When I evaluate my personality, it is clear that I am not high on the risk-taking spectrum. I’m not interested in parachuting out of a plane. Heck, I don’t even like the parachute drop ride at Carowinds. I’m not interested in going to a casino or race track. I usually don’t choose to stir up controversy. The scenario of today’s passages are scary to me. Joseph listening to his brothers trying to decide whether to kill him, abandon him in a cistern, or sell him to traders. The disciples being battered in a storm in a boat, then seeing what they thought was a ghost walking on the water. Peter asking Jesus to call him to walk out on the turbulent sea to him is the biggest one, though. He made that choice. The other circumstances were pressed upon the characters in the story rather than being results of their choices. Sometimes we just find ourselves in the middle of a storm; other times we make a conscious decision to step into one.
While I seldom choose to step into one, there are plenty of times when I find myself in turbulent waters. I have found that my ability to stay calm in such situations has improved greatly over the years, and I can only attribute that to faith in God and the experience of having survived such storms in the past. Even so, my stomach churns and doubts hammer at me from all sides, and sometimes I start to sink like Peter did.
So to state the obvious: whether or not our personalities are risk taking or risk averse, we will find ourselves in turbulent stretches of life sometimes. This is true individually, as we face serious illness or surgeries; as we face family crises; as we face job changes or losses; or tragedies of various sorts. It is also true collectively.
The disciples were collectively in a literal storm on the Sea of Galilee. The church for which Matthew wrote his version of the Gospel fifty years later was collectively in storms as well. They were in a stormy relationship with the Jewish synagogues they continued trying to be a part of, and with the Roman government which was becoming more and more intrusive and oppressive towards Christians. The boat became a symbol of the church in the early years. “We are all in this boat together,” is a saying which recognizes that collectively we have to learn as a church or other type of group how to weather storms. And unless you have an enormous boat or sophisticated radar, the answer is that you have to learn how to ride them out rather than fighting them. How hard that is for us, who so like to be in control!
Tom Long writes that the end of this story is where the church would always like to be – still waters, and worshiping Jesus together. But, he writes, “Sunday is not the only day of the week, and the church does not exist to float around in a Sabbath sea all by itself praising Jesus.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Matthew, p. 167)
Peter takes a lot of flak for his impetuous actions in this story. “There goes Peter again,” we say, “true to form, talking and acting before he thinks things through.” We take the words of Jesus, “Why did you doubt, O you of little faith?” as a criticism of what Peter did. What if it was, instead, encouragement to continue deepening his faith to the point where he would not sink next time? What if it was not a criticism of his wanting to walk on water to Jesus? What if “little faith” is actually sufficient? “If you had the faith of this tiny mustard seed you could tell this mountain to move and it would.”
I found a few intriguing quotes this week which encourage us to look differently at Peter’s actions and our own. Clifton Kirkpatrick mentions two, the first from Ernie Campbell, former pastor of the RiversideChurch in New York, who said, “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.” And William Willimon says, “If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story implies that if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.” Kirkpatrick concludes, “Getting out of the boat with Jesus is the most risky, most exciting, and most fulfilling way to live life to the fullest.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, pp. 334-6)
Dock Hollingsworth writes, “In the story that precedes this one, five thousand people are fed out of one lunch pail. Peter had only a little faith, but nobody else got out of that boat. A little faith may be all that is needed to transform a story that starts in terror into a story that ends in worship.” (Ibid., p. 337)
Andrew Connors writes, “The church is built on Peter. The church should remember that before we huddle down in the boat and pray for safer seas. Peter’s church should be willing to take such risks and step out of the boat, step out of the boat and risk preaching news that might disrupt the way we have always done things in the community, in our political life, or in our congregations. The church should be willing to risk our own well-being to try something foolish, borderline crazy in the midst of raging storms. We should be willing to step out of the boat, driven by an impulsive desire to get closer to Jesus, even when he is miles from solid ground.” (Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 2, p. 16)
Finally, a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer and his church were caught up in the storm that was Nazi Germany under Hitler. Hitler tried to use the Christian Church of Germany to spread the Gospel of a superior race and nationalism and anti-semitism. Bonhoeffer ended up in prison due to his criticism of the regime. His evaluation of Peter’s actions in this story is enlightening. He wrote, “Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith…. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if people imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics…. Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 53-60)
But the analysis of this story cannot end with Peter’s willingness to take the risk of stepping out of the boat because in short order his doubts and fears overwhelm him and he begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reaches out and catches him. He doesn’t teach him a lesson by letting him flounder and swallow water and struggle to him. Immediately he reaches out and saves him.
When Jesus realized his friends were in trouble on the sea, he came to them to help them. When Peter lost his nerve and started to go under, Jesus reached out to catch and save him. This is of great comfort to us. When we find ourselves in trouble we can trust that Jesus is with us. When we fail in our attempts at faithful discipleship, Jesus will lift us up and encourage us rather than turning his back or berating us.
In a minute we are going to sing a lovely Korean hymn which takes today’s story and applies it to the life of faith today. The last stanza says, “Storms in our lives, cruel and cold, surely will arise again, threatening lives, threatening us on life’s wild sea. Powerful and great, God’s hand is there, firmly in control. O Lord, calm peace comes from you, peaces comes to my lone soul.”
Amen. May it be so. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
David J. Bailey
August 10, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church