A sermon based on Psalm 105:1-6 and Matthew 14:22-33 preached on September 7th, 2014.
This story is iconic. Whether you’ve ever opened a bible or heard a sermon preached on it, been in a bible study or Sunday school lesson about it—this story is a familiar one.
The phrase “walking on water” has made its way into our culture’s common vernacular. The phrase is used for the kind of people who we look up to—who do the miraculous and make it look easy—who regularly and effortlessly accomplish the impossible. Our mothers walk on water, social workers walk on water, so do nurses, and teachers—or at least the best of them.
I’ve mentioned before that Mythbusters is one of my favorite TV shows. The Mythbusters are a bunch of scientists and special effects artists who try to recreate the stuff that happens in movies to see if they’re possible in real life. They also take common phrases like this one and test them out too.
In one episode, the Mythbusters tested out whether in any circumstance walking on water was scientifically possible. They strapped floatation devices to their feet and stepped out onto the surface of a pool—and they toppled over.
They went to a lake and thought that maybe if they got a running start, they would hit the water so fast they’d be able to glide across the surface like a skipping stone. When that didn’t work, they got a track and field Olympic medal winner to try it—and she sank into the lake just as fast as they did.
The myth was busted, they declared. It doesn’t matter what clever tricks you have up your sleeve, despite our best efforts, no one can walk on water. It’s scientifically impossible. Quite a surprise, huh?
We miss the point of this story when we focus on what’s possible about it and what isn’t. “How did Jesus walk on water?” is not the question we should be asking ourselves as we read this story —his ability to walk on water is not the point.
The question we should ask starts with a “What” instead: “What does this story have to teach us about living out our faith in Jesus?”
A common image the early church used to describe itself was as a boat—a boat out at sea. Many of the original disciples were fisherman. They knew boats well—they lived their lives on boats—spent their days on them, both before and after Jesus.
The image of a sailboat full of your fellow believers, blown by the wind of the Holy Spirit, was very commonly used to describe the early church. The very early church was a boat. So, those in Matthew’s congregation, this story’s first hearers, knew right away that is was more than a nautical tale involving 12 disciples and Jesus.
This was Matthew’s way of sending his congregation a bigger message and telling them a more significant story. A story about them. Matthew’s church was a persecuted people. Matthew wrote his gospel to a church in the throws of martyrdom. Followers of Jesus hid out, they needed to keep quiet about their faith because those who didn’t stay quiet were fed to lions in Roman stadiums—one of only a multitude of ways early followers of Jesus were being persecuted. If the 1st Century church was a boat, it was one caught in the middle of a storm, surrounded by threats.
In verse 24, our text says the boat was being battered by the waves and a strong headwind. The Greek word there is much stronger than “battered”—a better translation would be “persecuted.” The early Church was a boatful of believers caught in the chaos of martyrdom. On ever side, their lives were in danger. In over their heads and afraid, these early Christians wondered where Jesus was in the midst of their suffering.
This is a story about how Jesus comes to all of his disciples—the original 12 as well as the billions around the world today, in the middle of threatening seas, to speak words of peace and strength:
Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid!
No matter where we are or what we’re facing, Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and he comes speaking words of assurance and peace.
Notice, though, what doesn’t happen in this story. Nowhere in this passage does Jesus calm the wind and waves.
There’s another story very similar to this one in chapter 8 were Jesus was already in a boat with the disciples. He falls asleep, and the disciples wake him up because there was a storm and it was too much them. There, Jesus orders the wind and waves to die down.
But in this story, there is no word from Jesus that calms the wind and the waves. Jesus does not deliver the disciples from the battering sea. He doesn’t come promising to stop their persecution. Jesus does not still any storms here.
All that Jesus offers is his presence, and all the disciples get is Jesus’ encouragement. It’s the promise of Jesus’ presence that gives the disciples hope even though the wind and the waves continue battering their boat.
Throughout the Gospels, Peter comes off as a blockhead. He puts the “duh” in “disciple”. Peter’s the one who acts before he thinks. He’s the giddy one who blurts out everything that crosses his mind. He never holds back a thing. But in this story, Peter’s eagerness leads to one of the most memorable moments in the whole bible. Peter steps out of the boat. He may even take a few steps on the water. A strong headwind comes along and we all know what happens. It’s the same thing that happened on Mythbusters. He starts to sink.
“What was Peter thinking?” we say to ourselves. Did he really think he could walk on water? Maybe he should have just stayed in the boat. This is Peter being a blowhard, again!
But when all the other disciples, with all the torment of the wind and persecution of the waves building up all around them, stayed in the safety of the boat, it was Peter who stood up and walked into the chaos, to be closer to Jesus. It was Peter who stepped outside of the comfort of that boat and risked his life, putting all of his trust into the hands of Jesus, summoning up the courage to take the first step outside. Risk, courage, trust—Peter shows us that these things are the stuff of true faith. What Peter shows us is that faith is a verb.
This isn’t Peter being an idiot. This is Peter being a disciple. This is Peter turning faith into action.
See, we’re comfortable keeping faith a noun. Faith is something we have rather than something we do. We think of faith as believing certain things. It’s something we carry around with us as we would a possession. Faith, we think, is something we have. It stays inside of us, in the safety of the boat. Away from the waves.
But, what if faith is also a verb? What if it’s not only something we have but it’s something do?
This story is full of action. Jesus sending the disciples away. The boat fighting a strong headwind, being battered by waves, Jesus walking toward the disciples, Peter getting out of the boat and walking toward Jesus. In this story, Peter’s faith is another verb. Peter doesn’t so much have faith as much as he faiths.
In spite of everything he knows about what’s outside of the boat, the chaos of the water, the wind throwing the boat wherever it wants to, Peter steps out and risks his life to walk with Jesus. Peter doesn’t simply have faith, he practices faith. He turns all that he thinks and believes into a verb and acts on in. And for a moment—just a split second—in the midst of all the wind and waves battering the boat—Peter walks. And, yeah, he starts sinking immediately and needs his Lord to reach out his hand to rescue him, but at least he took the risk to step out in the first place.
So, when Jesus says to Peter,
You of weak faith,
he’s not telling Peter that he his faith is too small, but that he didn’t faith enough.
Peter, next time, faith more, Jesus is saying.
While all the rest of the disciples were just fine staying in the boat—safe, away from all that threatened them out there—not faithing at all, at least Peter took the chance. At least Peter took his faith and turned it into a verb and did something with it—stepping out and putting it all in Jesus’ hands.
There’s a book out there—it’s become a very popular one, called, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be Christian? Really? Is this the approach to take? A faith that just eeks by? Does Jesus ask us to play it safe? To put only parts of ourself into this venture called discipleship.
Maybe I’ll just dip my toes into the water and test out how things feel.
No. That’s not faithing. That’s staying in the boat with our life vests on. Both Peter and Jesus would scoff at the idea. Following Jesus is never safe, never halfway, never measuring out our devotion to God.
True discipleship knows nothing about moderation. Following Jesus is an all-in, full plunge into deep waters. Taking strides out onto the waves, just like Peter did, trusting that Jesus is there if we start sinking.
The question of discipleship is this: Am I willing to move outside of myself and trust Jesus—even if it means stepping out into uncertain and chaotic waters?
Was Peter crazy? Yeah, he was to think he could walk on water. Maybe we should all be the same kind of crazy. Maybe we should take the same risk he did and step out, confident that Jesus is out there and doesn’t want us to stay inside the safety zone of our little boat.
Peter walked toward Jesus, like every disciple should do—stepping out in faith, risking our own safety—even our own lives, to be closer to Jesus, knowing that even if we fail at faithing and begin to sink, Jesus is right there reaching out for us and will pull us right back up again.
Possessing faith is just fine. Lots of people have faith, but they never use it outside their little boats. The real work of the Gospel happens we when we take the faith we have and turn it into a verb.
Let’s step out and start faithing.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!