Fear is the undertow in this morning’s Gospel reading. Fear threatens to swallow up Peter and the disciples in their little boat. Fear paralyzes, wears us down, erodes our faith, generates doubt. To the disciples’ fear, and to ours, Jesus speaks His Word, “Take heart. It is I. Do not fear.”
If you take a glance at the Greek text, you will see that the phrase “It is I” is actually “ego eimi,” I AM, the sacred name of God. YHWH. This is no ordinary guy out for a walk on the waves. He’s YHWH in the flesh, the creative Word through whom all things were made, dancing on the Deep as though He owns it. He does.
To appreciate fully the miracle, you need to know a bit about the Deep. In Genesis chapter one, when the earth was in its embryonic stage, darkness covered the Deep. Chaotic, swirling waters. The Spirit-wind of God blew over the face of the Deep. Now fast forward to Jesus walking on the surface of the water, the Deep, in the darkness, at three o’clock in the morning. The wind was blowing over the waters. Genesis chapter all over again – the Word, the water, the Spirit. A new creation with Jesus!
The Deep also came to represent Death and the grave, Sheol, the dark, nebulous underworld that swallowed you up like Jonah tossed into the drink. Sailors and fishermen feared the Deep as they feared Death itself. The Deep was filled with fearsome sea monsters – Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab – monsters who would swallow you up and never spit you out again. Here is Jesus, walking on the back of Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab. They are playthings to the Lord, His little aquatic pets. “God’s devil.” They’ve met their Maker, and their match. They can harm us none. The deed is done. One little word can fell them all, these “boogy-monsters” of the Deep.
The disciples were afraid, as we all are when our safety is threatened. When the Grave opens it gaping jaws, and the darkness rears it ugly head, and the old fears rise up. Oh, we may not be as superstitious as those disciples, but the fears are just as real when we wait for the medical tests to come back or we have that close brush with the Death. And the sight of a Jesus walking on the water doesn’t bring much comfort. The disciples thought they were seeing ghosts. Visions rarely bring comfort, only more fear.
What calms the disciples’ fear, and our own, is Jesus’ word. “Take heart, do not fear. I AM.” Jesus speaks calm to their fear, just as His words and the sight of His wounds on Easter evening calmed their fears in the upper room. This was no ghost, no phantom in the night. It was the Lord, flesh and blood Jesus, walking on the water, coming to them o save them.
Now Peter wasn’t quite so sure. Good old Peter. I’m always glad to have him around. He usually says what everyone else is thinking. He’d seen the miracles – lepers cleansed, demons cast out, even his own mother-in-law healed by Jesus. But walking on water? This defied common sense, not to mention Archimedes’ principles of bouyency.
“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you in the water.” Peter wants proof. Don’t we all? It’s hardly the way of faith, but ever-patient, ever-teaching Jesus obliges. “Come,” He says to Peter. And Peter climbs out of the boat and walks on the water to Jesus.
Now how can Peter do such great things? You already know the catechism answer. It isn’t Peter who does them, but the Word spoken across the water from Jesus to Peter, and faith that clings to that Word spoken across the water. “Come.” The Lord speaks the Word, and it is so. By the Word of Jesus, Peter shares in the miracle and dances on the Deep, stepping all over those sea monsters – Behemoth and Leviathan and Rahab.
Now don’t you try this at home in your swimming pool. Or in the ocean. This is not one of those “what would Jesus do” moments. Jesus isn’t talking to you here. This word was for Peter alone, not even for the other eleven. They stayed high and dry in the boat.
Jesus has a greater word for you, as He had for little William Joseph this morning. By the Word of Jesus he gets to share in Jesus’ greater miracle – His death and resurrection, forgiveness, life, salvation – all by the Word of Jesus.
How can water do such great things? How can something so simple and humble bring life and salvation? We’re apt to dismiss these things as nothing more than religious rituals. Symbols, not the real stuff. Even some of our fellow Christians think that way, in spite of the biblical evidence. But if Peter could walk on water by the Word of Jesus, just think of what Jesus’ Word can do – forgive sins, raise the dead, create faith, make water a washing of re-creation and re-newing. After all, He made everything with His Word. Is there anything His Word cannot do?
If you ever catch yourself beginning a sentence with the phrase, “God can’t…” or “Jesus couldn’t…” immediately put your finger to your lips and let your mortal flesh keep silence. Don’t dare finish that sentence. That’s unbelief talking. With God nothing is impossible. A Virgin conceives. A man walks on water. Jesus dies and rises . Forgives your sin. Baptizes you. Gives you His body to eat, HIs blood to drink. Promises to raise you from the depths of your grave. All by the Word of His mouth.
Peter does fine so long as he fixes his eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of his faith, and keeps His Word stuck in his ear. But you know how it goes. We have this little attention problem. Spiritual ADD – attention deficit disorder. You start looking around, checking things out, see how your walk with the Lord on the waves is going. You begin to notice the wind and the whitecaps, not to mention your sin and all the ways you mess things up, even when you don’t intend to.
And then it isn’t Jesus at the center anymore, but you, which is just what the devil, the world, and your own sinful, self-centered self wants. You in the middle. And then doubt starts to creep into your mind. And fear. And in a flash you say to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute! Men can’t walk on water!” And you start to drop into the Deep like a rock.
Freeze frame that scene in your minds. Peter’s about to go under. His eyes wide as saucers. He catches one more breath before the waves swallow him. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” Got that picture of sinking Peter in your mind? You know who that is? That’s you in your death. That’s you being pulled under by the rip tide of sin and the Law. That’s you without Christ, without His Word, without His body and blood, without His Baptism. All on your own, like that deeply disturbing movie “Open Ocean” where two divers are abandoned at sea. Nothing but the deep blue sea and its monsters.
But then a firm hand reaches out and catches you and grabs on to you so tightly it almost hurts, but you know He won’t let you go. Ever. It’s a familiar hand, a hand that reached out and catch the whole world on a cross in the darkness of one Good Friday in mid-afternoon. That same hand that plucked Peter from the Deep will pull you from the grave when He comes like a thief in the night.
“You little faith one,” Jesus says. Peter, so bold, so frightened. Little faith one. Why did you doubt? Why do we?
Do you think Jesus will fail you in your hour of need? Do you think that He who died for you, who went down to the depths to save you, will abandon you? Do you think He will turn a deaf ear to your cry for mercy?
Never! You are baptized. You have His sign, His seal, His mark. His personal testimonial that you belong to Him. You have HIs Body and His Blood, sign and seal of your salvation. You have His Word – the Word that causes men to walk on water, that makes all things, including you, new, that raises the dead.
Take heart. Do not fear. Jesus is with you, all your days until the end of the days. The hand that snatches you from the jaws of death will not let you go. Ever. Do not fear anything in this world, for nothing can break His hold on you. Not the cancers, not the bullets, the bullies, terrorists, bad government, the devils and demons, the darkness of your soul. Not even your sin. And when doubt overtakes you, and sin overwhelms you, and waves of guilt and shame wash over you and threaten to drown you, say with Peter, “Lord, save me.” And Jesus will. He always will.
Jesus and Peter climbed into the boat to join the others. The wind died down. There was peace in that little boat. Peter didn’t admire his hand and say, “I sure had a good grip on you, Lord, didn’t I?” And he didn’t boast about his little walk with the Lord on the water. He and the rest of the disciples did the only thing you that’s left to do when Jesus has done it all – they worshipped and confessed Him: Truly, you are the Son of God.
That’s a pictue of you and me here this morning. Yanked from the Deep by the strong hand of Jesus. Made new by water and the Spirit, washed with water and the Word. Huddled together in a little congregation adrift on the high stormy seas of a shifting culture. And we couldn’t be safer. Jesus is with us. Welcome aboard!
In the Name of Jesus, Amen