[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
The incident recounted in today’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus walks on water, is well known to Christians and non-Christians alike. Something about thinking of Jesus treading across the waves captures people’s imaginations. And in this lesson, we also identify with Jesus’ disciple, Peter, whose name, meaning Rock, never seemed more appropriate than the moment we read that, after taking a few steps on the water, he sank like a stone and had to be fished out by Jesus.
But as was true of last week’s gospel lesson, when we considered how Jesus fed more than 5000 people with a few fish and scraps of bread, as we read this lesson, we need to move beyond the superficial and seek some answers to some basic questions:
Jesus walking on the water is a neat trick, but what exactly does it mean for us today?
What truths for our lives can we garner from this incident?
There are, I think, at least four things to remember from today’s lesson that will help us today and beyond.
Take a look at the gospel lesson, Matthew 14:22-33, please.
It begins: “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”
This happened right after the miraculous feeding. You’ll remember that that incident came about after Jesus had gone off to be by Himself to pray following the execution of His cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus had made Himself available to bring healing to those in need of it and, towards nightfall, to feed the hungry people.
But now, it seems, Jesus has completed His work for the day. He needs to spend time with His Father. Doing so will help Him to continue on the course He had come into the world to run, the course that would take Him, sinless God and man, to die on a cross, to bear our punishment for sin, then on to the resurrection so that all who turn from sin and believe in Him as their only God may have ever new, eternal life with God.
Matthew says that Jesus "made" the disciples get on a boat and go. The word translated as made is literally compelled. To be compelled is to be forced, as when my dad compelled me to go to bed at night. When one more powerful than you compels you to do something, there is no second guessing. There are no courts of appeals.
Just as forcefully, Jesus dismissed the crowd. Jesus has healed them. He has fed them. Now, even though the night is blacker than ink, it’s time for the crowd to go and for Jesus to face the next phase on His journey to cross and empty tomb.
So, from the beginning of the lesson, we see Jesus, the One Who by the touch of His hand was able to reverse the disease and death and deterioration that comes to us all in the fallen world and was able to spread a table for hungry thousands, as being totally in charge. That’s the first thing to remember in today’s lesson: Jesus is totally in charge. Even today, this moment.
Now, you might expect that this reality--the reality of Jesus being in charge in spite of all the grim and harsh challenges of this world--would have been permanently engraved on the consciousness of the disciples after they’d seen Jesus heal and feed all those people. But it turns out that those disciples are as thick-headed and unwilling to trust in God as I know I sometimes can be...and that you sometimes may be.
Take a look, please, at verses 23 and 24: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.”
Two scenes, one tranquil, one chaotic. Jesus praying alone to His Father. The disciples out riding the waves through a storm. And despite their expertise as fishermen who had plied these waters many times, they appear to be helpless before the buffeting wind.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that in Matthew’s gospel, the word house often stands as a symbol for the Church. In this image, the Church is the household of God gathered for worship, gathered to receive God’s healing Word, and gathered to be fed on the body and blood of our Lord. The life of the gathered Church is sort of like what happened when Jesus gathered those thousands together to feed them on His grace and love and power.
But you should also know that Matthew often uses the term boat to symbolize the Church--ordinary believers like you and me--moving out into the world. The disciples riding in the boat with fear and trepidation are just like you when you're facing tough choices on Monday mornings, struggling to keep your lives and your finances together, struggling to maintain relationships, fighting almost to simply get through day to day life. It can be a stormy, rough ride out there outside the safe confines of the household of faith.
And, these two scenes--Jesus praying, the disciples struggling--serve as a good picture of how we may sometimes forget that even when we struggle, all who trust in Jesus Christ as their God and King have Someone Who, though we cannot see Him, is praying for us to His Father. That’s part of what it means for us to pray in Jesus‘ Name. We earnestly invoke the help of the One Who died and rose to set us free from sin and death. When we pray in Jesus' Name, He takes our case the Father and puts in a good word for us. Jesus had not forgotten the disciples and He never forgets you. That’s the second thing to remember from today’s lesson: Jesus will never forget you, no matter how rough the ride may get.
Look again at our lesson, starting at verse 25: “Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I [literally, in the Greek in which the New Testament is written, Jesus says, “Ego eimi,” not “It is I,” but “I AM,” identifying Himself with the same name by which God identified Himself to Moses in the Old Testament, “Yahweh” in the Hebrew, “I AM.” “It is I.”] Don’t be afraid.’”
Now, what so interests me here is that Jesus didn’t stop the wind and the waves. Instead, He told the disciples not to be afraid of them. I often pray that the storms of my life will go away. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But some of the storms that come to us--and I said only some--are allowed to enter our lives by God. Other storms are the inevitable outcroppings of a planet writhing in sin and death. But whatever the source of my life's storms, maybe I ought to learn to pray not only that God will take away the storms, but also that God will give me strength to go through them.
On the night before His arrest, Jesus prayed that He wouldn’t have to go through suffering and death on the cross. An understandable prayer. Jesus didn't want to go through the storm! But Jesus also prayed, “Nonetheless, not My will, but Your will be done.” It was only through the storm of His cross that Jesus could fulfill His mission of bringing life to people like you and me who would otherwise stand naked in our sins on judgment day and be eternally separated from God.
God loved and appreciated a man named Job, whose story is told in the Old Testament. Yet God allowed Job to undergo a ferocious storm of grief and loss that is almost painful to read about. But from his storm, Job emerged with a stronger faith.
In a world groaning under the power of sin and death, storms are inevitable in this life. But--and this is the third big lesson I draw from this incident--Jesus, I AM, God enfleshed, can give us peace in the midst of the storms.
With Psalm 46:2-3, we can say that the God we know in Jesus Christ is our ever-present refuge, “...we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
Please look at what comes next, starting at verse 28: “Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’ ‘Come,’ he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,” he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”
I hope that we can be charitable to Peter. He sees Jesus walking on the water and He really believes that Jesus can empower him to do the same. He trusts. But His trust is weak. My guess is that many of us here this morning can say the same thing: "We trust; our trust is weak."
But, if in his falling into the water, Peter is a representative of us and our faulty faith, in what happens after he falls, Peter is a model for us and our faith. He cries out, “Lord, saves me.” Peter’s faith, like ours, may have been of the stumbling, imperfect variety. But he could say with another of the Old Testament songs of worship, Psalm 121:1-2: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
When we realize that our situation is hopeless--that we confront situations we can’t conquer or comprehend that our sins threaten to condemn us to hell and to separate us from God forever, we can cry out simply to God.
This was a lesson that Peter was to learn well. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, Peter spoke to a crowd of thousands who realized that they had been trying to live their lives--in effect, trying to walk on water--without God, without the saving help that God the Father sent Jesus, God the Son, to bring to us.
They were drowning in sin and hopelessness.
But Peter tells the crowd in Acts 2:21: “Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved.”
And that is the fourth major thing I want to hold up today. Whether it’s from eternal separation from God, a lifetime of purposelessness, or a gnawing sense of insecurity that keeps you feeling less than the child of God you are, you (and I) need to do the same thing: Call on the Lord and we will be saved.
No matter the storms that confront us in this life, Jesus is totally in charge.
Jesus will never forget you.
Jesus--and only Jesus--can give you peace even in the midst of storms.
And when we call out to Jesus, we are saved.
It’s these truths that might well cause us after Jesus has brought us through another storm to, like the first disciples, worship Jesus and say with them, “Truly, You are the Son of God.” Amen