Read Matthew 14:22-33
I think it’s fun to find stories that have influenced our everyday language. This story about Peter getting out of the boat to walk on the water is where we get the phrase, “stepping out in faith.” The most important parts of that phrase are the last two words, “in faith.” Because otherwise you’re just “stepping out,” which will not make your spouse very happy.
This story about Jesus walking on water and then Peter doing the same comes right after the story we talked about last week in which Jesus has tried to get some time alone to grieve the death of his cousin John the Baptist. In that story, instead of getting time alone, Jesus ends up healing a crowd of people all day, and then feeding those thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and two fish. Now this week we see that Jesus did finally get some alone time, and then to catch up with the rest of the disciples who’ve already headed out across the lake, Jesus takes a short cut by walking on the water.
The disciples were in trouble because there was a strong wind and it was making waves. Before I lived by the ocean, I didn’t understand what that was like. When we were living in Galveston, Texas, where we saw the ocean every day, I was amazed at how different it could be from one day to the next, depending on the weather. Some days, when there was no wind, the sea was incredibly calm and glassy. When the wind changed, so did
the ocean, because the effect of wind on water is waves. The wind can really stir things up, furiously churning up foam, so much so that it sometimes leaves big chunks of foam behind on the beach as the waves recede. Of course, the swimming and fishing is wonderful on the days with smooth, still water, but the beaches are pretty empty on those stormy days with big waves. There are red flag warnings on those days because the rip tides can be strong. What we do see on those days are the surfers. They are willing to take the risk because that’s the only time there are waves big enough to surf on. This is probably what it looked like that night the disciples were troubled by the wind and waves. So, although we know Peter was a fisherman, I think he was also a surfer. Stepping out of the boat to walk on water that’s churning is risky business!
What about you? Would you be like Peter? Would you be stepping out of the boat?
What if you weren’t quite sure yet about who Jesus is? He did just feed all those people, but how far could these miracles go? Who is Jesus really?
When the disciples see Jesus walking on the water and cry out in fear, Jesus assures them by saying “It is I.” In Greek, the words here are ego eimi. Literally “I am.” The same words God said, when God talked to Moses from the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites. Moses asked how the Israelites would know that God sent him. God said, “Tell them I AM has sent you” (Ex. 3:14). Jesus says, “I am.”
Jesus walking on water is miraculous, but Jesus enabling Peter to walk on water shows us even more significantly that Jesus is God. Not only does he have power over the wind and waves for himself, but he can bend the laws of physics for Peter, too.
This is the power God spoke about to Job. Job and his friends had spent hours debating about Job’s suffering. God asks Job in chapter 38, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Who told the ocean how far it could go? Can you shout to the clouds and make it rain?” (Job 38:4,11,34) Of course Job can’t, because only God can. Jesus is God.
Jesus is the Messiah, God the Son, who was there at the creation of the world when God spoke and the universe came to life, and he has power over the wind and waves, so when Jesus says “Come,” Peter knows he can trust that word. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26)
Knowing the bold personality of Peter, I think it’s likely that Peter didn’t hesitate and just stepped right out, but it’s easy to imagine how we might be more like the Peter in this cartoon.
Stepping out of the boat is a significant moment. We tend to think of things chronologically, that Peter had faith and then he stepped out. That he trusted first, and then he tried it. But really, faith isn’t really faith UNTIL you put it to work.
Peter could have said, “Ok, Jesus. Thanks for calling me, like I asked. I believe you now. But I’ll just stay here in the boat, if you don’t mind. I’m sure you really mean well when you tell me I can walk on the water, and I’m sure I can trust you for that. I really do believe you; I do. But I don’t really need to get out of the boat to show that, do I? Just knowing it’s you is enough, isn’t it?”
No, not really. Because faith without action isn’t really faith—not faith that’s doing us any good, anyway. That’s why James says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22, 25)
If Peter didn’t try walking on water, wouldn’t he really have been DIStrusting Jesus?
But Peter DID trust Jesus and he DID walk on water. What an exhilarating experience that must have been!
…Until Peter lost his focus and started thinking about what was going on around him. It’s not surprising, really. There’s a raging storm going on, and Peter’s not walking on smooth, calm water. He’s walking in the midst of roiling seas. Fear overtakes faith and Peter starts to sink.
But then Peter reaches out for help, and we can almost hear him crying out, “Lord, save me!” With his arms stretched out like a little child crying out to his mother or father. Help!
This is an even more significant moment. We see the humanity of Peter, easily distracted by his circumstances. And we also see the best way to respond when we falter. Peter cries out to Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t leave him hanging. Jesus immediately reaches out his hand to pull Peter up out of the water. (And Jesus said, “Take my hand, Peter, and don’t lego.”)
It’s easy when we’re in the midst of things to falter like Peter did. It’s almost inevitable.
- When we’re thinking about doing something we’ve never done before, that new thing seems incredibly difficult and scary.
- When we’re in the midst of problems, those problems can seem like impossible obstacles.
Which is why looking to Jesus is so important. It’s easy to forget that he is the Almighty, our Creator who understands our situation and has the power to carry us through it. Our own strength cannot compare with God’s.
Peter trusted that Jesus was who he said he was, and he tried out that trust and put it into action by obeying the call, and he stayed on track with that action by looking to Jesus when he faltered.
This is Jesus, the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. He is God and implicit in his command to come are all his promises. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “I am with you always.” When Jesus sends us out into the world, he doesn’t send us alone, he sends us out with the Holy Spirit to guide us and strengthen us. We are called to step out in faith, trusting God to give us what we need for doing his will.
Faith is not always easy. For example, there has been a whole lot of discussion in the news and on social media about what’s real and not real about this virus and about politics and the economy and racial issues. One writer this week said that what one really needs “is a willingness to change one’s mind in the presence of empirical evidence and a commitment to let science rather than partisan politics serve as the arbiter of truth.”
Empirical evidence gets more tricky when dealing with matters of faith. In this story, Jesus walks on water. Then Peter does it too. Does a story in the Bible qualify as empirical evidence? Sort of. Jesus is God, the one who created water, so I’m ok with taking that one on faith. Did Peter? I don’t know. Does it matter? I have never seen someone walk on water. But I have seen people walk through some really challenging times, and I have seen that it makes a difference when they’re walking with Jesus.
For example: Laurel Watney, the college librarian, tells on Facebook how she experienced God’s peace that passes understanding in the midst of having treatment for cancer.
Maybe you have experienced this, too? I have. Like the internet meme says, our record for getting through bad days is 100%.
Sometimes we get to choose when to step out in faith, like Peter did. Other times, we don’t, like Laurel. We didn’t choose to be going through a pandemic. We do get to choose how we respond to it.
What does stepping out of the boat look like for you?
- It could be a decision about school or a job.
- It could be about taking a stand about racism.
- It could be trusting God to carry you through whatever storm you’re in right now.
What faith step is in front of you right now?
One way we do get to choose is whether we’ll step out in faith and get involved in the problems that our world is facing. Our session took a step in faith at the last session meeting and made a commitment to be a Matthew 25 church. This is a call that our denominational leadership has asked us all to consider. It’s based on the story Jesus tells about the people who ask, “When did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we visit you when you were sick or in prison?” And the answer is, “Whenever you did this to the least of my brethren, you did this for me.” It’s one of the times Jesus is very direct about our call to not just stand on the sidelines, but to do something. (If you see something, do something). It’s a call to live out our discipleship boldly, compassionately, and fearlessly by serving people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor. More specifically, it’s a call to work on building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty.
It’s going to require that we are willing to step out in faith. The first step was making the commitment. The next step is to pray about what this looks like and to look for ways to put it into practice.
It’s important to note that Peter didn’t step out of the boat when the water was calm and smooth. He stepped out in the midst of the waves. We can’t always wait for smooth water, either, because God only knows when and if that will come.
How is God calling you, me, us, United Presbyterian Church today, in the midst of storms, to step out in faith and to keep our eyes on Jesus?
How will we respond?
 By Jevin West, professor of information science at the University of Washington, and Carl Bergstrom, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Washington, “Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 prevention? How to separate science from partisanship. While BS increasingly appears clad in the trappings of stats and data graphics, one doesn’t need an advanced degree in science or mathematics to see through it.” Think, August 5, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/hydroxychloroquine-covid-19-prevention-how-separate-science-partisanship-ncna1235834