Our text from Sunday was a wild, wet ride. Jesus walks on the water. Peter tries to join him and has some trouble. We wrestled with fear and doubt. Thoughts after the jump.
This story picks up right where we left off last week, right after Jesus spent his whole day healing and feeding people. It’s been a long day. Jesus sends the disciples back out in the boat, and he stays behind to pray.
I don’t often think about Jesus as someone who had to fit prayer into his life, but here he’s doing just that. He was going to pray when the day started, but then things got a little hectic and well, the day seems to have gotten away from him. I like knowing that Jesus had that experience too.
He prays for half the night, apparently. I haven’t done that yet, but I’m guessing some of us in this room have. Jesus was grieving the death of John the Baptist, and maybe wrestling with what the future held for him. Perhaps your night of prayer was a long night of worry and fear when a loved one was ill. Perhaps it was before you started a new job or quit an old one. The fear and anxiety that so often accompany insomnia can absolutely be the fodder for prayer. Aren’t you glad the gospel writer included that little window into Jesus’ life?
The meat of the story, though, is what comes next. While Jesus has been praying, the disciples have been out on a choppy sea all night. And then in the wee hours of the morning, they see Jesus coming to them walking on the water.
As soon as we get to that part of the story, it feels like we’ve moved into a different genre. The part where Jesus has to carve out time in an unpredictable day to breathe and pray, that part felt realistic. But now we’re in the middle of a story that seems like something Gabriel Garcia Marquez would write, something more akin to magic than realism. We wonder, right there with the disciples, is this a ghost story?
This feels like a departure from the rules of reality, but entertain with me, for a moment, the possibility that it actually paints a stunningly realistic portrait of life.
We get hung up on this question of whether or not the story is “real” because of this walking on water business, don’t we? Did Jesus actually walk on the water? The same way our feet rest firmly on this floor, is that how his feet rested on the water? And when the story seems to say it so clearly, that yes, he walked right across that choppy water, we have that other question, the question we don’t often dare to say out loud: Do you really buy that?
Any time I’ve ever asked someone whose faith I really respect what they deep down think about this story, I’ve gotten some variation of the same answer: I don’t know. Some days we’re able to believe deep down in our hearts that Jesus walked right across that water. Other days, truth be told, other days we’re not so sure, are we?
I think questions like that are fitting for a story like this. This story is all about doubt. Doubt and fear, which are really two ways of saying the same thing. The disciples doubt and are terrified throughout this story. And Jesus addresses it head on when he asks, oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?
It’s worth taking a minute to look at this word in verse 31, doubt. The greek word is distazō. When we think doubt, we often think of skepticism. To say, I doubt that, means I am skeptical of the validity of that; I am of the intellectual opinion that that does not line up with the facts. This word, though pushes us deeper into the meaning of doubt. Distazō gets at more of a sense of vacillation, wavering, wobbling.
The rational, intellectual side of doubt is at play at the beginning–while the disciples are trying to sort out what their eyes see. But then we move past that. The doubt that Peter experiences when he’s out there, standing on that water with Jesus, it’s not just a matter of skepticism. It’s a shaking, a quaking, a deep fear.
That’s what doubt’s about in a Christian sense. We can have all the rational questions we want. When Jesus calls us people of little faith, I don’t think he’s particularly concerned about the busyness of our minds trying to make all the numbers add up. He’s concerned with our hearts. And doubt, in the heart, is a matter of wavering, a matter, fundamentally, of fear.
When we get all hung up on the surface meaning of doubt, we miss a conversation about the deeper question–how much of our life is ruled by fear?
Fear of failure. Fear of not being good enough or strong enough or wise enough. Fear of death. Fear of being alone. Fear of the unknown and the things that go bump in the night. How much of our lives do we live cowering in the corner of the boat with the disciples? Or, having summoned the courage to step out of the boat, how quickly do we look around, and feel that fear sweep back in? Who among us doesn’t live like this?
And when we let fear rule our lives, things go downhill fast, don’t they? We find ourselves, like Peter, sinking in the waves. We become tight, narrow, mean creatures. We chase after all sorts of things we hope will ease our fear–more money, more prestige, more love–and all the while that monster is still living under our bed, ruling our lives. As best as I can tell, we aren’t ever free of this struggle, not completely, at least not in this life, not by our own power.
Into this fear, Jesus comes to us, striding across the chaos of that choppy sea, saying Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid! Do not fear what your eyes think they see. Do not fear this choppy sea and all the chaos that seems to reign. Do not fear ghosts and visions.
And Peter, how much I love Peter, he leaps to join Jesus. His heart lifts, and he sees salvation just outside of the boat. Let me join you, in this place free of fear. And he does, for a minute.
Like a child learning to ride a bike, for a minute he lets all the fears drop away and he’s flying, wheels spinning, wind in his hair, and then, he realizes what’s happening and the fear sweeps back in. Lord, save me!
And this, right here, is the essence of the life of discipleship. It’s a step away from our fears, and then a cry for help. A step out of the boat, and then a reach for salvation. With Peter we cry, Lord, save me!
This, is one of the most essential prayers of a disciple. It’s embedded in traditional liturgy. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. Modern day mystic Anne Lamott puts it this way. She has two prayers. One is “thank you, thank you, thank you.” And the other is, “help me, help me, help me.”
So often we paint Peter here as a failure in one way or another. Some would say he was a failure for wanting to get out of the boat. They say he was testing Jesus. I don’t really buy that. I think we was trying honestly to follow Jesus.
Others chastise him for his fear. As if he could have somehow not doubted, and spent the rest of his life walking around calmly on the water with Jesus. Once they are safely back in the boat, people who fault Peter for his fear hear the words, O, you of little faith, as words of chastisement.
But what if they were spoken in a tone of love? The way any of us would speak to a child who cries out in the night. Like Jesus here we would reach out a hand of comfort, and say, why are you scared? Don’t be scared. I’m here now.
That’s how I hear Jesus saying this, with love and concern, longing for his disciples to move a step away from fear and toward love, hoping they will let go of a little bit of doubt, but certainly not as an indictment that they’ve done it all wrong, or that Peter has failed miserably.
This word, doubt, appears one other place in Matthew, at the very end of the story, after Jesus has risen from the tomb. He gathers his disciples to him on a mountain and in chapter twenty-eight we read that they worshipped and they doubted. It’s awfully similar to this, isn’t it? By the end of this story, the disciples have fallen on their faces in worship. But not before they lived in this doubt, as well. Both now and after the resurrection, doubt or fear and worship, or faith are joined together.
I think what we see here and throughout Matthew is that to some degree this is the nature of what it is to be a disciple. We are people of little faith.
And that’s not the worst thing in the world. After all, just a few verses ago, Jesus was telling us that the kingdom of heaven is often a little thing, just a tiny mustard seed. And later Jesus will tell us that if we have faith that is but the size of a seed we will be able to move mountains. We are the people of little faith.
And the truth is that in our little faith we know ourselves to be limited creatures, and we know that we have gracious plenty. That’s the beauty of it all.
We live in this tension between faith and doubt, fear and trust. And how shall we live faithfully in this tension?
Peter looked to Jesus. That, too, is our answer. When fear overwhelms, we look to Jesus and we take a step.
Then the wind picks up, the waves get higher, and most of the time we’re going to get distracted. And what do we do then? We look back to Jesus. We cry, Lord, save me! Help me, help me, help me! This is the cry of both the most miserable sinner, and the most faithful disciple. All of us wrestle with the same fear. Wrestling with that fear does not make you a failure of a disciple. The only misstep would be to not look to Jesus.
That’s what faith is. It’s not the utter and total absence of fear. No, not in this life. Faith is not some super-human act of foolhardy bravery. Faith is this: looking to Jesus and crying out, Lord, save me!
When we fear that we’re not worthy, that we’re not good enough, we look to Jesus. We pray, Lord, save me. And we remember that we are created in the image of a God who loves us.
When we fear that pain will get the last word, we look to Jesus. We pray, help me, help me, help me. And we remember that there will be pain, yes, but it does not define us.
When we fear that everything is riding on us, that it’s all up to us, we look to Jesus. We pray, Lord, have mercy. And we remember that we did not create this world, and we are not the saviors of it. All that has been done for us.
When we fear that we don’t have the strength to resist our personal demons, we look to Jesus. We pray, Christ have mercy. And we remember that we have only to be faithful long enough to take our next breath and say our next prayer.
When we fear that death will get the last word, we look to Jesus. We pray, Lord have mercy. And we remember that we are not called to mere survival, but to faithful witness, in this world and the next. And that the one who called us is faithful and that he still stands, in the midst of all the storms we may face and calls saying, Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid.
May we, too, have the faith to cry out, Lord, save us!
by Sarah Wiles August 14, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA