Romans 10:5-13; Matthew 14:22-33
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
August 13, 2017
Have you ever walked on water? I have. Not literally speaking, but metaphorically, I certainly have. I have walked into stormy situations where no sensible person would have attempted to go. I even thought it would help my career in the Air Force to volunteer to fly missions over Viet Nam. Then again, I thought it would be good to go on an isolated duty assignment to Thule, Greenland. Despite my poor choices, the Lord has helped me through. I have been up to my waist in temptations, and in danger of going under, but with Christ help, I have escaped. I have looked ahead and gasped at the size of the waves, thinking it seemed almost impossible to get from point A to point B without sinking, yet I have made it.
Not always. Not as often as I would like. Not every time with the balance and dignity I would wish. But certainly, I have walked across stormy seas, just as many of you have. There are some who say:
If you have faith, life will be smooth sailing.
If you have faith, God will cure all your ills and guard you from every danger…
If you have enough faith, if you stay close to God, all will go well …
In our Scripture reading this morning from Matthew, we discover that that is not necessarily true.
Jesus is Lord, not just the Lord and Savior of the human soul, but also Lord over all nature. He shares the divine power of the Creator over land, sea and air. In such events as walking on the sea, calming the storm, or turning water into wine, Jesus revealed his true divinity and lordship. We read in Matthew 14:33 “Then those who were in the boat came to Jesus and worshiped him, saying, “You truly are the Son of God.”
The idea of walking on water is one that presents itself easily to human imagination. A body of water is such a powerful barrier to human progress. The water’s surface presents, generally, an appearance of stability and solidity and it holds up boats quite adequately. It is not surprising that there are plenty of ancient stories of people or gods walking on water. To be able to pass over water is a divine quality. When humans are identified as walking on water they have kinship with the gods or have access by magic to the power of the gods.
In the first few centuries, to be a Christian was like being at sea in a storm. It was like beating upwind, or rowing against a strong current. The waves were always threatening to sink the Christian vessel. Life was most insecure. Yet even in their darkest moments, hiding in the catacombs under Rome, or dying in sports stadiums from Pompeii to Corinth, to Alexandria in Egypt, their Lord Jesus came to them, saying: “Cheer up, my sisters and brothers. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
He came through the storms to their side. He walked over the waters to Ephesus, Patmos, Corinth, Crete, Malta and even to those persecuted saints in 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, their Lord Jesus was there to accompany them to a safe shore where stormy seas would be no more…
“Cheer up, my sisters and brothers. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
They treasured this story because it spoke to them in their troubles. They found Christ to be faithful, always. Faith only functions when we take the risk and try it. Faith is like walking on water. It cannot be proved. It does not provide a substantial path ahead of us like concrete or granite. The option of faith appears to be precarious. We only know if faith will support our weight by trying it. Instead of being a victim of the possible action of the threatening spirit, Peter asks to participate in Jesus’ mastery over the turbulent waters. The response takes up the keyword of the request: “Come.”
We are to imagine Peter lowering himself over the side of the boat. Though Peter has made the request to be summoned, to act on the call makes its own fresh demands on him. The language of Peter’s request is closely echoed in the report of his coming across the water to Jesus. So, it was that the story of Peter attempting to walk on water like his Lord became extra precious to those pioneer Christians. On Lake Galilee, and later in his missionary work, Peter did not always do the faith thing very well, and at times he doubted and began to sink. But Jesus was there for him – always there for him.
Those Christians scattered across the Roman Empire treasured that story. Savored the telling and re-telling. It was Peter’s story. It was their story. Why would Peter act so recklessly, but then that seems to be typical for Peter. For whatever the reason – maybe he needed proof or something – Peter blurts out, “If it’s really you Lord, command me to come out on the water with you.” (He probably regretted it as soon as he said it.)
Jesus answers simply, “Come… come on, Peter.” But Peter is caught. It’s do or die. So, he cautiously puts one leg over the boat, then the other, still holding on to the boat. He lets go with one hand, and then the other, and there is Peter, walking on the water, too! Contrary to all the laws of nature, the impossible is happening – because the Lord of the universe is there.
But then something happens to Peter. It’s almost as if he woke up and realized where he is. Well, here is Peter, walking on the water toward Jesus. Everything is fine, but then he takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to look around. And what he sees are big waves and a driving wind, and there he is in the middle of it, unprotected, without a life jacket. He becomes afraid, and he begins to sink.
The enormity of the step that Peter has taken strikes him, and fear revives. His attention is once again caught by the threat posed by the wind and waves. His fear functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he begins to sink. In desperation, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” Have you ever been there before? It is the elemental cry of every human being when we are confronted with that which is, beyond our strength, beyond our ability, beyond our control. Amid our helplessness and powerlessness, we cry out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out and grabs hold of Peter, pulls him up and helps him back into the boat.
This leads us to the consideration of what constitute faith? We know the verse Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” To believe with one’s heart means to commit oneself at the deepest level to the truth as revealed and experienced. Confession is giving expression in words to that conviction. Calvin’s picturesque comment regarding those who would consider the confession of the mouth as superfluous is that, “it is quite nonsensical to insist that there is fire, when there is neither flame nor heat.” Peter had faith in his Lord and acted on it. He got out of the boat! Confessing our faith is the first action step. Living our faith is the ongoing and continuous confession of our faith.
In Romans, we see that those who come to Christ must believe in their hearts that Jesus was raised from the dead by God the Father. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the very center of the Christian faith. Apart from the resurrection Christianity would be little more than a well-intentioned ethical system. It is a fact that within history, God did something that defies all the laws of nature as we know them. He raised Jesus from the dead. It would seem reasonable for Jesus to chide Peter. “Why did you doubt, Peter? Where is your faith? Didn’t you believe me? Didn’t you believe me when I told you to let go?” Suddenly the wind dies down, the waves settle. The disciples are filled with awe and amazement. Falling to their knees they declare, “Truly you are the Son of God!” The disciples are now conscious that they are in the presence of God, and they worship.”
The form the worship takes is that of a confession of faith – “Truly, you are the Son of God.” The worship of the disciples anticipates the worship of the church. There are those who discover, in their experience of being rescued by Jesus. In Jesus they encounter God, worship God, and Jesus as the Son of God. This is the first confession in the Gospel of Jesus’ divine Sonship. It anticipates the confession of Peter’s when he declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus is Lord was one of the earliest of the Christian confessions. Related to it is the affirmation that God raised him from the dead – the authentic basis for the belief that Jesus is Lord.
As a congregation of God’s people, we often are faced with opportunities to let go and let God’s will be done in our midst. Various activities point to our letting God’s will be done:
Every time we bring a little baby to the waters of holy baptism,
Every time we gather around the table of the Lord,
Every time we adopt a budget and decide how to spend the money God has entrusted to us,
Every time we face a new challenge, a new opportunity for ministry,
Every time we gather at a funeral to mark the passing of one of God’s faithful servants.
Can you even imagine the faith that was required for Peter to get out of the boat? Some time we want remarkable things in our life and we ask God to direct us to do his will. We are completely sincere, but sometimes we get discouraged when a clear path is not there. Jesus was very clear that those who expect a miracle or anything from God have a role to play. The man born blind, after Jesus made mud and rubbed on his eyes was told to wash in the pool of Siloam, the cripple who was healed by the pool of Bethesda was told to pick his bed and walk. The lepers who were healed were not cleansed until they followed Jesus’ instructions to go to show themselves to the priest. For Peter, his ability to exercise his faith was he had to get out of the boat!
We face again the temptation to doubt and falter, to focus on the storms that rage around us. Rather, we must focus instead upon Jesus, the Lord of life, the Master of the winds and the waves. We do know that Christ is calling us forth as his people, and God invites us to trust him, to let go and depend on God. We go from here, seeking to be God’s faithful people, trusting and depending on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, always keeping our eyes focused on the One who is our source of life, hope, and salvation. We, like Peter, need to get out of the boat and keep our eyes on Jesus! Amen.