22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
What you’re looking at is one of the oldest images of Jesus from one of the oldest churches in the world. This is a fragment of a wall painting from a house-church in the ancient town of Dura-Europa in modern day Syria. It dates to about the year 240–about five generations after the gospel of Matthew was written (and it was probably written in Syria!).
In the background is a boat, and in the foreground are two figures–one with his feet slightly below the water, and the other (just a fragment) with his feet slightly above the water, who appears to be lifting the first figure out of the water. So this is perhaps the very first illustration of Jesus and Peter, walking on the water. And it was found in this ancient house church on the wall of the room that was used as a baptistry, perhaps indicating that this particular story, for the early church, was connected with the act of baptism. More on that later.
The fact that this story, of the hundreds of memorable stories from the New Testament, was one of the first to be depicted in art, shows just how powerful an image it is. To this day, when we say about someone that he or she “walks on water” we’re referring back to this miracle, comparing someone to Jesus, saying in effect that he or she is “perfect” or “can do no wrong.”
And just like I’ve done for the past several weeks, I’m going to try to make the case today that as impressive as walking on water might be…if we focus too much on that aspect of the story, if we take it too literally, we’re going to miss the very important point that the author of this gospel (let’s call him Matthew) is trying to make here.
It’s actually the same point Matthew has been hammering home for several chapters now, first through parables, and now through miracles. The point is simple enough, and it’s this: A little faith can go a long way.
In fact, sometimes a little faith is better than a lot of faith.
Jimmy had a lot of faith, but not much sense. He had grown up hearing the legends about his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. When each of these men had come of age on their 21st birthday, they had walked across the surface of the lake to the pub on the other side. In Jimmy’s family, it was said, nothing could keep a man from his whisky. So on Jimmy’s 21st birthday, he went down to the lake with confidence, pride, and great faith in his ancestry. He walked out onto the long pier, and without hesitation stepped out into the deep waters…and nearly drowned. Coughing and sputtering, Jimmy climbed back onto the dock, and made his way home. That night he asked his grandmother, “Why is it that I cannot walk across the lake like my father, his father, and his father before him?” With great love and patience, his grandmother took Jimmy’s hands in her own, and explained to him, “That’s because your father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all born in January when the lake freezes over. You were born in July.”
A little faith can go a long way, but it also helps to check the weather.
Back in Matthew’s story, the disciples are encountering some pretty bad weather. They’re out on the middle of the lake in the middle of the night, and the wind and waves are battering against the boat. To make matters worse, they see something they shouldn’t see–a figure walking toward their boat over the water. Now when we read this from the comfort and safety of our pews, we think, “Yay, it’s Jesus coming to save the day!” But did I mention it’s a dark and stormy night? Your first thought in that situation probably woudn’t be, “Hey look, it’s my friend Bob!” I’m not going to say out loud what your first thought would probably be.
Jesus identifies himself and tells them to calm down. As if that helps. Peter’s response here is telling: He says, “Lord, IF it is you.” In other words, he’s not really sure. He hopes it’s Jesus, but he doesn’t know. Which makes his next words all the more remarkable. He says, “Lord, if it IS you, then tell me to come to you on the water.” Probably the other 11 disciples are all thinking something more along the lines of, “If it IS you, Jesus, then get in the boat and make this bad weather stop!”
But one disciple, for one brief instant, sees past the wind and the waves and the darkness, and sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not just to passively appreciate what Jesus is doing and cheer from the sidelines…but to actually join in DOING what Jesus is doing. And so Peter speaks up. Peter speaks out.
Notice that Jesus does not rebuke him for thinking big, for dreaming the impossible (here or anywhere in the gospels). Instead he says, in effect, “Go for it. You said it, now do it.” And against all odds, Peter does it. He gets out of the boat. He walks on water. He succeeds in doing something that is impossible, amazing, and inspiring. Yes, I said he “succeeds.”
The way this passage is usually preached doesn’t give Peter enough credit. Peter takes a few steps, gets afraid, starts to sink, and then Jesus rebukes him: “O ye of little faith.” The moral of the story (usually) is something like, don’t lose sight of Jesus, don’t second guess yourself, don’t be like Peter.
I think that’s a lousy read on the story, and not consistent with the point Matthew has been trying to make all along…a little faith can go a long way. When Peter gets out of the boat, what he does next is the Greek word περιεπάτησεν (peripatesen). The NRSV (and most translations) translate this word as “walked,” but that’s only half of the word. πάτησεν all by itself means “walked.” περι is a prefix that means “around.” In other words, Peter didn’t take two steps and start to sink…Matthew says that he “walked all around.” That takes time!
We need to read the next verse very carefully. Verse 30: “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Now, in English, we put a lot of stock in word order, and so we often assume cause and effect: First he notices the wind, then (as a consequence) he becomes frightened, and then as a result of that, he sinks. But Greek doesn’t work that way. The sentence could just as accurately be translated, “Having (already) begun to sink, he was afraid, and saw the strong wind, and cried out “Lord, save me.”
When Jesus lifts him up, he says, famously “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s usually interpreted as a criticism. But “you of little faith” can just as easily be a compliment. Remember Matthew has been talking about little faith that can move mountains, little faith that grows into a large tree, little faith that feeds 5,000. And “Why did you doubt” can also be translated in the present tense: “Why DO you doubt, Peter while at the same time showing faith?”
Peter doesn’t sink because he had faith and then wavered. No, his faith AND his doubts were already there before (Lord, IF it’s really you) they are there the whole time he is walking around, and they will remain long afterward (remember he’s both the first to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, and then the first to deny him at the crucifixion).
Peter doesn’t sink because of his doubts (and neither will you). Peter sinks because he’s had this amazing experience with Jesus, but now he needs something else, something more before he can go deeper, before he can do greater and even more amazing things (which he clearly does–read the book of Acts).
And this is where that ancient picture of this story, hanging in the baptismal room of an ancient church, comes back into focus: Matthew is using this story to paint a picture of the process he wants the people in his community, his audience, to undergo if they haven’t already. This is the process:
We are in the dark, living precariously on troubled waters in this world. We have some kind of hazy notion of who Jesus is, but we’re not totally sure. We have doubts. Still, we step out in faith, in hope that through him–through his example, his teaching, his presence in our lives–maybe, just maybe we can do some pretty amazing things. And we do. We walk around in the joy of having discovered something new–just us and Jesus.
But it doesn’t last, because it isn’t enough. We have go into the waters of baptism, and be lifted back into the boat where the rest of the Christian community is wating for us–where, in verse 33, we see that worship is happening, where Jesus is being acknowledged as the Son of God. Incidentally, the image of the boat is one of the most ancient symbols for the church, and if you look up at the vault of many churches (like this one), you can still see the shape of the upside down boat. Baptism, in Christian tradition, symbolizes the fact that Jesus has saved us from the storm, and it marks the point in time at which a person (adult or infant) enters into the community of of the church.
So I have a question for you today. Do you want to keep sitting there in your comfortable pews, cheering Jesus on from the sidelines, missing the point and saying, “What a great guy that Jesus is. He can do miracles! He can walk on water! You go, Jesus!”?
Or do you want to join in DOING what Jesus DOES–great things, impossible things, miraculous things? If you do, (and by way of summary) here’s how:
Step One: Speak up. Whatever crazy, impossible thing it is that you think God might be calling you to do, say it. Out loud, before God and in the presence of other people. Even if you have doubts. Even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy. You might actually Be crazy…but God might take you seriously even when no one else will. You won’t know until you speak up, and speak out.
Step Two: Get out of the boat. Presbyterian Pastor John Ortberg wrote an entire book titled, “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” You don’t have to read the book to get his point. This step assumes that after you have spoken your crazy, impossible thing into existence, that you still feel God calling out to you, saying “Come.” I realize it’s sometimes hard to tell, and this is where our fear and doubt speak to us as loudly as the wind and the waves. But even a few steps with Jesus out on the water is worth more than a lifetime of sitting in the boat, wondering what it would have been like.
Step Three: Get wet. Walking, sinking, either way. Water in this story represents death and destruction, but it also represents new life. Whatever your crazy impossible dream is, baptize it. Place it in God’s hands. Maybe your crazy, impossible dream is just simply the hope that there is a God who made you, who loves you, who wants you to be happy. If you want to experience that kind of new life, we can baptize you. And if you’ve already been baptized, perhaps as a child, then we can help you live into the promise of that baptism. That’s actually step four…
Step Four: Get back in the boat. Get into a community of people who can go along with you on the journey, who can love you, and support you, and care for you, and help you realize your crazy, impossible dreams. Get into a community where you can worship God with other people, where you can pray, study, serve and give to something bigger and greater than any of us.
We would love to be that community for you, but it won’t happen if you’re just a spectator, just cheering Jesus on from the sidelines, and not going through the process. You have to speak up. You have to get out of the boat. You have to get wet, get messy, get involved in this messy, wet, crazy, imperfect community, chasing crazy, impossible dreams.
We know that requires some faith.
But we also know that a little faith can go a long way.
I hope you’ll come a long way with us.