Sermon - Ordinary 19 Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

You of little faith, why do you doubt?

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?" (Matthew 14:29-31)

There is much in this that deserves serious thought. Let's get one thing out of the way for a start, Peter was not saved because of his great faith. It might be true as Paul said that, By grace, you are saved through faith, but it is by grace. Faith is not a kind of great work which brings the reward of salvation which is, rather, a free unearned gift:

Peter did not deserve, because of his faith, to have Jesus reach out and save him from drowning, rather, he was rebuked for his lack of faith.

Nor was Peter saved because of his doubts, though doubts might sometimes be a useful thing in a journey of faith. Jesus rebuked him for his little faith. He should have had greater faith; when conditions became threatening he lost his confidence; but he did, at least, have enough faith to call out, "Lord, save me!" You can see that he knew where to look for his salvation (and what a gift that is!), though he lacked the confidence to trust Jesus completely in a dangerous situation. Poor old Peter, he always seems to be copping a bit of stick! And he is so like us, is he not meaning, hoping at least in times of enthusiasm, to do the right thing, and somehow always falling short. It is just as well that we have the example of Peter being saved in spite of his weakness. It should inspire us too, at least to call out to Jesus and say, "Lord save me."

Is there not a good enough message in that? Do you think perhaps that is the whole point of the story of Jesus walking on the water, not the miracle of his being able to do that, so much as the lesson about having faith and reaching out to Jesus when the storms of life blow over us? You can fill in all the gaps for yourself without giving any special attention to the strange setting of the drama out there on the sea. I remember when my mother first told me this story, long before I read the Bible for myself, and what stuck me was how Peter sank when he lost faith. That happens all the time, doesn't it? Ah, but you won't let me get away with that, will you. After all Jesus walking on water is something not to be ignored. And I agree, but don't lose sight of what you can learn from the experience of Peter. It is easy to start out with confidence when you first respond to the call of Jesus, it is more difficult to keep faith when the going is hard and all sorts of things threaten to overwhelm us; and then it is a great relief to remember that when he called out, "Lord save me", Peter of little faith was saved by the grace of our Lord.

With a limited human understanding of what it meant, you could make it a sort of allegory, encouraging people when they are in deep water and buffeted by the challenges of life not to be afraid, but to trust God, and even to venture out of the boat and follow the calling of Jesus; and that is OK as far it goes; but you know it meant more to Matthew than that! For him, here was the Lord of heaven and earth, the Son of God, demonstrating his mastery of creation as the foundation of their faith. They believed they had good reason to trust in him. That allegory of leaving the safety of the boat to step out into the deep might be helpful sometimes, but it is a way short of the way Christians have traditionally understood it. Matthew had more in mind than that.

Before we think more about the miraculous aspect of Jesus walking on the water it is useful to see how the story was interpreted in the early church according to well understood symbols. The boat was a symbol of the church, in which Peter was the representative leader in spite of all his faults. The sea was used to signify chaos and the storm was persecution in which the powers of evil are whipped up against the church. Those in the church are saved and comforted when Jesus comes to them, and they should remember that he promised to come when they least expect it, they need not be afraid when he is with them, and if they call out to him he will reach out and save them so that they will survive the persecution and live to worship him. In the first few centuries when the church was under persecution it was often interpreted in that way.

If in modern times people will not let the bit about walking on water go by, we will have to look at it. I will not ignore the real difficulty for our understanding of God and creation which is raised by the apparent contradiction of the laws of physics in this story. After all both believers and skeptics often think that they must chose between a scientific understanding of the world and belief in God and the Bible. I don't think you have to choose, so some explanation is called for. But first let us see if the fact that they saw Jesus walking on the sea had any special significance for Matthew. What did he have in mind for his readers when he passed on this account of the disciples' experience. Why did Matthew bother with this particular incident, which Luke chose not to report though he was aware of Mark's account of it? Was is important or necessary in helping people to understand what the disciples believed about Jesus, who he was and what was the purpose of his ministry? Was it for Matthew, and for Mark and John who also tell of this strange thing, a significant part of the gospel; and if it was, what for them did it signify? Matthew makes his point of what it meant to them, in terms of who Jesus was, in his very clear conclusion:

They had been afraid and now they worshipped him as the Son of God. They had been struggling with the wind and waves and he brought peace and calm; they had thought they were seeing a ghost, he said " Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid", and then they saw him rescue Peter; so they recognized him as their Lord and Saviour. That is the classic confession of faith, "Lord and Saviour", while worshipping Jesus as the Son of God is both a creed and the foundation of Christian worship as an activity of the church, of those in the boat with him. So the implication of the story which Matthew makes explicit was central to the faith of the apostles and the early believers to whom they were witnesses. What happened there on the lake was passed on because they believed it showed something important about Jesus. That makes explanations of the physical phenomena more difficult because you can hardly explain away its strangeness, and say it does not really matter if he was not walking on water, and then still keep that point of the drama. The strangeness of what they saw was an essential part of the story.

If you insist upon a naturalistic explanation, you could, for example, look at John's account and find that when they went to take him into the boat they immediately came to land:

It was night time, "very early in the morning" (NRSV). According to Mark it was literally "about the fourth watch" (Mark 6:48 Gk. and other versions) which was between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Perhaps there was also a mist or spray with the strong wind and Jesus was walking along the shore. After all Mark also says that he was alone on the land and saw them straining at the oars. Perhaps although they had rowed three or four miles in the their struggle against the wind they had been blown close to the shore without knowing it. Even the part in Matthew, which in not in Mark and John, about Peter getting out of the boat and coming to Jesus is reminiscent of another such occasion, when Peter jumped out of the boat and walked to Jesus; it was when the disciples met the risen Lord on the shore of the Lake (John 21:4-8) when they were fishing near the shore, and we are reminded that this strange event does share some characteristics with what Jesus did when he met them after he rose from the dead; but then there was no easy explanation of that, rising from the dead, was there? There is, however, no doubt that when they saw him walking on the sea they did not suddenly become aware that he was on the shore, because what was remembered was that they were afraid, not of the storm, but of the sight of him, thinking that they were seeing a ghost, much as they felt when they saw him after the resurrection, and that fear was overcome when he made himself known to them, not when they discovered where they were. Mark ends with their "utter astonishment", and though he does not say as Matthew does that they worshipped him as the Son of God, Mark includes a little cryptic comment about their lack of understanding which makes much the same point:

The meaning for Mark was the same as the meaning of the miracle of the loaves: they were utterly astounded, {52} for they did not understand about the loaves. In all three gospels which record it, the story follows directly after the feeding of the five thousand. He who multiplied the loaves and fish to feed the multitude was the one who walked on the sea. You can give a social and political interpretation of the feeding of the five thousand in terms of the marvellous results of everyone being inspired to share what they had. Indeed in the way that John tells it there were political implications of what happened with the loaves, for after it they wanted to make him king and that was why he quickly dispatched the disciples before he dismissed the crowd and then went up the mountain to pray.

He had previously put off his intention to go into the mountains to pray, which he wanted to do after he heard of the death of John the Baptist; he had been persuaded by his compassion for the crowd to stay to teach and serve them [Mark 6:34]. Now he had a double reason to go and pray alone in the wilderness, the sad memory of his friend John and the renewal of the temptations he had when he was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after his baptism. The temptation to turn stones into bread had almost now been justified, and the possibility of making a show to claim leadership of the nations was right there now for him to take [cf Matthew 4:3-6]. He sent them ahead so that he could walk quietly with God while he resumed his humble way of service.

Jesus must have seen the social and political potential in the miracle of the loaves, but that was not how the disciples saw him either in the feeding of the five thousand or when they saw him walking on the sea: for them, the marvel was that the Lord of all that existed was there amongst them. The physical aspect of both strange events was part of the meaning those events had for people who understood what it showed about Jesus. He was the Lord of creation. Indeed the idea of showing, or showing forth the divine nature of Jesus is there in other little details. For example, Mark says that when he was walking towards them he intended to pass by them. You might wonder what was the reason for his walking there. He was not going to their rescue. It is not said that they were in danger (except later in what Matthew said about Peter sinking). They were afraid of what they saw and it was for that reason that he went to reassure them. Otherwise, the only point could have been that they saw a wonderful revelation, an epiphany, like the transfiguration, revealing more about the nature of Jesus than had previously been apparent.

Another sign in the detail is that when Jesus was telling them not to be afraid, he said, "It is I", and the words recorded in the gospels for "It is I" also mean "I am". So Jesus was understood to say what God had said to Moses when Moses wanted to know what to say to his people about who it was who had sent him to them, and God said, say "I AM has sent you."

There are other parallels with Moses and the exodus. Where else do you see the combination of bread from heaven to feed a great crowd with crossing over the sea: these things happened in the marvellous saving, liberating, acts of God who led the children of Israel out of slavery. God was their Lord and saviour, and so they celebrated him generation after generation remembering how he had delivered them across the sea and fed them in the wilderness (e.g. Psalm 78:13-25 and Isaiah 51):

Jesus was then seen by the disciples as God with us, the embodiment of the saving grace of God, the great I AM is revealed as our Lord and Saviour. It is clear that the apostles who witnessed to him passed on their experience as evidence of his divinity of which they were convinced. That was the hard part, to become convinced that he was God, and it was not fully realized until he rose from the dead; compared with that, to believe that they had seen him walking on the sea was not much of a challenge, but when they first saw it they were still coming to an understanding of who he was.

[So, where do modern scientific believers go from here?

It is an idea abhorrent to conventional science to imagine a force called God that comes into nature from outside and makes things behave as they would not otherwise behave. We should take note immediately that for the Biblical witnesses to God there was no sense in thinking of God as foreign to what we call the natural world. The regularity of happenings which we think of as governed by scientific laws were no less the work of God than the strange unique events which attracted attention because they were strange. It was all God's creation and evidence of his love and his power. Still, we must acknowledge that things heavier than water sink, and the human body will not stand above the waves unless there is something other than water to hold it up. So we believe. And I do believe that consistency in the behaviour of physical things is part of the way the world is. That is the way God has made it and the way he sustains it, for good reason. We believe that throughout the universe certain physical laws describe the way physical things happen. Scientific understanding of physical processes which are the same everywhere is quite different from history which is a succession of unique events, none quite like anything that happened before. Columbus discovered America only once, but a ball thrown through the air always falls in an arc described by a parabola. I believe it is part of the faithfulness of God that we can trust in the reliability of physical phenomena. It will be the same if the ball is thrown on the moon or on Mars, though the arc of its flight will be a little longer according the laws of gravity. It would be the same, we believe, in another galaxy. But whether a man will be there, or anywhere, to throw it is another matter, and whether anyone will happen to invent a ball would be not be easy to anticipate: such matters of human responsibility are much less predictable.

So we find it easier to accept the strange unpredictable things in human affairs that might count as miracles. What people do is less predicable than the behaviour of physical object, although some people think that everything we do is predetermined, fixed in advance, but most of us allow a degree of freedom to human behaviour however we might explain it. We know too that what we think and feel can affect not only what we do in a gross behavioural sense, but also our health and general well being. We might not understand it all, but those bright and shining events in human life that we might call miracles do seem to make some sense, especially when they show the healing and wholesome affects of love and compassion. The healing miracles of Jesus are not always easily understood, some are harder to explain than others with our present knowledge, but they are not as difficult to accept as something like walking on water which seems to defy the regularity of the physical world.]

Are Christian called upon to believe things about the physical world that others do not? No, or not necessarily; the Christian faith does not offer or depend upon a different physics, chemistry or biology. It does call for an open mind, a mind open to more than we can at present imagine. I would expect that eventually we will learn more of how what made the resurrection of Jesus an historical event also made possible what the apostles believed they saw that dark morning on the sea. It is a matter of faith to believe that the Lord of creation was active and was revealed there and then. It is also part of the living out of the Christian faith to expect to see the sense of God's action in the world eventually being worked out. William Cowper understood this and wrote from experience in his hymn, God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. You might almost think he had this strange epiphany in mind when wrote of God who "plants his footsteps in the sea":

God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.

Only the faith that the incarnate Word of God is the one who was with God in the creation and the one who revealed himself to his disciples in the district of Galilee in the time of the Roman Empire combines creation and redemption. He is and was part of both history and nature. But let me ask you, if you are inclined to force everything through the little lens of our present day understanding, what is more sensible, to believe that all we see is a random consequence of impersonal forces without meaning or that the maker of it all had a purpose in which he offers us, his creatures, a share in his life with the revelation of his nature in that man of Galilee. His challenge is still there, the challenge he offered to Peter and the others, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" .... And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

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