1 Kings 19, 9, 11-13 + Psalm 85 + Romans 9, 1-5 + Matthew 14, 22-33
Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, Colorado
It’s a miracle story again, just like last week. Miracles in the Bible are incomprehensible, unexpected and shocking. They amaze and explode the ordinary to lift people out of indifference and cause them to turn to God. They are signs that happen where there is faith, and they can strengthen weak faith and attract others to believe. I said that last week when I spoke about the miracle of the loaves and fish. Both stories are a challenge to modern Christians who always want to explain away the miraculous. We like to think that those simple people two thousand years ago could easily be persuaded that the laws of nature could be suspended by supernatural intervention. They would probably not have asked: “Is it possible?” They would have been more likely to wonder if it really happened in this case.
Our more skeptical age wants to find a rational explanation. Maybe it was an optical illusion. After all it was 3:00 a.m. That is the time for the fourth watch of the night. Perhaps it just looked as though Jesus was walking on the water when he was actually just walking along the surf at the northern end of the lake. While that might be so, it is then not likely that the experience would have been transformed into the story handed on to us by tradition. The disciples would have discovered their mistake, and the incident would never have been preserved for the ages. Maybe it was an experience from after the resurrection that was transferred to this earlier time. A Jesus who passes through locked doors could walk on water. If that’s the case, what would have been the purpose? There would have been no miracle there. It was becoming an ordinary event. He did it often. No surprise.
Another possibility is that the story was made up by the early church as part of their growing understanding of Christ as Divine making this a theophany like the Transfiguration story. It is then Jesus revealing himself as divine to the disciples in that boat. But all of this reads way more into the story than Matthew could have intended. He wrote this Gospel long before any conflicts had risen about the divinity and humanity of Jesus. For Matthew the figure walking on the waves is the Messiah, the one God has empowered with supernatural power. This power of Jesus does not come from Jesus himself, but it is conferred upon him by God. It is not evidence of divinity, but evidence of the divine empowerment of the one God has chosen and sent. This is demonstrated by the fact that Peter is empowered to do the same, and there is no claim that Peter is divine because he walks on the waves. However, Peter is empowered to do great things.
It is important to remember that the boat was far from land and being tossed about by the waves at the time Jesus walks toward it. The miracle suggests that this is not a scene by which Jesus shows off his power, but rather that Jesus will do anything and go anywhere to rescue and help his threatened disciples. There is no reason not to wonder if Jesus himself might have been a bit anxious when having no boat to use for the rescue of his friends, he just decided to walk out there and save them. In other words, this story is more about function than it is about nature. It is more about what Jesus does rather than who he is. It points to the truth that he is empowered by God to save, shepherd, and care for God’s people; and there was not nothing that would stop him, even if it meant wading out into a stormy sea or walking up Calvary’s hill.
We should notice that Matthew refers to “those in the boat” rather than “disciples” or “apostles.” What is revealed by this miracle is that all believers, not just apostles in the endangered ship depend on the savior. Those in the boat are you and I tossed about by the storms of life, the darkness of night, and fear.
I wonder sometimes with this story if Peter’s behavior is not more of a miracle than the behavior of Jesus. Peter’s obedience, and his willingness to get out of the boat is really amazing; perhaps more amazing than seeing the one who just fed five thousand on five loaves and two fish walking on the stormy sea. Here in Peter is the story of what it means to be a Christian caught as we all are midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, taking the first steps in confidence that Jesus will sustain them, and then forgetting to keep their gaze fixed on him instead of the towering waves. Peter tells us about the risk taking of faith, about living with uncertainties.
These verses close with a lesson on faith and doubt. I have found it helpful to know that in John’s Gospel, believing is always a verb. It is never a noun. Faith is not a possession that can be measured or might run out. Faith is an activity. It is something you do, or perhaps it is how you do everything. It is like a song that disappears when we stop singing. The idea suggests that those of little faith must exercise that faith or lose it like an unused muscle. Peter, whose faith is not great at this point starts to believe and gets out of the boat. Had he chosen to stay aboard, he never would have known what it was like to reach out and have Christ take his hand. There is nothing safe about faith. It gets us into all kinds of trouble and leads us to do all sorts of things no one would think of doing. But so it is with those of us who want to believe, and so it shall be for those who keep their gaze on the one who comes on the water. To believe in the saving power of Jesus is certainly to take a risk.