Matthew 14:22-33 (a paraphrase)
Immediately, the disciples jumped into a boat, and went ahead of Jesus to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. But in the twilight, a strong wind came up. It battered their boat with high waves and pushed them far from land. Early the next morning Jesus came walking towards them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him they were terrified. And they cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost!” But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and beginning to sink. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “Why do you doubt Why did you let your fear diminish your faith?” When they got back into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the chosen one of God.”
Becky and I have seen our fair share of rough waters. When we were first married we lived in Bellevue Iowa, right on the Mississippi River. So, it wasn’t unusual for us to go fishing after work. One evening, we decided to try a little further downstream than usual, pretty far from the launch. You can see where this story is headed, right? Yep, a storm suddenly came up and we were suddenly caught in a torrent of rain and lightning. We were too far away to make it back, so we pulled up to an island, got out of the boat, covered ourselves with raincoats, and waited the storm out. It was only after the rain subsided that we discovered we were surrounded by poison ivy!
You know, it’s funny, we’re more likely to remember these “rough water” experiences than all the times the sailing was smooth. Perhaps it’s because facing difficulties, overcoming challenges, creates within us a sense of confidence. A confidence that will serve us well when the next storm arises. A confidence that helps us to overcome our fear. It’s kind of like the old proverb says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”
In our gospel message for today, we find the disciples experiencing one of these “confidence building moments.” You see, they were afraid because their boat was being battered by waves and they were far from the launch. Now, the story tells us that Jesus understood their fear, so he went to them, and said, “Hey, look, it’s me! Don’t be afraid! But notice something important here in Matthew’s telling of this story. Jesus didn’t calm the waters until after Peter was back, safely, in the boat. The sea was still raging under his feet when he began to doubt, when Peter let his fear take over the situation.
Let stop here for a moment and think about how an old story like this one might be relevant to us in these troubling times? Well, as the turbulent seas of this pandemic rage on, claiming the lives of so many of our fellow Americans; and as the prospect of significant changes in how we as a nation treat all people with dignity and equality and justice, looms on the horizon; and as our entire planet, and so many species of plants and animals, continue to be decimated by climate change… Jesus continues to symbolically walk with us and toward us. And we as people of faith… we instinctively walk towards him, like Peter, knowing we are called to leave the safety of the boat and traverse unsettling waters as well.
However, we share more than just Peter’s faith; we share his fear. You see, sometimes the stepping-out-of-the-boat-part isn’t what’s most frightening. The scariest part comes when you realize that you’re actually out of the boat; that you’re standing on the precipice of change; standing amid the waves of uncertainty, and your next step isn’t all that clear.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. During the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century, a man named John Lewis stepped out of the boat and into the turbulent seas of civil unrest. The following story was told by President Barack Obama during John’s funeral service this past month. President Obama said, “…just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. …John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans. Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate — he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mugshot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.”[i]
Now, there’s no way John Lewis could have known the outcome of this movement. He didn’t even know if he would survive the beating he took on the Edmund Pettis Bridge as he marched with Dr. King on that fateful day we all remember from our history books. He couldn’t have known he would become a statesman, a congressman, and shining example of the American ideal. He couldn’t have known these things. But what his faith told him, what I suspect fueled his confidence, was that non-violent resistance and peaceful protest was right way to attempt to usher in change. And don’t tell me he wasn’t afraid as he sat in the front seat of that Greyhound. Don’t tell me he didn’t experience at least a fragment of doubt as he was being beaten and arrested. But here’s the thing. John Lewis didn’t let his fear overcome his faith.
I’ve said many time that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, but rather that fear is the opposite of faith. Paul Tillich reinforces this sentiment when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith.”[ii] An element of faith! I like that! James wrote to his followers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
Matthew thought along these same lines as well. Right here, in this narrative, he reinforces the place of doubt as an element of our faith journey. Peter doubted. He began to sink. But notice that he didn’t drown. In the midst of his doubt, Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter to safety.
That’s what it means to be saved! That’s the core, the very fabric of the nature of salvation! It doesn’t have anything to do with handing our tracts or being born again or getting others on our team. As a matter of fact, those understanding of salvation often are fraught with fear-mongering. My friends, salvation, being saved, is a free gift from God. A free gift for everyone. It’s a free gift illustrated wonderfully right here in this text. God is inviting us to overcome our fear with faith. God is reaching out to each of us, our community, and our nation, with a saving hand.
And then in turn, God is calling each of us to extend our hands to others who are sinking. We are being challenged in these troubling times, my friends, take any doubt we might be experiencing, and use that doubt to ask questions. Questions that will finally fuel our faith. Questions that will challenge us to reach out beyond ourselves and our personal fears. We’re being invited, my friends, to reach out with a hand of compassion, helping those who are homeless, or lonely, or hungry. And we are being invited, as communities of faith, to reach out with the hand of justice to our black, brown, and native sisters and brothers who have been sinking in a society that devalues them. And finally, we’re being invited, as individuals, to find our footing in these troubling, pandemic waters, even as the storm continues to rage all around us. A footing that takes us back to the basic core value of the gospel itself: to love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.
And do you know what? We can do this! We can overcome any fear we may be experiencing, because we are being invited, again and again and again, into the saving love of God. It’s a love that’s all around us, a love that indwells our soul, and it’s a love that interconnects all living things.