I Kings 19:9-18 Psalms 85:8-13 Romans 10:5-15
A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher and a rabbi go fishing at a lake. The preacher has to go to the bathroom, so he walks across the water, does his business and walks back. Then the rabbi has to go, so he walks across the water, does his business and walks back. The Catholic priest has to go, but when he gets out of the boat he falls into the water. He swims back, gets back into the boat and says, “God, let me walk across the water.” He tries again and falls into the water, swims back, tries again and falls again. The Baptist preacher leans over to the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the stumps are?”
Jesus has had a busy few days. Last Sunday we read about his feeding the five thousand after hearing of John the Baptist’s death. Now he sends the disciples off so he can have some time alone with God. What an example for us. Seeking solitude is an important priority for Jesus. He made room in his busy schedule to be alone with God. Spending time with God in prayer nurtures a vital relationship and equips us to meet life’s challenges and struggles. In hearing about Jesus’ practices, we are encouraged to develop some spiritual disciplines of our own.
A storm has come up. The Sea of Galilee is known for its storms. It is an unusual body of water. It is relatively small, about 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, but it is 150 feet deep and the shoreline is 680 feet below sea level. Sudden storms can appear over the surrounding mountains with no warning, stirring the water into violent 20-foot waves. The disciples had not foolishly set out in a storm. They had been caught without warning and their danger was very real.
Amazingly, as Peter hears the voice of Jesus, he shouts back above the roar of the storm, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus is walking on the water in the middle of a furious storm, something that elevates him above anybody else that Peter has ever known. But likewise, if Jesus truly is Lord and not a ghost, there is no need for fear. Peter’s focused faith in Jesus’ true identity enables him to overcome his fear, to call out to him, and to recognize that Jesus can enable Peter also to come to him on the water. Jesus doesn’t say “walk” on the water, but “come,” a fitting qualification to the request, since as far as he knew, this isn’t going to be a simple stroll on the lake.
After Jesus says, “Come,” Peter obeys by getting down out of the boat and miraculously walks on the water toward Jesus. We are not told how far or for how long he walks on the sea, but suddenly reality hits. He sees the wind, he sees the billowing whitecaps, surging seas, and wind-blown spray, and he realizes where he is and becomes afraid. Experienced fisherman that he was, he knows the danger. Peter demonstrates tremendous courage in this incident, but at the same time his courage to go to Jesus on the water becomes the occasion for failure. He loses his focused faith in Jesus’ divine identity and begins to sink beneath the seas. But then most importantly, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” The same Lord who walks on the water himself and then enables Peter to walk on the water is more than able to save him from sinking.
Jesus immediately catches Peter by the hand to rescue him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” “Little faith” is not the same as the “no faith” of the hardhearted townspeople of Nazareth. A person with no faith would not recognize Jesus and call out to him. Peter has faith; it is just not functioning properly. It is “ineffective faith”. Peter’s faith enables him to recognize Jesus’ true identity and to ask to come out to him on the water, but it is like a burst of emotional energy. It is not effective enough to sustain him. The key element is keeping his eyes firmly focused on Jesus instead of the danger of the wind-swept sea. Jesus directs Peter to understand more clearly who he is and then act upon it. Faith is not like a commodity of which Peter needs more. Rather, faith is consistent trust in Jesus to accomplish what Peter is called to do.
I have shared before the story of visiting a friend in intensive care. This experience so impacted my approach to faith that I want to share it again with you. I was newly ordained. I popped into the family waiting room of the hospital to see if any of the family was in there. There was only one woman, who I did not know, sitting alone in the corner of the room. I realized that she was crying. I had the internal dialogue with myself about intruding on her or letting her be. The sobs grew louder, so I went over to her. I told her who I was and asked if I could help. Through the sobs, she said that her husband was in intensive care and was not doing well. Her pastor had just been in to visit him and told her that if her faith were stronger, her husband would be healed. Can you imagine hearing that? Sitting and waiting and praying for her husband and to have someone tell her she had not faith. I held her hand, prayed with her, and cried with her. I told her that God knew her heart and her faith and it was not up to man to judge that. “You of little faith, why do you doubt?”
Don’t we all doubt at one time or another? Don’t we all want to be super Christians and seem invincible? But if we were, or acted as if we were, would we experience the need for God. If we are filled with ourselves and what wonderful Christians we are, then there seems to be less room for God. I know that when we open our hearts to God and have just a little bit of faith, say the size of a mustard seed, then God gives us more and more and more. Faith is not something we do, it is something we receive.
The emphasis in this story is on the grace and power of Jesus. Once Jesus and Peter climb into the boat with the other disciples, the wind dies down. This is the second time the disciples have witnessed the miraculous calming of the sea during a storm (8:26). Matthew does not record Jesus’ words or actions but only notes that the winds die down. The wind that has so frightened Peter is now under Jesus’ control.
What would we do if we heard the invitation to “Come.” Peter doesn’t have to be told twice. It’s not every day that you walk on water through waves that are taller than you are. The first steps go well. But a few strides out onto the water, and he forgets to look to the One who got him there in the first place, and down he goes.
Peter knows better than to bite the hand that can save him. His response may seem weak – but it gets him out of some deep water; “Help me!” And since Peter would rather swallow pride than water, a hand comes through the rain and pulls him up. The message is clear. As long as Jesus is one of many options, he is no option. As long as you can carry your burdens alone, you don’t need a burden bearer. As long as our situation brings us no grief, we will need no comfort. And as long as we can take him or leave him, we might as well leave him, because Jesus won’t be taken half-heartedly.
Jesus demonstrated his power over the laws of nature when he fed the five thousand and when he walked on the water. Peter wasn’t putting Jesus to the test, something we are told not to do. Instead, Peter was the only one in the boat to react in faith. His impulsive request led him to experience an unusual demonstration of God’s power. Peter started to sink because he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on the high waves around him. His faith waivered when he realized what he was doing. We may not walk on water, but we do walk through tough situations. If we focus on the waves of the difficult situations around us without looking to Jesus for help, we too may fall into despair and sink. To maintain our faith when situations are difficult, keep our eyes on Jesus’ power rather on our inadequacies.
Although we start out with good intentions, sometimes our faith falters. We may lose our focus. This doesn’t mean we have failed. When Peter’s faith faltered, he reached out to Christ, the only one who could help. He was afraid, but he still looked to Christ. When we are apprehensive about a situation, and doubt Christ’s presence or Christ’s ability to help, we must remember that he is the only one who can really help.
So how do we sustain our faith – our focused faith? Remember Jesus’ example of spending time with God? In spending time with God we learn more about who God is for us and who we are for God. We learn about our gifts, our strengths, and our weaknesses. We learn to ask, to pray, to be grateful, to be available. When we focus on God working in and through our lives, it is harder and harder to lose sight of Jesus.
In our reading from Romans, we hear the passage from Isaiah – “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Beautiful words, but what do they mean to us Episcopalians who don’t really embrace evangelism. We often think of evangelism as having a big floppy Bible and standing on the street corner and proclaiming the Word. Evangelism is something that happens in context, with no one-size-fits all approach. Paul sets us straight in our thinking that we are bringing Christ to others. Paul reminds us that Christ is already present. It is not up to us to save the world. God has already done that. It is up to us to believe that this is true and live as though we believe. To live with focused faith. We can’t save others by our actions alone. But we can share our story. We can share what God has done for us, to us, with us. How the love of Jesus has quieted some of the storms in our hearts. How we have reached out a hand and yelled “help me” as Peter did and we received help. Sometimes that help comes from another Christian, someone walking the path with us and sometimes there is divine intervention. The way for us to explain our faith, a faith focused on the love and teachings of Jesus is to live out the word that is within us and doing that in a way that makes sense in the context of our lives. Then folks will see our faith working in our lives and they will say: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Amen!