Darkness, chaos, high winds, and tall waves enfolded our world once again yesterday as we turned on the evening news. The news of the massacre in Charlottesville, Virginia reminded us that our world is not peaceful; showed us that ordinary objects such as a car become weapons of terror. We were reminded of pain; suffering, anxiety and fear are emotions that overtake individuals. This fear of the other—those whose skin is different, or whose social standing is not our own—often evokes hatred instead of love. The events of yesterday, the events that occupy our news, remind us how desperately our world needs to know God’s love. More so, I hope they remind us of our calling, our mission, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Matthew’s gospel reminds us that we are called into the unknown of darkness and chaos, but we do not go alone—Jesus walks towards us in the midst of our uncertainty.
One of my family’s favorite spots is my grandparents’ lake house at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. Being an hour’s drive from my home in Lynchburg, it is ideal for a weekend getaway. Water safety was key in my upbringing. From the time I learned to crawl, I learned that a life-jacket was a must anytime I dared to approach the lake’s shore. With this in mind, one of my earliest childhood memories is of being curled up under the console of our family boat during a thunderstorm. Still slightly exposed to the elements of the weather, this was my best attempt at protecting myself from the impending storm. Even curled up as small as possible, I had to rely on the care from others to wrap me with warm towels in order to stay dry. More so, I learned that being on the water in the midst of a storm was not a wise place to be.
Peter and the other disciples in our passage from Matthew learn the trials of difficult sailing and the threat water presents. Karol Barth in his Church Dogmatics reflects upon the theme of water throughout scripture. He suggests that, from the time of creation, water serves a character in the biblical narrative as an agent of chaos; Water represents destruction of creation and all the evil powers which resist the salvation God intended for Israel.
Jesus redefines water’s purpose as he uses it to conquer sin. For Jesus, water symbolizes a new creation. Our Gospel text this morning holds these two in tension with one another. The chaos of rough waves is present, and Jesus walks over them, showing his dominion and redefinition of water’s intended purpose. For Jesus’ ministry, water acts as a defining agent in God ‘salvific power.
While our story today does not explicitly mention a storm tormenting the disciples, we know that it was not easy sailing on Galilee’s sea. However, the disciples are in a boat together. They, the twelve of them, brace the wind and waves as one.
Jesus, meanwhile, has found time to be alone atop the mountain to rest and pray. Andy, in his reflection last week, pointed out how desperately Jesus craved this time for self-care. Still the crowds pressed on demanding his attention. After receiving news of his cousin’s death, and feeding the 5,000, Jesus finally was afforded the chance to spend time alone. He sent the disciples on ahead of him in the boat in order for him to spend time in prayer.
The disciples ventured onto the sea in the boat. As they traveled in rough seas with the wind against them, they do not seem plagued by fear. Even Peter seems content. At least until a ghostly figure begins to walk towards them in the fourth watch of the night. It is at this sighting fear overcomes the disciples. From this point onward, fear takes center stage of the narrative. Between verse 26 and verse 33 fear is mentioned an overwhelming number of times in a variety of ways. The words “terrified”, “cried out in fear”, “do not be afraid”, and “frightened” are all used to describe the emotions of the disciples. It is as if Matthew did not want us to miss the point. Moreover, it becomes apparent in the Greek language that these verbs describe different elements of the same action: fear of the unknown; fear that results in motivation; distractedness where the outcome is fear are all present in our story this morning. How similar does this sound to many of our lives today?
Calling out to the figure, they asked, “Who are you?” Jesus responds saying, “Ego Ami.” It is I. The same name God gives God’s self to Moses at the Burning Bush. Here Jesus is redefining his character. He is appearing to his friends in a new form, a way unlike they have seen him before. This calms the disciples for a little while. At least, until Peter asks, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you!” Why would Peter want to walk on the water with Jesus—especially during tides of difficult sailing? Maybe, Peter knows that his call is to learn to be more like Jesus.
The reason may never be known to us, yet this remark from Peter takes boldness. Jesus responds to Peter saying come, and as Peter begins to walk on top of the water, fear overcomes once again. His bold faith did not last for long. Yet, it was that faith that got him out of the security of the boat in the first place! I wonder in what ways Jesus is calling us to follow suit?
Peter gets a lot of grief for his doubt, his attention to distraction from Jesus. However, Peter had faith, at least a little bit as Jesus implies. This, here, is a central theme to Matthew’s Gospel. How far will a little bit of faith go? In the Greek language, the verb “to have a little faith,” is a full phrase. This verb is only used a few times in the New Testament and is only used to describe disciples—those who truly follow Jesus. It is not a means of critique, but rather a verb that describes the tensions that follow God’s hold. Translated differently, it would read, “courage mixed with anxiety”—courage that results in action, but anxiety of the unseen/unknown.
Matthew suggests that “a little faith” is instrumental in taking the first steps into mission. Through faith, we are granted new eyes to see the people around us. We become bold and willing to step out of our boats of familiarity to take a step closer towards Jesus. It is this faith, this little faith, which Jesus commends.
As time passed, my family sold our family boat in order to embark on a new adventure. We bought a SeaRay cabin cruiser that we often take on the Intercostal Water. The first summer we had the boat, 2006, we planned a trip together. We planned to take Bella Vista to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As the week approached, our excitement for this new journey grew. Water safety courses were taken, and boating licenses were obtained. The night before our planned departure we learned that Hurricane Charlie was fast approaching the Carolina Coast. After a few short moments of contemplation, we decided to go anyway. Saturday morning, we turned on the radio as we listened to the weather report. There were several hours before rain was expected to approach the shoreline, so we began uniting Bella Vista and preparing for a morning on the water. Soon, the dock-master approached us asking, “Where are you planning to go?” We replied, “just a short morning cruise before the storm.” Granted, all the larger boats around us were hunkering down for the weekend. He suggested that the only place we would be going was to the boat ramp a short distance away. Thankfully, we took his advice, because no sooner did we secure our boat than the hurricane approached the shore.
Many would call us crazy for traveling towards a hurricane. However, this experience taught me the definition of having a little faith. For my family, boating on open water was a new journey. It called us beyond our comfort zone of the lake’s shore. It taught us the importance of having courage to do new things. We learned that just as important as that courage, anxiety is fundamental in discerning an uncharted path.
Together my family learned that this is the kind of life God calls us to live. A life that is lived on the edge—in-between confidence and anxiety. God is calling all of us into this way of living. Perhaps it is not a venturing into a hurricane for you, but we all have places we are called that lead to fear.
Maybe for you it is volunteering with our shelter for men. You see the good this ministry does to help people rebuild their lives. But, you are not comfortable spending time alone with people who fall outside our typical social circles.
Maybe you desire to attend a bible study at MAPC, but you worry that you will not fit in. You have a deep desire to study God’s Word in a group, but you are unsure of the dynamics at play.
Maybe still, you wish to help with our children’s ministry, but you have never taught before.
Or, perhaps after hearing devastating news stories, a renewed since of social justice brews within you, but you are unsure of the first steps to take.
All of these provoke confidence and anxiety within each of us. The question is do we turn our confidence mixed with anxiety into fear? Or does it become faith?
Jesus sends the disciples forth on a mission, as he dismisses the crowds. The mission is accompanied with strong wind and rough waters. Yet, Jesus sends the disciples and us anyway. He never promises that the calling to go forth will be an easy task, yet just as he reaches out his hand to Peter, Jesus is ready to catch us when we grew weary.
When the waters rise and the wind picks up, Jesus does not abandon us. He reaches out his hand as we call out, “Lord Save Me.”
Jesus appears in new ways, ways even his closest friends could not recognize. Similarly, Jesus is constantly present in our lives—even as we are slow to recognize him. Peter was unsure that it was truly Jesus. Yet, he knew that in order to truly find out, he must step outside the boat.
As we go forth in mission and embrace the uncertainty of our calling, we respond to God’s presence with worship. In order to have true worship, we must be involved in mission. Worship is a result of gratefulness to God for being part of the ways in which we are called to be God’s agents in the world. Like the disciples, we are called to go forth as one body, the church—in a boat together. Like Peter, we have individual tasks we must fulfill. However, God brings us back into the boat—to the church—each Sunday together in order that we may worship as one body.
In the midst of our weeks, in the midst of living into our individual callings, in the midst of finding our mission, Jesus conquers all that appears chaotic, the powers that prevent us from living fully into His light as he walks toward us over rough waters in the darkest hour of the night. As Jesus draws near, he calls out saying, “Do Not Be Afraid, take heart, it is I.”
This phrase appears 365 times throughout the biblical narrative. In both the Old Testament and the New. It is used to comfort the followers of God in hours mixed with confidence and anxiety. Times when faith is present, but the way is uncharted.
The familiar narrative of Jesus walking on the water, or maybe we can retitle it Peter venturing into uncharted waters, reminds us that Jesus sends us forth in ways we have not charted before. As he sends us, he does not leave us, for Jesus prays for us, walking towards us in ways we have yet to recognize. So that we may know God’s unending love and peace.
William Willmon, a former pastor of Riverside Church here in New York City, invited a group of pastors to reflect upon “How Will You Know it is Jesus.” In his address he writes the following,
If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting, his promises, through risk and venture.
Are we simply splashing in the shallows? Or are we willing to follow Jesus over the depths?
It is getting out of the boat that is one of the most dangerous things we can do. This same action is one of the most thrilling, for it is a fulfilling way that we can live life to its fullest.
Last night, tears of terror flowed through our nation once again. Fear overcame us. The question of, “How am I called to respond?” was raised once again. As we respond in the various ways we are called, Jesus walks towards us admits the chaos as he says, “Do not be afraid, I am here.” He reaches out his hand safely placing us back in the boat.
In 2006, my family traveled to places yet uncharted as we learned lessons in sailing on difficult seas. Still as we went, as Peter went Jesus reached out his hand, wrapped his arms around, compassionately showing his steadfast love and care. Matthew’s narrative this morning calls each of us outside the places we feel comfortable onto the open seas with Jesus. It reminds us that, as we go, Jesus is never far away. We are called forth as children—dependent on god’s loving arms to enwrap us when the storm leaves us wet.
Jesus is calling us to walk upon water’s uncharted. He is calling us to follow in new ways, in order that all God’s children may experience God’s salvific love.