Encounters with Rabbi Jesus, II: The Eye of the Storm
But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’
O Lord, you have given us your Word for a light to shine upon our path. Grant us so to meditate on that Word, and to follow its teaching that we may find in it the light that shines more and more until the perfect day. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
We continue our journey in the Gospel of Matthew with Jesus and his disciples, as they shift from wilderness to the sea. Last week we read of the feeding the 5,000 men, plus women and children, a miracle in which Peter experienced the blessing of being enough and having enough. The next miracle furthers our understanding of Jesus—who he is and in turn, who we can become. Listen to this story as if you are hearing it for the first time.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 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.”
Some of the nuances of language and metaphors in this miracle story may be lost on listeners in the 21st century. Although we live next to a large body of water that can rage with anger one moment and be calm as a mirror the next, the 1st century listeners of Matthew’s Gospel, would have immediately grasped more than just the physical reality of water.
For these Hebrews, a large body of water often represented an evil power that opposed God and God’s plan of salvation. God seemed to be always rescuing people from water.
- Noah sought shelter from the flood.
- The Red Sea needed to be parted to allow the exiles to flee Egypt.
- In the Book of Jonah, when the seas raged with anger, God sent a big fish to keep Jonah until he was ready to do what God told him must be done.
- In Job, God tramples on water and walks the recesses of the deep.
- The psalmists speak of God’s power over the seas and use water as a symbol of peril: “Save me, O God,” says the psalmist, “for the waters have come up to my neck” (Ps. 69).
Raging seas and howling storms would have represented chaos and danger. So it is no wonder that sanctuaries are often built to resemble a ship. Just look up, we are cradled in an ark. From my vantage point, I can see the varying hues of green and blue, like the waters.
Fear dominates in this story: there is the fear of being separated from Jesus and fear of the raging waters. Fear can become infectious such that when Jesus approached the disciples by walking on water, even his image becomes terrifying. Matthew tells us, “They cried out in fear.” Who can walk here with such authority and freedom? Is it a ghost?
When Jesus said, “It is I.” They recognize him and his words reinforced the sense that this is a divine revelation. For the Hebrew listener, “it is I” is the name God spoke to Moses on Mt. Horeb. During their encounter at the burning bush, Moses asked God for a name and the reply was simply—“I am who I am.”
The act of walking on water was unmistakable: Jesus was exercising a prerogative that belongs to God alone. Jesus’ “It is I” carried the same divine sovereignty as God’s “I am” that has always come to the aid of people in times of trouble.
Peter gets it. We have a theological word for this—he had an “epiphany” when he realized having faith in Jesus draws him closer to something even bigger—God. Focusing on Jesus dispelled his fear. With renewed confidence in this divine presence, Peter set aside his life-long experience as a fisherman of what happens when you step out of the boat, and relied upon his faith.
Peter risks, “Command me to come to you.”
Jesus complied with “Come.” He did. Peter walked on water, too. For a brief moment, Peter felt what it was like to trust.
Then Peter noticed the strong wind, lost faith, and started to sink.
Even the most accomplished and faithful servants can become overwhelmed when faced with more danger than they imagined. Peter believed, but fear is so potent. It is so hard to hold on to faith in the midst of a storm.
Walking on water is evidence that God welcomes us to participate in miracles if we just have enough faith—just like feeding of the 5,000 men, plus women and children we heard last week.
But, some will look at Peter’s escapade and conclude if your faith is strong enough, no harm will befall you, as if there is no room for fear or doubt. That sets the bar so high for faith that we can become afraid to acknowledge the doubts and fears we harbor…how’s that for drowning in a circle?
When bad things happen, and they will, some people will speak as though they believe that a lack of faith caused whatever accident, illness or tragedy. Or God isn’t compassionate enough to protect us. Or that God is not a loving God. When we are afraid, or angry, or don’t understand how something tragic could happen, we want to assign blame. We live in cause and effect and something must be responsible.
This brings me to another one of those little Christian lies. “It was God’s will.” Perhaps you have heard this. As a chaplain, I would just want to scream when I would hear someone say that to a grieving family.
The late William Sloan Coffin, one of the preeminent preachers of the 20th century, preached a sermon at The Riverside Church in New York just two weeks after his 20-year-old son died in a single car accident. Coffin is angry and grieving as he recounts the story of a woman who brought food to comfort the family and then says to him: “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Coffins preached:
Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t lady.’ I said…‘Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had had a couple of ‘frosties’ too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road from Boston Harbor?’
For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God does not go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels….The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
Such platitudes are offered when we are looking for sure answers, or cannot muster the courage to be fully present with another’s pain, grief, or turbulent circumstance.
As preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber claims, such “(s)entiments do not whitewash away anyone’s pain. It just makes the person saying it feel safer.”
God does not cause pain and suffering. It is never God’s will that we cower in fear or endure storms alone.
When Peter’s fear overtook him, and he began to sink, the text says “immediately” Jesus reached for him.
Immediately, Jesus saved. Jesus did not go through some accounting of Peter’s faith practices. Jesus just saved all of Peter, the doubting as well as the faithful parts. It is not God’s will that we experience evil—but it is God’s will to be fully present with us.
The original, Greek text is so sparse. There are no punctuation marks, paragraphs or page breaks, certainly no breath marks, let alone “tone-of-voice” marks.
When they got back in the boat, some readers imagine Jesus sternly reprimanded Peter with “why did you doubt.” But, instead, Jesus’ tone of voice just as likely was that of a proud parent “you of little faith, why did you doubt? I knew you could do it. You knew I would be there for you.” I certainly will not edit scripture, but as the spirit moves in me, I’d like to think that there were a few ‘atta-boys’ thrown around in that boat, celebrating, with fist bumps.
Jesus’ “do not be afraid,” confronts so many truths. Fear is infectious—one fear-inducing circumstance aroused doubt that Jesus was present and spread from one disciple to another. Fear is dangerous because it turns us away from God. Fear can take us from focusing on what God has done and can do, limiting what we can and are willing to do. Jesus’ earthly life is bracketed by warnings against fear. The angel announcing his conception says to his mother, “Do not be afraid.” The angel announcing his resurrection to the women at the tomb says, “Do not be afraid.”
Peter gets to stand in for all of us who waiver between fear and faith. Fear could have kept him locked on shore or secured in the boat.
The miracle of Peter walking on water revealed he could do far more when he was walking towards Jesus. The miracle of Jesus walking on water revealed God would go to any length to meet us. When they were all back in the boat, this was the first time the disciples claimed Jesus was “truly the Son of God.”
That was the whole purpose of the incarnation of Jesus; we learn the length to which God will be present when we encounter evil. Then as followers of the risen Christ, we can pay forward his grace.
We pay forward the grace by placing our faith in that which is bigger than us and being with others when storms or evil occurs.
In 1940, the rescue of 400,000 British and Allied troupes from the beaches of Dunkirk by small civilian vessels is often referred to as the “Miracle of Dunkirk.” The current movie Dunkirk features Mark Ryland as a Mr. Dawson who exemplifies all who had the courage and faith to sail into enemy waters. He, like hundreds of others, risked Nazi air attacks by sailing trawlers, lifeboats, and pleasure crafts—anything that would float and carry soldiers to safety.
Writer Brian McLaren was in Charlottesville on Friday night, and writes the incoming students at the University of Virginia were “some of the most courageous people” he had ever seen. They stood up for tolerance, diversity, compassion, and against the neo-Nazi’s “without fear.”
Gathered to worship in a synagogue, we are recipients of the generosity of those who the Nazi’s sought to destroy. We are grateful for the faith of ordinary people who were willing to do extraordinary things, showing the power of God’s love to prevail over evil and that there is never room in God’s world for racism or white supremacists.
Then there are the personal ways someone touches our lives, giving us a hand.
Lenora Tubbs Tinsdale wrote in an essay about her experience with breast cancer: “some days in my fight for wholeness, I confess that the lions and tigers and bears threaten to overwhelm me.” She continues with how sick and tired she was of being sick and tired and yet she was scheduled for another treatment.
My nurse—incredibly compassionate and kind—was a bit taken aback, since ordinarily my disposition in the treatment room is sunny…there was too much… terror to be encountered…
She brought me a box of tissues, began the IV that would send anti-nausea medicine into my veins, laid an afghan over my lap to warm me when the IV fluids made me cold, pulled the lever at the side of my chair so that my feet would be comfortably propped up…
As I lay there, I thought of the email I had received just the day before from my wonderfully encouraging daughter. “You’re tough, you know, Momma.” She had written to me, “tough even if you don’t feel like it.”
Yesterday I felt less than tough. I felt like a coward who needed a new heart, like a tin man who lacked a soul, and like Dorothy who had been slung far from home and set on a tortuous journey with no end in sight. I felt broken, beaten down, and afraid.
“Tough” is not usually how I feel these days. Yet at some tender place, deep down within my fearful heart, I wondered if I could believe in her vision of me…and perhaps lions and tigers and bears are not so threatening after all. For once again, I have been surrounded and upheld by a prior and more powerful grace.”
May it be so for us all.
 William Sloan Coffin, “Alex’s Death, in The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin: The Riverside Years, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 3–4.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “What can separate us from the love of God?” Sermons from House for All Sinners and Saints. Podcast audio, July 30, 2017, http://www.houseforall.org/media/sermons.php.
 Lenora Tubbs Tinsdale, The Sun Still Rises: Mediations on Faith at Midlife (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2017), 68.