Think for a moment about the most daring thing you have ever done. May be a bungee jump or a trip in a hot air balloon or white-water rafting. Or perhaps something much more ordinary brings you out in a sweat; riding a bike or climbing a ladder or going into a cave. Whatever it may be, the initial thoughts and the run up to the event can often be the most nerve racking than the experience itself. Once we have launched ourselves into the activity of which we are apprehensive, we can feel a little easier about it…or maybe not! Perhaps that is how Peter felt as he prepared to launch himself from the relative safety of his fishing boat and make his way towards Jesus, walking on the water.
The story of Jesus walking on the water is well attested in the gospels being told by Matthew, Mark and John. In all three, it follows that other miracle which catches our imaginations, the feeding of the five thousand. Both incidents are outside our human experience. Modest amounts of food do not satisfy crowds of thousands and people cannot walk on water, only wade through it or swim. The gospel manuscripts at this point do not indicate that they have been altered or sensationalized at some later point. The original authors clearly intended us to share the amazement, even fear of the original witnesses.
Over the years, there have been plenty of suggestions of what might really have happened. May be Jesus was walking on the shore…that the disciples were nearer to the edge than they imagined or that he was in fact walking on sandbanks near where the river Jordan flows into the lake. Yet would the fishermen disciples who knew the ‘Sea of Galilee’ well be so easily mistaken by this? Is not a reluctance to accept what these texts are saying based simply upon an understanding of the world as closed system in which only the known processes of nature can ever happen? Instead do not these accounts encourage us to think of world which is open to the creator, God continuing to act within it disturbing the natural norms to challenge human beings to look beyond themselves in faith?
This certainly happens for the disciples in the boat. (Matthew 14. 22-33) Jesus dismisses the crowds now well fed with the five loaves and two fish. He orders the disciples to get into the fishing boat and head off across the lake while he makes his way on land taking time out for another mountain top prayer time. (We had one of those last week with the story of the Transfiguration.) The whole episode takes place over night. The disciples are clearly not allowed to sleep even after a busy day. They could not nod off in the boat because, as often happens on the lake, the wind had got up and they were rowing against it. It is just as they are at their lowest point, and the first glimmers of light of a grey dawn start to appear, they spot this figure walking on the water within speaking distance. They assume as we might well at the end of a sleep starved night that they were seeing a ghost, some apparition terrifying them. Then comes the voice that they know so well: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (verse 27)
Like the transfiguration we talked of last week, the disciples are privileged to see another side of Jesus, to glimpse in him something of the majesty of God. Job, in answer to his so-called comforters speaks of God ‘trampling on the waves of the Sea.’ (Job 9.8) This may also be read as ‘the back of the sea dragon.’ Psalm 77 has these words of God: ‘Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footsteps were unseen. This refers to the crossing of the Sea by the people of Israel as they flee Egypt. On that occasion, God demonstrated his mastery over the waters to ensure their freedom. For many ancient peoples, there was a fear of the sea and deep water. Jews, like the disciples had an understanding that their God had mastery over sea and all its malevolent forces. The disciples would have shared this thought. For them, seeing Jesus walk on the water and still the storm as he did on another occasion (Matthew 8.23-27, Mark 4.35-41, Luke 8.22-25) underlined how Jesus, like God had authority over the frightening elements of nature. ‘They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’ (Matthew 8.27) When they first see Jesus in the murky light of dawn, their initial reaction is understandably one of fear. It takes time for them to begin to trust this special human being with whom they were sharing their lives as the ‘Lord of Sea and Sky’.
What happens next in our story this morning belongs only to Matthew’s account. He alone tells us of how Peter wanted to walk on water too. The only other gospel record of Peter getting out of a fishing boat while at sea has him diving into the water after the amazing catch of fish when Jesus appears to them after the resurrection. It is entirely within Peter’s character to want to do such a thing. The tradition Matthew has preserved here is consistent with Peters behaviour elsewhere. It is also rich in symbolism and teaching for us.
Peter asks Jesus to command him to come to him walking on the water, believing no doubt that if Jesus commanded it, it would be possible. I am sure the butterflies were rising in his chest as he began to contemplate such a thing; not just the fear of drowning but also the fear of looking a complete idiot. Jesus calls to him ‘come’. He climbs out of the boat and can take some steps on the water, trusting Jesus. Then he takes his eyes off Jesus and notices the wind and the waves. He starts to sink and calls to Jesus for rescue and Jesus is happy to oblige with the words: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ (verse 31) ‘You of little faith.’ The same words are recorded by Matthew on the lips of Jesus following the calming of the storm. In there more archaic form, they have passed as an idiom into the English language: ‘o ye of little faith’.
Faith takes courage and determination. If we are to have faith, we must face down our fears. We must believe in an ‘open world’ in which the creator God is still active in our lives. To be people of faith can also mean that we are open to ridicule becoming objects of fun. Faith is not an easy option but it is what Jesus calls us to. This church is in the faith business. It means that we do not always deal in the certainties of life but in God’s possibilities for us.
In the New Testament reading today, (Romans 10.5-15) Paul speaks of the working out of Christian faith in two ways. Firstly, in the earlier verses, he speaks of ‘the righteousness which comes from faith’. (verse 6) This is all about the relationship of peace and love with God our creator which can be ours if instead of trying to get it by obeying the law, we would instead place our faith in Jesus: believing that in carrying our sin on the cross, he has restored our fractured relationship with God. Do you have that faith, that assurance? It’s not something to be assumed. Just as Peter actively engaged with Jesus to walk on the water, so we must daily fix our eyes on Jesus that our faith in him for our eternal salvation may not be lacking. ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (verse 13)
Secondly, Paul turns to the proclamation of the message, the gospel, the good news; to creating awareness as we might say today. ‘And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? (verse 14) Telling other people about Jesus is not easy. For me it is one of the most nerve racking things…to start or turn a conversation to share something about Jesus. We all need to be a little bold like Peter, to get out of the boats of our security and share Jesus with others. To have the faith to believe that Jesus is already out there and to realise that once we start, it’s not as scary as it seems because the Spirit is with us if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Trinity 9 13.08.2017