Walk of Faith
Bible Text: Matthew 14:22-33 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Please note that, due to technical difficulties, our regular livestream was unable to upload this Sunday, which means our recording of the service was lost. You can still find the transcript of the sermon down below.
We are all going to drown here!” I imagine the disciples yelling. Many of them were veteran fishermen who sailed for years. So when Jesus sent the disciples across ahead of him the afternoon before, I imagine Andrew and Peter chatting. “The Sea of Galilee? Eh, that’s only thirteen by eight miles.” “I bet for our boat crossing that would be a three-hour tour.” “Yeah, a three-hour tour sounds about right, so no fear of Matthew getting seasick again.” And in case you think I’m just a Gilligan’s Island fan, at least one of Bible commentary indeed claimed it was a three-hour trip across that sea. No word yet on whether the disciples’ boat was named The Minnow. We’re told they left before nightfall, but come early morning—roughly eleven hours later—these expert sailors are still “far from land.” Ancient boats were good but usually at the mercy of the weather, so when the wind was against you and the waves pushed back you often ended up stuck in the harbor! So imagine yourself with the disciples on the boat amid that storm. Waves and wind keep hammering your ship. Your clothes are drenched in water. Your muscles ache from bailing water and tying knots all night. The rain, waves, and dawn twilight make it impossible to see clearly. No land is in sight. And now, as you tiredly peer through the downpour and fog, an ghostly figure shambles towards you along the waves.
I believe stage one on the journey of faith is realizing there’s a problem. It could be discovering life doesn’t last forever. It could be an awareness of guilt within oneself. It could be yearning for meaning in a world that seems senseless. It could be struggling hard, still coming up short, and wishing for a power beyond yourself to get through the life’s hardships. Each person’s faith journey involves its own unique realization of something gone wrong in our lives and world that we can’t deal with on our own. For the people Jesus healed, it was their sickness and pain. For the outcasts he welcomed, it was their isolation. For the sinners Jesus forgave, it was the guilt that still haunted them. For the disciples in today’s story, they quickly realize their problem is that, despite being sailing pros, if help doesn’t come soon they are all going to drown.
But then we’re told, “Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.’” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say the surging waves aren’t real. Note that he doesn’t say the storm is not a big deal. What Jesus does say amid that very real danger is instead: “Have courage. I am here. Do not be afraid.” He doesn’t delegitimize their exhaustion and terror, doesn’t criticize them for worrying on this nightmare sailing trip. Jesus tells them to not be afraid—not because those things aren’t real—but rather to not be afraid because he is here.
And I think that’s stage two on the journey of faith for most of us. God shows up. It could be in a friend’s phone call. It could be in a midnight prayer finally answered. It could be in words of scripture… or an unexpected moment of peace after ages of grief. The Lord will do what the Lord will do, so who am I to say what it looks like for God to show up for you? But it’s that primal encounter with the Lord. You hear a voice across the howling winds and raging waves telling you not to be afraid, because God is with you amid that storm. That doesn’t make the storm less terrible, the grief less real, the hardship less present, the problems with the world or yourself less tangible. But finding God in the storms of life does make those things more bearable, more survivable, more overcome-able… because at last there is a sense of hope after so much darkness. Jesus met the disciples in the early morning twilight, and his arrival amid those waves saying, “Do not be afraid!” must have been like the dawn itself.
But our scripture does not stop there. Today’s story so far also shows up in the gospels of John and Mark. But Matthew’s gospel here includes something extra, one of my favorite New Testament scenes. Peter—Jesus’ headstrong and reckless chief disciple—recognizes Jesus amid the storm and finds new hope and courage, just as Jesus promised. So Peter pleads, “Lord, if that’s you, order me to come out to you on the water.” Jesus replies, “Come here then.” And Matthew’s gospel reads, “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” Peter sees Jesus walking on water, and his first thought is, “Hey, can I get in on that?” You just gotta love the guy. He wants to be with and be like Jesus so much… that I can just imagine his little heart breaking when we read, “But Peter noticed the strong wind, became frightened, and began to sink.” Peter just wanted to be like his hero, Jesus. But now he’s sinking all over again! But then we read, “Jesus immediately reached out and caught Peter, saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
And I think that final stage three is most of life as a Christian. We’ve met Jesus. God has given us hope for forgiveness, for meaning and purpose, for life after death, for reunion with lost loved ones. Whatever it was that troubled our souls, our encounter with God has given us hope at long last. And our natural response to God’s gracious gift of hope, healing, and mercy… is to do what Peter does: to imitate God’s love and holiness in our own lives, since God was so good to us. We respond to forgiveness by managing our tempers better. We react to divine guidance by displaying patient support and encouragement to others. We respond to the promise of eternal life by caring for those who grieve or are sick. We respond to God’s love by showing love in our own lives, just as Peter responds to Christ’s miraculous arrival by asking to imitate him.
And notice that Peter does not say to Jesus, “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” Quite the contrary. Peter recognizes he can only imitate Jesus’ example by the grace, power, and wisdom of Jesus, so instead he asks Jesus to order him out onto the water, knowing that only if Christ wills it can he duplicate the miracle of walking on water. And so too in our own lives, we do not succeed at imitating God’s love, purity, justice, righteousness, and so on by our own strength. We do so only by the grace and help of God who rescues us from danger, yes… but who then also goes with us the rest of life’s way, giving us the strength we lack, the wisdom we need… so that we can indeed imitate God’s love for others.
But perhaps you’ve noticed something. Jesus does save the disciples. And then he invites Peter to imitate him by walking on water. But then… Peter gets scared, and he sinks. This too is part of stage three in the journey of faith, part of living the rest of our life as a Christian after encountering God. Failure is a normal part of faith. Even Peter, the disciple upon whom Jesus founded the entire Church… even Peter failed at faith. Even after receiving God’s mercy, after finding purpose or clarity through God’s wisdom, after accepting there is a life beyond this one where justice and peace at last meet… even after that discovery of hope… you’ll still not be perfect in this lifetime. Peter sees the big wave and gets scared. Maybe we lose a job and lose hope. Or a loved one dies, and it’s hard to hold onto that promise of resurrection life. Or our fellow Christians discourage us with hypocrisy and bad behavior, to the point that it’s hard to see the value of faith when so many Christians are just plain awful to others. We all have moments when it feels like we’re sinking. But just like with Peter, we have hope that even after rescuing us once… Jesus isn’t done. Just as with Peter, even after coming to faith when we find ourselves starting to sink, yet again will Jesus reach out his hand to pull us back into safety. Because stage three of faith is imitating Jesus, failing at it, and then finding grace and hope in Jesus all over again, and over again… until at last we reach perfection and bliss in the life to come.
So I hope today we remember that faith is not a single moment but an entire journey. It’s realizing something’s not right. Jesus finding you in that moment. Imitating God’s example. Failing at it. And then having Jesus find you all over again. Like Peter in those brief moments walking on water, may we walk in faith… by keeping our eyes ever on Jesus. Amen.