Stepping out in faith can be a scary thing. Can we leave the safety of our boats to join Jesus on the stormy waters? Will we dare to venture out as Peter did, even if it means we may sink or swim or perhaps even walk on water?
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is 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 toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I want to take a moment and thank all of our confirmands for leading us in worship today.
It is no easy thing to be up here on this chancel in front of your peers and siblings, your parents and grandparents, Sunday school teachers and pastors.
It takes courage and perhaps even a little faith to be able to do so.
David Barnes and I, along with the rest of this congregation, are grateful for your commitment and thoughtful preparation for this day. So thank you.
And now please join me in prayer:
Startle us, O God, with your word. Silence in us any voice but your own.
And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and salvation. Amen.
Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founding fathers, had a hard time believing the miracle stories we find in the Bible. Such a hard time, in fact, that legend has it, he got a razor, and actually cut out all the stories of Jesus performing miracles from the gospels. Today’s scripture lesson wouldn’t have made it into Jefferson’s new revised standard version.
In many ways, our confirmands this morning may be just as skeptical as Jefferson. Each one of them wrote their own, personal statements of faith and presented it to our session on April 4th, and mixed in with their, “I believe” statements were a lot of, “I’m not sure about… ” or “I don’t really understand” statements.
And I’m not sure how many of them and quite frankly how many of us gathered this morning could say that we actually believe Jesus literally walked on water. We live in an age of science and, in my opinion, healthy skepticism. And in the Presbyterian tradition, it’s completely acceptable to have marched for science yesterday and to be in church today. We question and wonder, especially about stories that seems to break the laws of physics. And yet, unlike Thomas Jefferson, I would never cut these miracle stories out of my Bible- because whether or not we can assert that they are factually true, they still hold truth. And they echo back to us the truth of our own nature, our own fears and doubts and worries; our own hopes, desires and longings.
The stories of Jesus and his miracles aren’t there so that we can scientifically analyze whether they’d be possible or not, they’re there to tell us about the nature of ourselves and the very nature of God, to give us an understanding that transcends our everyday, ordinary lives, yet speaks right to our everyday, ordinary lives.
The account of Jesus walking on water is found in three of the four gospels- Matthew, Mark and John. But only Matthew’s account includes the story of Peter. Peter, just like all the other disciples, sees Jesus and presumably thinks he may be a ghost, but when Jesus reveals who he is, Peter wants to walk on the water himself, through the storm, towards Jesus.
As a pastor who has worked a lot with youth, all I can think is, “Peter, just stay in the boat.” Because Peter is the kid in youth group or confirmation class who kind of terrifies me. He’s impulsive, passionate, throws himself into the moment, sometimes losing himself in the moment. You all know this teenager- she is overly eager, quick to answer, and full of enthusiasm. Perhaps some of you have even raised this teenager.
While it is nice to have these personalities that generate excitement and charisma in a group, she’s also the one you worry about. Because who knows what she’s going to try next, what kind of trouble or mischief or danger that he’s going to get into. In other words, Peter is that one youth who keeps us up all night on mission trips.
And yet Peter is the one who steps out onto the water, despite his fears, despite his doubts, to walk towards Jesus. Peter is the one who steps out in faith, not knowing whether he’d sink or swim or walk on water. He is courageous enough to do something that requires faith.
William Willimon, a theologian and bishop in the United Methodist church says this, “If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.”
As Christians, we must be willing to “risk and venture,” to step out in faith, to get out of the shallow end and to get out of the boat. Being a disciple of Christ is risky business. It often asks us to leave our comfort zones and to step right into the storm, to meet Jesus where he already is.
And in some ways, our confirmands have done just that. Honestly sharing what you believe and what you don’t believe, in front of a group of elders is daunting at any age, but when your own membership into a church is on the line, it can seem down-right terrifying. And yet, in the midst of their uncertainty, in the midst of their doubt, in the midst of their fear, and their own raging storms, this confirmation class has stepped out in faith to make a commitment to the church universal, and to choose to become adult members of this congregation.
Their statements of faith were amazing but sometimes read more like confessions on what they struggle to believe. To me they sound a lot like Peter asking, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” (vs 28.) “If it is you.”
Jesus has already said, “It is I, take heart, do not be afraid.” But Peter still wonders, “Is this really Jesus? And how do I know it’s Jesus. But if it is you, let me join you. Let me join you where you are, and let me join you in what you’re doing. Let me join you on the water.”
In much the same way, these confirmands have asked to join this church, the body of Christ, in what we are doing and in what we are about. Many of them have already been actively involved in the life and ministry of this congregation, but today they publicly proclaim and profess this commitment. In the midst of their doubt, they have taken a step, out of the safety of their own boats, into our waters, these waters of baptism.
And their bold step of faith is a challenge to us, to be Christ to them, to invite them into a new way of life; to invite them to indeed come and join us on these waters. These waters are not always calm and peaceful; there are still a lot unknowns in these waters but these waters are where Jesus and his followers walk.
Taking that first, initial step, however, doesn’t mean our doubts are automatically erased. Even Peter, who just saw Jesus feed the multitudes before getting on the boat, who can see Jesus right in front of him on that water, even Peter had his doubts. So no wonder we, today, share those doubts.
Just as falling helps us learn to rise again; doubting helps us learn to have faith again, teaching us to live in the tension of not knowing fully, but being able to believe nonetheless. Anne Lamott (via Paul Tillich) reminds us that, “the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.”
Certainty no longer requires faith. But doubt is an inherent element of faith. It’s that very uncertainty, that unknowing, that pushes us towards faith, towards something that we cannot fully understand, but that we hold onto with our lives.
Oftentimes, witnessing the brokenness of the world and the devastating storms of our lives can shake our faith. But when we become a disciple of Jesus, we make a choice, not to turn away from the storm, but to walk right into it.
We no longer turn away from the suffering of the world; we no longer ignore the pain of those around us; but rather, we walk into that brokenness to share the burden of those whose hearts are breaking. People of faith, people who follow Jesus, walk right into the storm.
But facing the ravage of these storms breaks our hearts, stirs our fears, and sometimes, we begin to sink. When Peter began to sink, scripture says Jesus immediately reached out his hand to catch him.
What a perfect image for what we, the Body of Christ, are to do and be for one another: that as we start to drown in our doubts, as we start to sink from our fears, we have one another to reach out our hands and catch us as we fall, to proclaim Christ’s words to us saying, “Do not be afraid.”
Every once in a while, we feel that hold on our own lives, breaking through all that is rational, all that we claim to know, and we experience the hold of God in the middle of the storm, the hand of Christ that keeps us from sinking, the arms of a community of faith, lifting us up, helping us to walk through the storm and onto the water.
We are called to be the Body of Christ to one another; to hold each other when we cannot hold ourselves; to reach out and help one another through the winds and the waves of life, to lend a hand and attest that we are not alone in the storm. To be a part of a community, to be the Body of Christ to and for one another is beautiful, and sacred, and holy work.
Now, scripture tells us that after saving Peter, Jesus asks, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s important to note that the text is ambiguous here. The traditional reading says that Jesus means, “Why did you doubt me? Why didn’t you have enough faith in me?”
But it’s also possible that he meant, “Why did you doubt yourself, Peter? Why didn’t you believe that you could come to me on the water?”
I think both readings are equally probable, and they’re not mutually exclusive. One speaks to how our wavering faith in God can keep us from accomplishing amazing, even miraculous things in this world. But our doubt in ourselves can also impede how God may use us.
Maybe Peter on that early morning believed it was indeed Jesus, but couldn’t believe that Jesus would work through a broken, doubting vessel like himself, that such a miracle could be possible in and through him.
What might be possible for us, if we had faith in ourselves through God?
What could God do with us and through, if we stopped doubting ourselves, stopped judging ourselves, stopped letting our past failures and flaws prevent us from stepping out in faith?
Marianne Williamson writes:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
So, leave behind those doubts about yourself.
Doubting your faith will happen; it’s inevitable. But don’t doubt what God can do through you.
Each and every one of us is created in the image of God, and together, we are the Body of Christ. The possibilities, the miracles that could happen, are endless.
May we be willing to risk it all to step out onto that water, knowing that we do not walk alone, but with one another, holding each other up when our own faith fails. And knowing that if we sink, God is there; if we swim, God is there.
But we may also have the capacity to walk on water, and miracles that change lives and change the world may just be possible, too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.