For the past several weeks we have come across stories that have had a different meaning than we may have thought they had.
- There’s the story of Jacob which is more about a family’s struggle to accept this revolutionary idea that God is about love and grace and mercy and provision and blessing when the world had told them that gods were not like that.
- There’s the story of mustard seeds which aren’t really about the smallest becoming the greatest, but instead about the kingdom of God being like an invasive weed that takes over.
- There’s the story of the merchant that doesn’t simply find a pearl, but rather discover a new way of life that causes them to leave the exploitative job of being a merchant.
- The the story about nets which aren’t about separating good fish from bad fish, but instead about pulling every kind of fish into the kingdom of God together.
So, do you really expect me to sit back today and tell an old old story in the same way you have always heard it? You know me better by now.
Today, I want to look at a passage that is all too familiar. Jesus and the disciples have just fed the fed the 5000 (probably more like 10 or 15 thousand because the number given only counts the men that were there. Soon after this miracle, we read this:
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. (Matthew 14:22-24)
Let’s start with a few questions to open up the beginnings of this story:
- What was Jesus thinking sending the disciples away in a boat?
- Why send the disciples ahead of him? How is he going to catch up to the boat?
- Why did the disciples just go along with it….not discussion, no questions asked?
- Did Jesus just need some time alone?
- Why not simply make the disciples wait? Surely they’d be willing to give Jesus a few minutes of alone time!
- What was Jesus praying about? Why don’t we get the content of his prayer? What was so important to pray about that Jesus needed to send the disciples away in a boat with no apparent way to get back to them?
- And what did the disciples think was going on? How did they expect Jesus get back to them?
The story does not appear to answer any of these questions, but they are good questions to start with if we are to hold back our presuppositions and hear the story for what it is trying to teach us.
And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. (Matthew 14: 25)
What? Walking on the sea? Who does that? Better yet: how do you do that? And for what point?
Well, for starters, water was a symbol of chaos and uncertainty for the Hebrew people. Think about that symbolism applied to this story for a moment.
And remember an earlier story about the stormy sea which Jesus calms. He simply commands the the chaotic waters to be still. And they obey. But now Jesus uses the chaotic waters as a mode of transportation…as if they were a road to simply walk upon. And walking is, after, all a metaphor for journey.
Walk –> journey
Water –> chaos
Metaphorically, Jesus is journeying over (or through) chaos and uncertainty.
The chaos of the world? Perhaps. The waves and storms of life? Probably.
But notice what Jesus does first: He sends the disciples away…together…in a boat. And he stays back alone to pray before walking back to the disciples…through chaos…by himself.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. (Matthew 14: 26)
Yeah, I’d be scared to if I saw something moving across the water early in the morning. It’s not a boat which was the transportation method of the day across water. So naturally it must be something unusual, never before seen – a ghost or some such unnatural phenomena.
To start, water was a frightening and unpredictable force of nature. And now there is something moving across it which doesn’t look like a boat, isn’t big enough to be a boat, and doesn’t move like a boat. So naturally the disciples are freaking out…what is this monster, this ghost?
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
Take heart. It’s a greek word: tharseo. It means have confidence, be courageous, be unafraid, bolster up yourself, be brave.
No matter how stormy life may seem – whether the storms are at work, a place you volunteer, in your family, among friends, scattered throughout our state, our nation and around the world….even when the storms are at church
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” (Matthew 14:28-29a)
Notice the “if…then…” faith presented here. Sounds a lot like the Jacob character we have talked about for a few weeks.
I wonder: what is Peters motivation? It sure doesn’t sound innocent. In fact, it sounds kinda self-serving.
Jesus just says come. Jesus confirms that it is indeed him. But he doesn’t exactly tell Peter to get out of the boat and walk on over to him upon the water.
In fact, Jesus response sounds more like this: “Well, it is me. So, if you want confirmation on those terms, then I’ll tell you to come. But beware the consequence!”
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!” (Matthew 14:29b-30)
Ok, so let’s pause for a moment. It’s one thing for Jesus to walk on water. But now Peter?
What is really going on here? What is the point of all this? No one is being healed, exorcised, or anything. Is this all for show? And all because of Peter’s arrogance? Because of his insistence on his own way, on his own terms?
We don’t know how peter walks on water. Don’t know how long….a half step, one step, two, ten, twenty? We just do not know. And that does not seem to be the point.
What is the point? Well, Jesus told him to get in the boat and go. Peter later responded back to Jesus with and If…Then… faith that put his terms before Jesus instructions and before his friends in the boat. And then he sinks, and he realizes that without the boat, without his friends, he needs to be saved. The point is the boat and his friends in it.
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
What did Peter doubt? What was the subject of his little faith?
We typically assume Peter took his eyes off Jesus. That somehow Jesus was holding him up as he walked across the water. Or that his faith was holding him up. And when his faith faltered because of the frightening conditions, he began to sink.
But what if we have completely missed the point?
What if Peter’s doubt was not about belief in Jesus at all? What if his little faith was not about miracles and water and God’s power. What if his doubt was about staying put in the boat with his brothers and sisters of faith?
After all, he seems eager to get out and get to Jesus. To get away from his friends, the disciples, and do miracles on his own like Jesus. Yet, when he tries to do what Jesus did, he fails.
What if his failure is about not staying in the boat, about not trusting his comrades, his friends, his community, his family of faith?
After all Peter’s request to Jesus to walk over water sounds more like the devil’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness () than anything noble, faithful and altruistic in the gospel stories.
- Devil: If you are the son of god, then do this or that.
- Peter: If it is you, then do this.
You see the story does not set Peter up to look good. From the outset, he is talking more like the adversary than a disciple. And he’ll do this again later when he denies Jesus three times before the cock crows.
Peter still has much to learn. And here Jesus is teaching him an important lesson: Stay in the boat!
Most folks preach a different lesson from this story. It is a keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Trust in Jesus and don’t get distracted by the storms of life message.
In fact, one of the first quotes I found this week when doing my normal google searches to see what folks are saying was this:
“Don’t stay in the boat when God’s calling you to walk on water.”
That’s the way folks typically interpret this story. And maybe that is exactly why some folks are leaving communities of faith behind….because we’ve told them they don’t need the boat, they don’t need a family of faith. Jesus is calling them to bigger things….get out and walk on water.
But that’s not what Jesus said is it? There is no “get out and walk on water” at all. Peter blocks Jesus in a corner with his If…Then… Faith and Jesus says, “Okay big shot, come and let’s see what happens. Uh-huh, you sank didn’t you! Get back in the boat. Stay out in the boat with those folks you love you care about you support you and nurture you. It’ll make all the difference.”
You see, the main point of this story is not trust and focus on Jesus. Those are great things, and maybe they are hinted at here, but they are not the main point. Going out by yourself into the storms of life in order to perform miracles or to get to Jesus is completely contrary to this story.
This story is about the boat…and the people in the boat. The boat and the people which Jesus gave to you for support and love and nurture. Get out of that boat and you will sink.
We need one another on this faith journey. And anyone who says otherwise is most likely sinking, whether they realize it or not.
Jesus has given us a boat….it’s our family of faith, our mothers and father and sisters and brothers, our friends, our comrades…those we have chosen to cast our lot with, to share our struggles with, to offer up our thoughts and prayers and questions and doubts, those we have committed to pray for, to visit, to walk with through the storms of life.
Jesus will be there for us….waking right over the chaotic mess around us. But stepping out into the chaos away from the community of people given to us is not the way of Christ. That is the way of selfishness, ego, arrogance…the way of those evil forces that scripture personifies as devil.
Here’s the truth, right at the end of the story:
When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14: 32-33)
This is an image of the church if there ever was one! They got in the boat. The wind stopped. They worshiped.
The boat is our community of faith. In this community we can find solace and rest from the wild winds and storms of life.
Does it mean all the winds of the world stop? No, of course not. The winds are as real and natural as the land and sea.
Does it mean they cease to hold us in their terrifying grip? Well, in a word, yes.
You see, I think we come to this place we call sanctuary to be reminded that we are held in the grip of God, not in the grip of the forces of this world. We come here to hold one another in the light of Christ. We come to learn to live as a crew that works together to navigate the winds and storms of the world. Together, we can get through it. Alone, by ourselves, trying to walk through the chaos….we’ll sink, we don’t stand a chance.
But the good news is that we don’t need to stand a chance. Because God has given us one another. God has given us a boat, a church, a family of faith, a people on mission.
We are not alone like Peter on the water. We have one another. Peter learned this lesson that day. And it’s ironic that Christ built the church upon the very one who tried to do it by himself. But maybe it takes an experience of doing it alone and sinking before you can truly realize how important the boat is, how much we need one another.
Peter learned that lesson. And it has become a foundation a rock a pillar of the church.
So let’s not forget what this story is really about. Let’s not get sidetracked by wanting to walk on water. Instead, let’s remember we are all in this boat together.
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