Stepping out in Faith
Text: Matthew 14:22-32
Proper 14, A
When doubt seeps in, we lose our focus, our sense of balance, and our confidence. You are going along in life and everything is going your way until something happens that makes you doubt and then everything turns against you. The world spins, your breath catches and your stomach plummets. Doubt. It is that insidious, spreading fear that makes us take our eyes off the goal and flounder in the here and now, questioning our abilities and worth. That's what happened to Peter. For a moment, he was walking on water, literally, then doubt seeped in and he began to sink. Peter is so human; so much like us. He is bold and willing to take risks on the one hand and fearful and full of doubt on the other. He shows us what it means to be a Christian caught between faith and doubt.
A fierce storm had arisen and the disciples’ boat was tossed about by the waves and facing a head wind. Having battled the storm for hours they are exhausted. They were at the mercy of the wind and the waves. Imagine the churning water, the huge waves crashing over the boat, the powerful head wind … and the disciples in the middle of it all, straining every muscle as they tried to row against it. What an image of chaos, terror, hopelessness, and powerlessness! Then coming across the turbulent water they see a figure walking towards them with the wind tearing at his clothes and the white caps lapping at his feet. These seasoned fishermen had seen many things out there on the lake, but they had never seen anything like this. This would make the bravest hearts flop and fail. There was only on possible explanation. No human can walk on water. "It’s a ghost!" they immediately thought.
Above the wind they hear a voice: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!’ At the point when they thought that there was nothing left for them but a watery grave, Jesus came to the rescue. At the point when they were desperate and powerless Jesus comes to rescue them from certain shipwreck. He gives them a renewed hope and a sense that there really isn't anything to be afraid of. Jesus is there with his calming words: "It is I. Don't be afraid!"
When life is battering us around and the wind is against us, sometimes we don't realize that Jesus is coming to us especially through the events of our lives. We may not immediately recognize the ways that He is present, and interceding for us. But He is there, working for our good long before we are able to hear His words of assurance. Jesus is there working through the turmoil and strife in our lives, reminding us of His never-ending presence, giving us the strength and the hope to see our way through what is happening. He is continually using our present troubles to draw us closer to Him, making us more trusting in His goodness and love. When we are at our lowest He is there: "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter was quick to see that it was Jesus and responded to the ghost-like Jesus with a courageous challenge: "Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water." That’s a strange request. He might have said, "Lord, if it is you, make this storm stop," or "Lord, if it is you, give each of us the strength of ten men so we can finally make it to the other side of the sea." But Peter wanted more than that. He wanted to believe that this was Jesus but he also wanted proof. Jesus simply answered, "Come!" And Peter did. He stepped out of the boat and on to the water. One writer describes this moment like this, "Peter swung his legs over the side of the boat and, while all the other disciples watched with their hearts beating in their mouths, he placed his feet on the surface of the water - the waves crashing against the side of the boat, the wind whipping his hair into his eyes - he put his feet flat on top of the water, took a huge, trembling breath, and stood up. Then he took a few hesitant steps toward Jesus across the heaving surface, like the first steps he ever took in his life, and he was doing fine until a gust of wind almost toppled him, he got scared, his feet sinking into the black waves below, and he went down like a stone."
Peter lost sight of the one who called him to venture out from the safety of the boat and gave him the power to fulfill what had been commanded. He accepted the risk of faith by answering Jesus’ call and climbing over the rim of the boat but his doubt suddenly returned when he felt the force of the wind and saw the size of the waves. He shifted his attention from the power of God in Jesus to his own limitations and fears and he started to sink like a rock.
Yet, in this moment of doubt, there is also still the glimmer of faith for before he went down, he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus immediately reached out a strong hand to catch him and haul him into the boat, wet and shivering. At least Peter had the good sense to call out for help when he needed it. Some of us would rather drown than admit we need help! Notice that Jesus immediately reached out to catch him. Peter didn't have to beg for help or wait until he was on the point of drowning. Yes, Jesus rebuked him saying, "you of little faith, why did you doubt?" but still there was immediate help.
When Jesus said "you of little faith" it is a rebuke for people of faith who didn't use the resources of faith available to them. Jesus rebuked Peter not for being faithless, but for not exercising the faith that he had. Faced with the immediate threat of a bubbling sea, Peter’s fear was more real to him than his faith. Yet, in his moment of crisis he called out with the little bit of faith that he had. You see, this isn’t a story about the size of Peter’s faith or even how he used it. It is a story of a distressed, beleaguered faith which still saves - despite the misgivings, weaknesses, and short-comings! As he gurgled and spluttered in the wild seas he knew there was only one who could come to his rescue. There was only one who could save him even though he didn’t deserve saving. He called out to Jesus who raised him to the surface and hauled him into the boat.
That is the good news in this story. Jesus is reaching out to save us who are "of little faith", even as we sink in doubt and fear. That is good news indeed, because like Peter, faith and doubt are all mixed up in us. One minute we are filled with faith and courage the next filled with fear and doubt. One minute we are being lifted up, the next we are sinking like stones in the wild seas of our life. One minute we are so confident, trusting Jesus completely, the next we doubt his power to help us. Faith and doubt co-exist in us. We obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt. It’s not like we do only one or the other, we do both. Faith and fear-filled doubt live side by side in us. We don’t like it, God doesn’t like. We are this way because of our sinful nature.
That brings me to the next piece of good news in this story. Jesus doesn’t reject Peter because fear had replaced his trust in Jesus when he saw the wild seas. He doesn’t give up on the man whose faith is hot one minute and cold the next. Jesus knows very well that faith and doubt live side by side in each of us and yet he still loves, he even forgives us for being hot and cold in our faith, and still calls us his own family.
At our baptism God promised that he would stand by us as we rode the wild waves and the turbulent seas of our life. Our doubts and fears may paralyze us but he is always there to rescue us with his mighty arm. When we sink, as Peter does, as we all do, our Lord reaches out and catches us, responding first with grace and then with correction - "Why did you doubt?" - but never, never with rejection. Why does he keep on rescuing us even though we are "of little faith" – that’s just the way God is, full of grace and never-ending love. When Peter couldn't come to Jesus, Jesus came to him and to all those waiting there in the boat. When we can't go to Jesus (and we never fully can), Jesus comes us and climbs into our life circumstances - right here with us - to bring the help that we need. The moment Jesus stepped into the boat, the sea became calm and the wind was stilled and everyone knew they were in the presence of the Almighty God.
None of this means that Jesus won’t challenge us to "come" and step out and walk on water. Indeed, the challenge is here before you today. "Come" step out and grow in your faith. "Come" receive the gifts he freely offers. "Come" read, study, learn, and pray. "Come" and live the life he has called you to. Wherever there is human need, our Lord is there, beckoning us to follow, to step out of the security of our boat and to serve the needs of others. He is there with the lonely, the broken-hearted, the disadvantaged, the condemned, the despairing, the suffering, the rejected. He is beckoning us to step out and be his witness, to tell others of the good news of Jesus that we have come to know and love. Jesus calls to each of us: "Come. Step out. Walk with me. No matter what may happen along the way, remember we are together. If you sink, I will lift you up and give you the strength to go on."