Today’s passage is simple enough. It isn’t about pointing a finger at Peter and telling him to have a deeper faith. It isn’t about us having a deeper or stronger faith than Peter demonstrates. 

Our passage this morning is about having the faith to keep going. To have courage in the face of normal and difficult times. To demonstrate Christ’s love in the face of evil. 

This passage is also about recognizing that at times, stepping out of the boat is not just necessary but perhaps essential to living as followers of Jesus. 

Text: Matthew 14: 22-33

Pull the Oar

  • Please note that there are additional elements in the audio of the sermon that are not found in the written transcript. This is in light of the events in Charolettsville, Virginia.

There were once three ministers in a row boat. A large wave rocked the boat and the oars were swept overboard. Fortunately, the boat was not far from shore. One of the ministers got up and proceeded to walk on the water towards shore. Seeing him do this the second minister got up and walked on water. Well thought the third minister, if these two can do it so can I. The minister got up, stepped out of the boat and promptly splashed into the water.

The first minister said to the second, “Should we show him where the rocks are?”

Today’s passage from Matthew could be summed up nicely by the title: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (Book title by John Ortberg). Which is true. You’ll never walk on water if you don’t step out in faith. If we never take a risk, we won’t grow. We might be happy and safe, but are we living up to God’s expectations for us?

Should we not, like Peter, step out of the boat? Should we not gird our loins and step out. Demonstrating our courage and depth of faith! We should all step out into the waters and begin walking. But, be careful. Don’t let your doubts nag at you, don’t let your fears overwhelm you. Don’t for a moment think ‘I can’t do this!’ Be strong! Be courageous! Don’t be like Peter. Peter failed, his faith was too small, we can learn from his mistakes and do better. Put your faith in Jesus, believe you can do it and get on with it.

And if that’s what this passage was about we could stop here. But this passage is about so much more. The story of Jesus walking on water and Peter’s near drowning is about so much more. It is not a simple moral tale of do this not this. It is not a story about having enough courage, it isn’t even a story about having enough faith. As one commentator noted, “To take the focus off Jesus so as to put it onto our own moral pluck and courage seems, therefore, (forgive me) to miss the boat.”

The story is familiar to us. If someone asked us to explain what happens in the story where Jesus walks on water and then explain it, we could all do so fairly easily. Historically, we have used this passage to wag our fingers at others for their spiritual shallowness. When each of us here knows that if we were to take a walk down to the pier and then step out we’d all be swimming. Me included.

So, what’s going on? The purpose of scripture is not to mimic self-help books designed to inspire you to take your first yoga class, to gain peace of mind, or to be bolder at work. We don’t need scripture to remind us how challenging life is or on the necessity of occasionally taking risks. Let’s be honest, if I preach this passage the way it has historically been preached most of us are going to leave here depressed. We are going to feel worse about ourselves and it would be fair to ask, where is the grace in this story and where was grace offered in the sermon?

That would be a fair criticism. So let’s leave Floundering-Peter and Baywatch-Jesus (thanks Working Preacher) behind us for a time and focus on what is at stake here. This passage is not about stepping out in a generic sense, let’s look past that simplistic notion of walking on water being about strong faith. Life is far more complicated than that.

Let’s consider this story from a literary perspective and use those skills we honed so well in English class. What is the turning point or the climax of this story?

  • Is it Jesus walking on water?
  • Is it Peter walking on water?
  • Is it the fear the overwhelms Peter?

In my mind the climax of this story, is when Peter sees the strong wind, notices the larges waves being produced and begins to sink. The moment his fear overwhelmed him. In the past we might have said, ‘Oh poor Peter, he didn’t have a strong enough faith.’ Which if you were paying attention is the angle I taught this story to the children.

But should we really be saying, ‘Poor Peter, if only he’d had more faith. If only he’d trusted in Jesus more!’ Should we really be admonishing him in that way? Ask yourself, how does that help Peter? He’s afraid, he’s close to drowning and there we stand in the boat saying ‘Oh Peter, ye of little faith.’ Jesus can say that to him, but us? We’re all still in the boat and we’re so busy criticizing Peter that we forgot to throw him a life line.

How does that help? Where is the grace in that?

Peter was afraid and I think we all know a little about what fear can do to us. It causes us to freeze, to panic, and to doubt. We all fear about failing to live up to expectations. We fear disappointing people, we fear we won’t have enough money, we fear that we’ll make the wrong decision.

We live in a culture that is surrounded by fear, many institutions thrive, even profit, on our fear. The media, health industry, and regrettably even some forms of institutionalized religion. Donate now, show your love for God and guarantee your spot in heaven. That’s what the Reformation was trying to stamp out.

Fear is the reality of the fabric of our lives. There is no getting around it, no avoiding it. This week we have had a resurgence of fear based on the rhetoric from North Korea and the United States. Some of the language, indeed the religious language which in my view was misused, this week is terrifying. We all know what it means to fear. We can all relate with Peter, because the truth is that in some way each of us is sinking.

As Barbara Brown Taylor said in a sermon, if there is a miracle worth savoring in this story, then it’s maybe not that Jesus could walk on water (after all, if Jesus is God, then his ability to walk on water is no more surprising than your or my ability to walk up a flight of steps.) And the miracle is not that Peter managed that same trick for a moment or two. No, the miracle is that when it was all said and done–while a soggy and chagrined Peter sputtered seawater out of his lungs and as the boat continued to bob around in the dead of that rather dark night–somehow in the midst of those humble surroundings way out there in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them. So they worshiped him. They believed.

If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. True enough. And here and there, now and again, the church maybe needs visionary and courageous folks who step out on faith to do some new and bold thing. But maybe there are far more times when life in the “boat” that just is the church involves no more than faithfully pulling on your oar against the winds that howl, believing that Jesus is near, and so pressing on. You press on in faith not because you’ve tested Jesus and found that he lived up to all the hype and not because Jesus has enabled you yourself to do something quite grand and eye-catching. No, you press on because you believe Jesus when, through the Spirit, you hear him say, “Chin up! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” So keep pulling on that oar! (reference).

And folks, when you do find yourself in the water, be sure to look around and see who else is in the water with you. Remember that we are not alone, we work together as a community of faith. We pull steadily on the oars, we wrestle with the wind and in doing so we keep the faith. Through our constant work we remind a weary and fearful world that truly Jesus is the Son of God and we work towards the coming of God’s kingdom. Amen.