A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
August 10, 2014
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (NRSV).
Last Wednesday, at precisely 5:27 p.m., I saw a man walk on water.
Well, no, not exactly.
It was my friend Russ Dean, and he didn’t walk on water but he did stand on it, sort of. He put on a wet suit, got behind a speedboat, gave the signal, and then, in a huge billow of spray, with his feet wrapped around the tow rope, he slid along the water on his back. As the boat got up to speed, he got himself up into a sitting position with his feet splayed out in front, and then as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he stood up, and there he was, sliding across the surface of the water on his bare feet, giving a thumbs up to those of us who were watching.
Now, you wouldn’t call that walking on water. You would call it barefoot skiing. And you would be right. But when I talked to Russ later he went into great detail about how you do it, and how you want to make sure you don’t “plow” the water with your heels but “plane” up onto the surface with the bottoms of your feet, being careful to keep your toes up. “And you do want to make sure you have a barefoot suit,” he said, which is kind of a short, tight wet suit that keeps the water from getting in with heavy padding in all the right places. Russ was explaining all this to me because I was curious, but he was also explaining it as if I, too, could learn to waterski on the bottoms of my feet.
Which brings me to Peter.
At first glance today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 14 seems to be written to convince us that Jesus is like no one else in the world. He comes walking to his disciples on a storm-tossed sea; when he gets into the boat the storm suddenly stops; and in the silence that follows his disciples say, “Truly, you are the Son of God!” Because who else could do such things? But if I were Matthew and that’s the point I was trying to make, I don’t think I would have included the story of Peter walking on the water, because it suggests that you don’t have to be divine to do these things. It suggests that someone as human as Peter could do them. And, of course, if Peter could do them, then you and I could do them, too.
So, if I were Matthew, and I were trying to make the point that Jesus is like no one else in the world, I don’t think I would have included the story of Peter walking on the water. Even if it happened just as he reported it, even if he saw it with his own eyes, he didn’t have to tell it, did he? As the author of the Gospel he had complete control over what went in and what stayed out of his story of Jesus, and if he wanted to make it clear that Jesus was different and special than the rest of us he could have left out the part about Peter. Mark did. His version of this story is almost identical to Matthew’s, but Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Peter walking on the water. And even though John’s Gospel is much different than Mark’s or Matthew’s, he does tell the story of Jesus walking on water—Jesus, but not Peter. Luke, who was a doctor, and who may have had a scientific mind, doesn’t tell this story at all. It may have been too much for him to believe that even the Son of God could walk on water.
But Matthew tells it, and in Matthew’s version it is not only Jesus, but for a few slippery steps Peter, who walks on water. You’ve already heard the story this morning, but let’s take a closer look at Matthew 14:22-33. In that first verse Matthew tells us that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead while he dismissed the crowds, and that, in itself, was no small feat. He had cured their sick and fed the multitudes with five loaves and two small fish. I’m guessing they weren’t in a hurry to leave someone like that. But he had come to that deserted place to be alone for a while, remember? So, first, he sent his disciples on ahead in the boat, and then he sent the crowds away, and then he went up on the mountain to pray.
Matthew says that when evening came he was there alone, but the disciples were in the boat, trying to make it to land, and they were having trouble because the wind was against them. Would it help you to know where they were exactly? It would help me. I’ve been to the place where they say Jesus fed the multitude, and I’ve been to Capernaum, only two miles farther up the coast, and I think that’s where the disciples were headed. But there is a steep-sided valley to the west that funnels wind from the Mediterranean Sea into that corner of the Sea of Galilee so that storms can come up quickly and the winds can be quite strong. Maybe that’s what happened this time: that the disciples thought they were going to take a two-mile trip up the coast and suddenly found themselves rowing hard against strong winds and being pushed out to sea.
And there was Jesus up on the mountain praying, but it’s possible that from where he was he could see the disciples two miles away struggling against the wind, trying to make it to shore. And while he may have shut his eyes to stay focused on his prayers there was this part of him—this same compassionate part that cured the sick and fed the crowds—that reached out toward those disciples in their struggle until sometime hours later it got the best of him, and he got up from his prayers to go to them. He probably started by walking down to the road at the foot of the mountain, and then up the road toward Capernaum, but eventually he would have made his way down to the water’s edge, seen the boat out there, and started walking toward it.
On the water.
Matthew says he did it in the fourth watch of the night, which would have been some time between three and six o’clock in the morning. I’m guessing he did it as soon as he could see the boat out there, which would have been in that murky gray twilight when you can barely distinguish one object from another, which may explain why the disciples thought it was a ghost coming toward them. Matthew says they were terrified, but Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And then Peter said this crazy thing: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” My friend Don Flowers asks, “If you were on top of a tall building and you saw someone who looked like Jesus, would you call out, ‘Lord, if it is you, tell me to fly over to you!’?” No, probably not. But Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water,” and Jesus said, “Come.
And that’s the other crazy thing.
Especially if this is supposed to be a story about how Jesus is the Son of God, and about how he is different from other people and how he can do things that nobody else can do. If that’s true, then why would he tell Peter to come? He would know that Peter would sink like a stone; it would be a cruel prank. But he tells him to come and Peter climbs over the side of the boat and for a few miraculous moments he comes toward Jesus walking on the water. But then, Matthew says, he noticed the strong wind, and he became frightened, and he began to sink. He said, “Lord, save me!” Not from eternal damnation but from this latest mess he had gotten himself into. Can you relate to that? And can you imagine how it would feel when Jesus’ callused hand closed around your wrist and his strong arm hauled you up to safety? “You of little faith,” he said. “Why did you doubt?”
It sounds as if Jesus is scolding him, doesn’t it? And this is where I wish we had a tone-of-voice indicator in the Bible, where we could not only read what was said, but also hear how it was said. Because it’s one thing if Jesus says, in a scolding voice, “You of little faith! Why did you doubt?” but another thing if he says in an encouraging voice, “You of little faith! Why did you doubt?” I heard that tone of voice last week when my friend Russ Dean helped me walk on water. He said, “I think you need to do this for your sermon research,” and then he talked me into holding onto a metal pole sticking out from the side of his ski boat while he drove the boat across the lake at 35 miles per hour. I’m still wondering why I said yes. But there was a moment in that terrifying run when I put my feet down on the surface of the water and felt the pressure build up against the soles until I was able to put my full weight on them. And, yes, in that moment, I was standing on the water! And then, just as suddenly, my feet were swept out from under me and I came crashing down in a spectacular wipeout.
But listen to what Russ said:
He didn’t say, “You of little faith! Why did you doubt?” He said, “That was it! You had it! Did you feel that?” And I nodded. I did feel that. I felt what it was like to stand on water. What if that’s the tone Jesus used with Peter and not that other one we always imagine? He did, after all, invite Peter to get out of the boat and come to him on the water. And when Peter began to sink he did reach out immediately and save him. Why then would he scold him for his lack of faith? I think we need to hear him saying, “That was it! You had it! Did you feel that?” In other words, “Good try, Peter! You were this close!” And then Jesus helps Peter get back into the boat, and he gets in himself, and the wind ceases abruptly, and the disciples sit there with their mouths open until they are able to say, “Truly, you are the Son of God!”
Notice that they didn’t say, “You ARE God.” They were observant Jews after all, brought up in a strictly monotheistic tradition. There could be only one God. But after what they had just seen they said, “You are the Son of God,” which seems to imply: “You are the closest thing to God we have ever experienced. The presence and power of the Almighty appear to reside in you. You are a chip off the divine block!” But through his words and actions in this passage Jesus seems to imply that whatever is in him can be in them, too. When Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water,” Jesus says, “Come.” Would he say that if he didn’t believe Peter might be able to do it? When Peter begins to sink Jesus reaches out and saves him, lifts him up, and says “Why did you doubt?” Would he say that if he didn’t believe a little more faith would have done the trick?
I’m not saying that we should all go out and try walking on water. I tried it last week and my feet still hurt. But I am saying we need to get over this idea that because Jesus is the Son of God he can do everything and because we are not we can do nothing. In this story he seems to suggest that the same power and presence of God that was in him can be in us, not to the same degree perhaps but to some degree. Doesn’t he say, in John 4, that God is Spirit? And doesn’t Luke say in chapter 4 that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t the risen Jesus breathe on his disciples in John 20 and tell them to receive that same Spirit? And in John 14 doesn’t he say that whoever believes in him will do greater things than he did? And when Peter says, “If it is you, tell me to come to you on the water,” doesn’t he say, ‘Come’? All these things combine to suggest that we may have more of God’s presence and power than we have dared to believe.
What if Jesus is out there right now, not walking on the water, but on the streets of our city? And what if his disciples are sitting in their little boats all over town, trembling with fear? What if he’s hoping that someone will be bold enough to say, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you”? What if that’s you? And what if he says, “Come”? What will you do? Will you sit there in your little boat, trembling with fear? Or will you take a deep breath of God’s spirit and launch yourself over the side? Jesus himself may be waiting for the answer to that question,
And only you know what it is.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.