(Matthew 14: 22-32)
I remember that when the grandkids were younger one of our jobs was to take them to swimming lessons. Peder, I believe, was born with gills and he took right to it and it seemed to be second nature. He did, one time, tell us he had saltwater in his veins. Eva was different. She wanted to do it her way and often refused to listen to the teacher which did result in some time in the bleachers sitting with her grandparents. The teacher would patiently explain and demonstrate what her students needed to do and was always close by to reach out her hand and pull them back in if they got in trouble. Even the shallow end of the pool is deep when you’re only three feet tall. I remember a few of those times when Eva would confidently, or defiantely, swim off and then turn around to swim back and, sometimes, you could see the look of panic on her face when she realized she may have swum too far. In a calm voice the teacher would reassure her, reach out her hand and pull her in close. The teacher would remain calm and explain what she needed to do next and would let her try it again, saying in a calm voice that she was right there and that she wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
And, that’s what I take away from our scripture reading for today. There are those times when we get too far from the shore, too far from the boat and we realize we’re in over our head and panic sets in.
Our story for today begins right after Jesus fed the 5,000. He was worn out and needed some downtime, some time alone to rest and collect his thoughts. We learn that Jesus had the disciples get in their boat to go on ahead of him to the other side as he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed the crowd, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. He knew it would be impossible to decompress in the company of the disciples as they would surely want to talk about all that had happened and the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. When evening came, he was there alone, and he could see that the boat was already a considerable distance away from land. We’re told that the boat was being buffeted by waves because the wind was against it. We’re not told that Jesus was alarmed because he wasn’t. Several of the disciples, including Peter, were experienced fishermen. This wasn’t like the time Jesus was asleep in the bottom of the boat while a great storm raged and he had to calm the waters. It just wasn’t smooth sailing, nothing they couldn’t handle. During the fourth watch of the night, around 3:00 a.m., Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified thinking it was a ghost and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately says to them; Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid. Peter replied; Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water. Jesus said; Come. So, Peter gets out of the boat and, mind you it’s still pretty stormy, begins to walk towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he became afraid and began to sink. It’s not that Peter couldn’t swim. I think we can assume he could swim as he was a fisherman. But he also knew when and when not to get out of a boat for safety’s sake. When he realized he was too far from the boat to turn back and a long way from shore he cried out; Lord, save me! Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him saying; You of little faith, why did you doubt? And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down and those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying; Truly you are the Son of God.
Now, Peter was not putting Jesus to the test, but he was the only one in the boat to react in faith. His impulsive request led him to experience a rather unusual demonstration of God’s power. We, like Peter, act in faith when we take on a task for God but then get a little weak in the knees when we realize we may have over-extended ourselves and we begin to experience self-doubt thinking we should have stayed in the boat. Peter started to sink because he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on the high waves around him. And I understand that all too well as there have been times when I too have gotten in over my head. It is hard to remember that your main objective was to drain the swamp when you are up to your behind in alligators. Anyway, Peter’s faith wavered when he realized what he was doing, and the confident, fearless fisherman began to flounder.
Unlike Peter, we may not walk on water, but we do walk through some pretty tough situations. If we get distracted and focus on the waves of difficult situations that are about to come crashing down upon us without looking to Jesus for help, we too may despair and sink. To maintain our faith when situations are difficult, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus’ power rather than on our own inadequacies. Jesus won’t step in and take over, but through the Holy Spirit, you will experience the assurance that you are not alone and will be able to see the difficulty through to the end.
Trying to lead a Christ-like life and doing the work and will of God is no easy task, no matter how well-intentioned you may be. And, although we start out with good intentions, sometimes our faith falters and we fall flat. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve failed. As I used to tell my Drug Court children; the failure isn’t in relapsing, the failure is in not starting over and working the steps. 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. And, that’s okay. That’s what Christ wants us to do, to look to him for help and guidance. We weren’t meant to do this alone. So, when you are apprehensive about the life troubles and crises around you, and you begin doubt Christ’s presence or ability to help, you must remember that he is the only one who can really help, even if it is merely pointing you in the right direction. It’s like when we pray for Jesus to make us the answer to someone’s prayers. Jesus enables us to be that helping hand reaching out to pull someone in who is struggling, someone who feels they are in over their head, back into the boat.
Many readers too easily condemn Peter for his fear or doubt that apparently caused him to sink. Poor Peter often gets a bad rap, but I appreciate the fact that there is a little bit of Peter in all of us when we act impetuously or ask the obvious question. We would do better to admire the faith that enabled him to step onto the sea in the first place, and join the disciples in worship of our Lord, confessing him as the Son of God. We should emulate his example of stepping out in faith to get his feet wet and to turn to Jesus when he was overwhelmed by doubt. This was a valuable lesson for the disciples to learn. They could do the humanly impossible with the power of Christ. Why should we be any different?
We have to have faith in Jesus and do the things we are called to do in God’s service, things we think are difficult, things that may seem scary and beyond our capabilities. We should respect the water, but we can’t be afraid to get in the water. We should be glad that the Spirit keeps coaxing us out of the boat and is there to lend a hand when we become overwhelmed by the crashing waves of doubt and fear.
Have you been thinking about stepping out the boat and getting your feet wet? What’s stopping you? Remember, you can’t do it alone. You need to listen to your teacher. The teacher will patiently instruct you in what you need to know, demonstrate to you how to do it and will remain close by to reach out and pull you back if you get in over your head. The spirit will remain calm, explain what you need to do next, and will then let you try it again reassuring you all along the way that it is okay to get out of the boat and get your feet wet.
Please pray with me.
Most merciful and loving Jesus, when the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me. Stand by us, Lord, in the midst of our tribulations when our strength and faith begin to fail. In the midst of our faults and failures, stand by us, Lord. When we’ve done the best we can, and our friends misunderstand, you who know all about us and that our intentions are good and well-meaning, stand by us. Move us, Lord, to step out of the safety and security of our boat, and to get our feet wet in your service to others. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.