The Miracle is Faith

Click here to read Matthew 14:22-33.

I’ve been looking forward to preaching about Jesus walking on the water for a long time now. I’ve been carrying around a snappy opener for years. I’m here to tell you today that I have seen it done—and I have walked on water myself. I supposed this needs some explanation. I used to be a camp counselor. The first task of the season was to build a dock in the icy cold waters of Lake Silver. Well, one year we underestimated the amount of rain that would fall on Southern Michigan. When the rains started, the dock had a good 8 inches on the water level. But the water rose. And rose and rose. By the time August came around, our poor dock was completely submerged. Each day as the kids filed out for swimming lessons, it appeared as if each and every one of them had been seized by a miracle.

I haven’t seen a lot of movies depicting the gospels, but I’m willing to bet that the scene in which Jesus walks on the water makes it into most biblical films. Not only is the image of a human being taking a stroll on open water visually thrilling, but I bet those set-designers have a lot of fun creating believable illusions. Yet regardless of how fancy the special effects get, we all know full well that whatever actor is playing Jesus is either strung from the ceiling or standing on hidden floorboards. Our amazement is dependent on our ability to suspend disbelief.

This scripture is one that trips up a lot of contemporary readers of the bible. Some folks accept the terms of the miracle, consenting that the supernatural is an element of the realm of God. But others find the story untenable—clearly an exaggeration that makes believing in the Christian faith an embarrassment in the modern world. Yet with a lot of biblical stories, the pearls of wisdom in this story are found beyond the perimeters of literalism. So we don’t have to ask ourselves and God “did this really happen?” We don’t have to look for the seams revealing the illusion behind the miracle. We can approach this scripture with our whole minds and hearts, faithfully discerning God’s Word for us.

The gospel lesson today is about a miracle, but the miracle is not the act of walking on water. The miracle is about fear and faith. There are ways to read this text that proclaim that fear and faith are mutually exclusive attitudes, that we can only have one or the other. There are ways to read this text that judge Peter harshly for his doubt and fear. There are ways to read this text that dismiss the resounding drumbeat of one’s heart when that which one fears most is present. But I don’t want to read the text that way. The gospel is anything but superficial platitudes. If Jesus tells us not to fear when fear is a normal and natural response to danger, he must have a very good reason.

To be human is to experience fear. Newborns reflexively startle at unexpected movement. Children face a host of fears—vampires and dinosaurs if they are lucky, hunger and abuse if they are not. We are so easily headlocked by fear. Some are paralyzed by fear of failure. Some are assailed by waves of financial anxiety. Some are frightened of flying, or enclosed spaces, or spiders, or being alone. Some live in the shadow of violence or the valley of illness, forced to constantly acknowledge the real possibility of death. We are inundated with rational and irrational reasons to fear. And we respond to these reasons with rational and irrational actions. As the devastation of September 11, 2001 unfolded, guns sold out in Iowa. The intention of terrorism is not simply to harm those in the immediate path, but to send waves of fear throughout a whole people. We can drown in those waves, as Peter learned the hard way.

The narrative unfolds as the disciples are navigating very dark and stormy seas. Interestingly, in this story about fear, Matthew makes no mention that the disciples were afraid of the turbulent waters. These were men accustomed to the sea, men who made their living off the fish of these very same waters. The disciples were terrified not by the churning waves, but by Jesus. Never mind that this same Jesus just engaged in the healing of the sick and the feeding of 5,000 people with only a few loaves and fish. Regardless of their decision to follow Jesus, and despite Jesus’ power to mediate the presence of the Divine through his ministry, they still didn’t have a grasp on the identity of their teacher.

When Jesus started walking on the water he tapped into a primal fear. Only God walked on water, right? In the book of Job, God tramples the waves of the sea. In the 77th Psalm, God makes a path through mighty waters. So Jesus was either a ghost or the Son of God, and the shivering fear those disciples felt had them convinced of the former. I don’t know about you, but I’d be trembling with terror, too, if I thought I saw a ghost coming toward my boat in the middle of a nighttime storm.

But then, Jesus speaks. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And he says this immediately, reaching out with words of comfort to quell the fears of his friends and followers. But it wasn’t enough for Peter. Peter’s fear and faith were braided together into the need for certainty. The proof he wanted proves to us that he had considerable faith. After all, one does not step out of a boat in a storm if one is not relatively sure that a miracle is at hand. Peter’s little test for Jesus—and perhaps for himself, as well—is going just dandy until he realizes how reasonable it is to be frightened at this point. The wind is still tossing the boat and the sun is still far from breaking the predawn horizon. Poor Peter is suddenly burdened by the weight of reality, and it causes him to sink.

His next actions are too often ignored or misinterpreted. Peter cries out for help. He cries out for Jesus to save him. He might have lost his faith in himself as a result of his fear, but he did not lose his faith in the power of Jesus, who has revealed time and time again that the Spirit of God is within him. When I imagine the tenor of Peter’s cry, I imagine a man who is terrified yet still trusts that the one whom he calls Lord will be his salvation from the waters of his fear.

Just as Jesus immediately spoke a comforting word to the disciples, he immediately reaches out his hand to rescue Peter, offering him the same gentle chiding he spoke to the disciples on so many occasions. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

There is no clear answer in the text as to whether Jesus is referring to Peter’s initial doubt that caused him to test Jesus’ identity, or whether he refers to the doubt Peter felt when fear overtook him on the waters. Maybe he refers to both. But in this same rebuke, Jesus recognizes that Peter has faith. A little faith. Perhaps faith the size of a mustard seed—but isn’t that capable of moving mountains when it comes to the economy of the Kingdom of God?

Beverly Gaventa writes that “to be of little faith… is to be among the disciples, struggling, asking questions, misunderstanding, fearing and starting all over again. It is, however, to be within the circle of those who have at least glimpsed who Jesus is.”

Peter called out to Jesus and was saved from his fear. How many times do we allow the chaos of our fears to prevent us from calling out to the one who can truly transform us from drowning doubters to worshipping disciples?

The problem is not that we experience fear. The problem is that we don’t always trust that Jesus will love and save us anyway. The only time Jesus dismissed the disciples’ fear was when their fear was directed toward him. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fears offering words of comfort. The comforting words and extended hand of Jesus are there for us as individuals like Peter, called out for one reason or another into the crashing waves. And the comforting words and peaceable presence of Jesus are there for us as a church. Our little boat might be buffeted by the waves because the wind is against it. But the one who has the power to soothe the storm is in our midst. Just a little faith, brothers and sisters, is sufficient to remind us that Jesus awaits our cries with consolation and deliverance. Let that little faith move us as it moved through the disciples! Truly, Jesus is the Son of God. Thanks be to God!

Questions to consider: Do you struggle with biblical passages such as this one? Are you able to "get past" the literal and wonder at the underlying meanings of the text? What fears do you have that challenge your ability to trust God? What do you think about rethinking the notion of "little faith" to include the hope that a great tree emerges from the mustard seed?

1 comment:

Adam said...

I enjoyed reading your message. I delivered a message on the same bit of scripture a few weeks ago and it was interesting to read the different aspects you concentrated on compared to those that stood out to me. Blessings in your continued journey serving Christ!!!