Matthew 14:22-33 / Proper 14A / 07 August 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Well, Jesus finally gets a chance for some solitude to pray. He’s been trying for a whole chapter to get some peace and quite but the crowds keep following Him. Word of cousin John’s death in prison has just reached the ears of Jesus, and understandably He want to take some time by Himself to pray to His Father. So after feeding the 5000 plus and ordering the disciples off in their boat, Jesus finally gets some alone time up on the mountain.
By sunset, Jesus is there all all by Himself. The crowds are long gone. The disciples are busy rowing their boat. A notorious wind kicks up, as winds are prone to do in the evening on the Sea of Galilee. White caps and wind chop kick up on the sea. The disciples struggle hard against the wind and the waves. They seem to get nowhere. The harder they pull the oars, the more they seem to stay in the same place. Ever feel that way about life? The harder you try the less progress you seem to make?
They row and row and row through the night. Past midnight. Probably taking turns to ward off fatigue. “Here John, you row for a while. These blisters are killing me.” It’s now three in the morning. That’s right. 3 AM. The “fourth watch of the night.” The last call before the dawn. They look out on the water and they see a figure of a man. And he’s walking on the water!
Now these are sane and rational men. At least four of them are fishermen, acquainted with the ways of the sea and how the light on the water can play tricks on you. They were terrified. Understandably so. Who wouldn’t be? They knew that men can’t walk on water. They assumed it was a phantom, an apparition, a “ghost” as we sometimes say. They cried out in fear. Again, who wouldn’t? You’re there in a boat, all alone on the water, at 3 AM, and you see a figure walking toward you on the water. I don’t know about you, but I can sense the heart rate increasing just thinking about it.
Well, seeing isn’t believing, but hearing is. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ.” Jesus speaks to them. “Take heart. Chill. It is I. Do not be afraid.” It is I. Ego eimi in Greek. The reason I mention this is that the full import of what Jesus said gets lost in translation. He’s not simply saying, “Hey, it’s me, boys” though that’s part of it. He says “It’s me” in such as way as to evoke the divine Name Yahweh. I AM. The one who appeared to Moses in the burning bush. I AM who I AM. Yahweh. Ego eimi was how you said I AM in Greek. And Matthew, speaking to a Jewish audience, is rather reluctant to use the phrase “ego eimi” unless he really wants to make a point. And here, he doesn’t want us to miss the point. Jesus is saying, “Have courage. I AM the Lord. Don’t be afraid.”
Well, it’s about time you showed up, Jesus. What took you so long? We’ve been pulling oars for over nine hours here and getting nowhere. How about lending a hand and pulling an oar. And could you possibly do something about this wind and these waves?
Peter wasn’t quite so sure. The others probably weren’t either, but Peter tends to speak up first and say what’s on his mind. “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”
That’s pretty definitive. Phantoms may speak, but they have no real power to do anything, much less make a man walk on water. And Jesus says, “Come.” One word. Even in Greek. “Come.” But this one word is no ordinary word. It is the Word from the Word Incarnate, the Word in the flesh, the Word through whom all things were made, the Word that laid the foundation of the earth, that shut the sea behind its doors, that made the clouds, and said to the proud waves of the Deep “thus far shall you come and no farther.” The is the same Word that said “be light” and light there is. So when Jesus says to Peter “Come” that’s all it takes to bring him out of the boat and walking to Jesus on the surface of the deep.
I say “deep” here to plumb the greater depths of this miracle. Miracles are not, as some people describe them, “suspensions of the laws of nature.” Miracles are extraordinary events with no natural explanation that mean something or that teach us something. They are “signs” filled with meaning. The sea is a personification of Death. The fishermen feared the sea; the superstitious ones even sacrificed to the sea. The sea was filled with all sorts of creatures – Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab – the great sea monsters. It was a picture of death that swallowed you up whole and didn’t spit you out again. (Now, I hope you have a slightly deeper meaning behind Jonah, but that’s for another time.) The Deep is what covered the earth in the beginning when the Spirit of God hovered over its face and God spoke the creative and ordering Word over it.
So when Jesus walks on the water, He is showing not only His lordship over creation but also His lordship over Death. He’s walking on the back of Leviathan, treading the old serpent underfoot. And when Peter does it, he’s doing the same. Defying Death itself and walking on its back as though it were solid ground.
Peter does it not in the strength of his own buoyancy, but in the power of that one little word Jesus said to him. “Come.” One word carries Peter from the boat, across the water, right up to Jesus.
Now don’t try this in your own swimming pool much less in the ocean. You have no such word from Jesus. And anchored by your own piety and wishful thinking, you’ll drop like a rock. You have a different word spoken in the water of your Baptism. Justified. Declared righteous before God. Forgiven. Holy. And that word too does what it says. You don’t walk on water, you live in the water of your Baptism. Drowned in forgiveness. Buried with Jesus into His death. Living with Jesus in His life. And that is as sure as the word that propelled Peter out of the boat to Jesus across the choppy Sea of Galilee.
Oh yes, it was choppy. Windy too. Remember? Rowed all night. 3 AM. Wind and waves. And now Peter is standing there next to Jesus, defying everything that Archimedes ever said about things that float. He looks around at the white caps, the chop, the wind. And fear creeps in. He’s just walked across the water to Jesus and only now realizes, “Hey, wait a minute! You can’t walk on water!” And starts to sink.
See what happens when you lose the bead on the Word? You sink into Death itself. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. That’s where Peter’s eyes need to be – on Jesus. Not the wind, the waves, the boat. Jesus. Nothing but Jesus. Same with you. Look around you at the world, look inside yourself, and doubts will rise, fear will grow, and you’ll sink like a stone. That’s why we’re here every Sunday to hear the Word, to receive the Supper. There are so many ways this goes wrong. So many distractions, so many causes of doubt. When we lose sight of Jesus, and I don’t mean Jesus in our hearts or Jesus in our thoughts or Jesus in our prayers but Jesus in the Word, in the Supper, in that unique gathering of two or three come together in His Name, when we lose objective sight of Jesus, we drown.
We drown in despair, in guilt, in fear. We drown in our doubts, our skepticisms, our failings and weaknesses. We drown in Sin and Death.
Now this is not to say, Believe in Jesus and you can walk on water. Or do anything you set your mind to, no matter how improbable it might be. This is not about the power of positive thinking or positive believing, so never mind what you may see on TV or read in one of the “Christian bestsellers.” This is about the power of Jesus’ word to do what it says over and against our doubt, our fears, yes even our unbelief. If Jesus could make Peter walk on water with nothing but a little word, imagine what He will do on the last day when He says to the dead “arise.” What do you think will happen? The Word of Jesus does what it says.
The episode ends with a nice little flourish. Peter looks around at the wind, the waves, and starts to sink. And he prays the one prayer we all have at our disposal. Hosanna! Lord, save me! That’s faith’s little prayer. Peter was probably a big, bold man. A “man’s man,” as we like to say. Fishermen were like that. I can’t say the same for the tax collector. But fishermen were not wimps. “Lord, save me.” Jesus is all that Peter has at that moment. And Jesus is all that people needs to save him.
That’s our prayer. That’s the prayer out of our Baptism when it seems as if we are going to drown and there’s nothing to hold on to but Jesus. “Lord, save me.” And immediately (immediately!) Jesus reached out His hand and took hold of Peter. Freeze that moment in your mind. Peter sinking, panicking, praying “Lord, save me.” Jesus reaching out His strong and sure hand and grabbing hold of Peter. Who’s grip matter at that moment?
“O you, little faith one, why did you doubt?” Why do you doubt? Why do I? Simply this: We don’t trust the Word. We think we need to add something to it. It’s deep within us, that horrible, doubting question, “Did God really say?” Adam and Eve let it in to our humanity and it’s been rumbling around ever since. Doubt. Did God really say? Does His Word really work? Am I really forgiven? Justified? Holy before God? How can I be sure?
I wonder what Peter thought about when they were safely back in the boat. I also wonder how Peter got back to the boat? Did he walk next to Jesus with Jesus holding on to him? Did Jesus carry him? By the time they were back in the boat, the wind had died down, the waves were quiet, and the disciples were staring at Jesus and worshipped Him. What else can you do at that point but worship Him? And confess Him: Truly you are the Son of God.
And that He is! No one but the Son, the eternal Word, can pull this off. The prophets did miracles like healing and even raising the dead. No one ever walked on water or caused another man to do the same. The power of the Word that does what it says.
Jesus comes to us in the fourth watch of our day, when we are weakest and most exhausted. When we can’t pull our oars any longer. When the depths of Death have had their way with us. And He speaks a sure and powerful Word to us: Forgiven. And you are because He says so. You are God’s own beloved child because He says so. You stand justified before God’s judgment seat because He says so. And that Word is sure and certain. It’s the same Word that caused Peter to walk on the water will raise you up to dance on Death and the grave. You can count on it, dear friends. The Word always does what it says.
In the name of Jesus,