Peter walks on water

Matthew 14:22-33
August 13, 2017
Catherine Thiel Lee

By now most all of you have heard about, read about, seen footage of the white supremacist rallies that took place in Charlottesville yesterday. You have taken in the images of the predictable violence that erupted, the confused tangle of words and outrage and lack of outrage and looking the other way that largely marks our national conversation on race, our personal conversations on race in America.

We are not so evolved. We live in a fiction of progressive tolerance under the shadow of lynching trees and the truth is we are still so afraid of one another. We like to think that our slave transport boats have been destroyed and buried, burned for kindling, even as we pass prison transport vans on the highway.

Truth is we still live in the same boats, battered by the waves of fear and hatred and the wind is against us. It is terrifying to get yet another glimpse of how great the storm is, to feel the sickening reeling of our vessels being racked by the sea, water spilling over the sides, as we listen for a crack in the mast.

So if there is a better gospel passage for us to be reading together tonight, I don’t know what it would be.

Tonight’s gospel passage is a familiar, dramatic story of Jesus walking on the water. Matthew paints a clear, terse picture: Jesus and the water. Jesus always seems to be near the water in Matthew’s gospel, getting in and out of boats, criss-crossing the sea.

Jesus orders his disciples into a boat and sends them out across the Sea of Galilee. Ancient commentators consistently viewed the “boat” as a metaphor for the church, the vessel that carries the disciples along, an interesting interpretation to keep tucked in the back of our minds tonight. While they are in the boat, Jesus stays on land, going off in solitude up the mountain to pray, but for whatever reason he compels them to go ahead of him to the other side. By evening the boat is a long way out and a storm has arisen.

There is little doubt that the disciples are in trouble, the text is stark in describing their situation—their boat is far from land, “battered by the waves because the wind [is] against it” (Mt 14:24).

The disciples battle against the waves and wind through the night. We don’t catch another glimpse of them until the fourth watch, around 4 in the morning, when Jesus takes out across the sea on foot. Though at this point they are surely worn out, wet, cold, and miserable, the narrative focuses clearly on their fear.[1] They see a figure floating across the sea, moving toward them. And they are terrified.

Popular belief in the disciples’ time held that the sea was the home of evil spirits, not to mention unknown creatures, mythical and real, dwelling in its depths. The sea was also a symbol of chaos, all the ways the world is up-ended. It is hardly surprising that through the haze of exhaustion, frazzled nerves, crashing waves, and swirling wind they assume a ghost is moving towards them. The disciples cry out in fear, screaming in the storm in the middle of the night.

Jesus’ response to all their fear of the dark and broiling sea, to their terror is this:

“It is I, do not be afraid.”

“It is I.” The same words as “I am,” that mysterious, all encompassing nameless name God offers to Moses announcing the Exodus (Ex 3:14). “I am,” Jesus announces, echoing out across the waters as if nothing else needs to be said.

Jesus is claiming to be God, the God of Psalm 77 who (just listen to this) “performs miracles” and “displays power among the peoples.” The God who, “when the waters saw you, God, the water saw you and writhed; the very depths convulsed.” The God whose “path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen” (Ps 77: 14, 16, 19). The God who rules even over chaos, even over the sea. The God who walks on the water.

But just before that, Jesus has another word, another phrase of command, just as clear as his command to get in the boat in the first place.

“Take heart.”

“Take heart.” “Take courage.” The word means something along the lines of, “be resolute in the face of danger or adverse circumstances.”[2]

It is the same word Jesus says to the paralyzed man being carried in on his bed (Mt 9:2). It is the same word Jesus says to the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years when she dared to touch the edge of his cloak, reaching out for healing (Mt 9:22). It is the same word said to Bartimeus, the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus from the streets (and when he hears it Bartimeus jumps up and throws off his cloak) (Mk 10:49).

It is the same word Jesus uses when he says in John, “…you will have trouble. Take heart! I have overcome the [whole] world” (Jn 16:33).

But “take heart” sounds so clumsy, a touch too formal and anatomic. My favorite translation is the Spanish rendering, “animo”—to animate, enliven, inspire, brighten up.

“Be alive!”

That’s Jesus’ word to the disciples as they look at him walking toward them across the deep, dark sea.

But I have to say the most striking thing to me as I read this story is not Jesus walking on the water. Miraculous and marvelous as that fact may be, the Son of God striding out over the deep, it is not the picture of Jesus which lodged into my mind this week.

It was Peter.

Because at this point in the story, at this point in my life, I am not terribly surprised at the report of Jesus doing something miraculous. Jesus performs miracles. It is one of the things he does. He does it with great authority and meaning and a dash of unpredictably whimsy.

I have not worked out yet why Jesus performs some miracles and not others. I do not know why Jesus heals some people he encounters but not all of them. I do not know why he lavishes his signs and wonders one minute, then slyly withholds them the next. I do not why he exhibited his power in the world so precariously when he walked the earth. And I certainly don’t know why he is so precarious with his power now, here on the other side of the resurrection.

But I do know Jesus does miraculous things.

The disciples knew too. They had been following around for months—years—witnessing one miraculous deed after another. Jesus has turned water into wine, cast out stubborn demons, healed terrible diseases. Raised the dead. The handful of verses here in Matthew leading up to the story of Jesus on the water mention the “miraculous” three times, just before the Jesus performs one of his most iconic miracles, the feeding of the 5,000. Signs and wonders and miracles are solidly in Jesus’ wheelhouse and everyone knows it.

So it isn’t terribly surprising that Jesus the miracle worker can walk on water.

Peter, on the other hand…

It’s not clear why Peter asks to come out on the water, but he asks. He knows this is not something he can do on his own. He doesn’t launch out in a display of authority; he asks to come and be with Jesus—precisely in the place of fear and terror where Jesus is standing. “If it’s you, Lord,” Peter says, “tell me to come to you on the water” (14:28).

And then Jesus, of course, says the thing that we all long to hear Jesus say: “come.”

“Come!” Venga! Allez! Aagee! Every language has its own multiple lingual equivalents of parents waving their children into the house, friends shouting across a street, “come ‘ere!” “Over this way…come!”

Jesus, in all his penchant for colloquial brevity, looks out from the storm to his beloved mentee and friend and simply says, “come on!”

It’s my new image of Jesus, standing there in the slamming rain, waves crashing all around his feet, riding the waves with the wind pressing against his face. Right there in the middle of all the terrifying terribleness that the skies and the deeps can conspire to release onto the world. Right there in the middle of their fear and fury. Right there in the middle of everything that could go wrong, where there is no ground under their feet.

And Jesus not only walks across it all, he blithely invites Peter to come out and join him. To walk across the water too.

The real miracle here is not that Jesus does a miraculous, impossible thing.

It’s that Peter does a miraculous, incredulous, terrifying, impossible thing.

Peter walks on the water.

~

I have to confess that I have a problem with the oft quoted bit of popular theology that “God never puts more on us than we can bear.” I hear that a lot in my work. People facing death and trauma and crisis will often pull it out as a reassurance that they will be able to bear up through whatever awful, unexpected thing they are facing. Sometimes they say it with stalwart confidence. More often they end it with a question mark. I have my own doubts about statements that put suffering in the administering hands of God, but it is still all rather mysterious to me, and anyway crisis is rarely the time to correct someone else’s theology. I usually just respond and say, “well, sometimes it certainly doesn’t feel that way.” 99 times out of 100 I am met with a relieved sigh.

The problem is that I think we do receive burdens that we cannot bear. I think we receive them all the time. The troubles of this world, of our daily lives, of fear and illness and hatred and death are far beyond the strength of any set of shoulders, however well toned by either abuse or disciplined dedication. In our lives, we face impossible burdens, raging seas.

Perhaps God does not ask us to bear burdens God “knows we can handle.” Perhaps Jesus does not invite us, great swimmers that we are, to “swim” across the sea. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, instead, prompts us to do the impossible.

Maybe like Peter our task is to walk on the water.

This week I spent time with and heard about people walking on water. They are all around me.

This weekend I sat with some people who are dying, spent time with a friend with an incredibly difficult home life, heard about another friend’s 8 year old diagnosed Friday with cancer, watched footage from Charlottesville, read reports about indigenous women dying 800% more often of overdoses than other demographics, faced my own troubled waters.

The sea is dark and broiling.

And this weekend I also laughed with an old woman in the hospital whose daughter says she has always loved “mischief.” I listened with my friend to this amazing male vocalist cover a Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and he sang it slow, and it ripped out the hearts of everyone in the crowd as we swayed and sat awestruck. I looked at pictures of Mateo, my friend’s 8 year old, smile plastered across his face, arms raised, ripping down slides at the water park. I witnessed organizers and regular people speak out with their voices and bodies against structural evil and racism. I canned a box of tomatoes gathered from the overflowing vines of Anathoth’s garden. I sent messages to my cousin on his birthday as he survived another year despite his heroin addiction.

I watched people walk on water.

I wondered how they might teach me to walk across my own deep, dark places too.

As we are gathering here tonight, others around North Carolina are gathering in Durham, in Lillington, in Hendersonville, in Charlotte, in Greensboro, in Concord, in Waynesville, in Winston-Salem, in Hickory, in Brevard, in Fayetteville, in Asheville, in Wilmington, in Carrboro, in Franklin, in Hillsborough, in other towns who have been added since I checked the list at noon. They are gathering in vigils of solidarity with the town of Charlottesville, vigils against white supremacy, vigils of justice and compassion. They are lighting candles and talking about race and violence, and mourning, and planning, and saying “no,” and saying “yes,” and working to create something new in the world. They are facing the dark broiling sea and daring to walk out onto it. They are taking heart, they are enlivening, they are animating.

We are too. That is, Lord willing, what we do when we come to this place week after week, gathering as a community, pulling our up into the tattered, battered boat we call church. I wanted to add our name to the list of events all across the country, “Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship will gather at 6pm on Sunday.”

What if organizers could just list off the names of churches in every town: “join the church to light candles and sing songs and speak together about how we can walk the way of peace in the face of hatred. Gather with us as we name the sea, as we ride the waves, as we face the wind, as we hope for calmer waters and sunsets and breakfast on the shore.”

“Join us as we step out onto the water, hearing Jesus’ strange, insistent ‘Come.’”

What it means to follow Jesus in the midst of the storms of our lives is to walk on the water like Peter. It is to step out onto the sea itself, in all its chaos and unknown uncertainty. It is to step out onto the sea during a storm, while it is raging.

And it is to discover that somehow we can walk on the water too. Toward Jesus, with Jesus, like Jesus. Miraculously, impossibly moving through our lives.

And the story also offers this consolation and reality check, for all its wild glory: when we falter in the wind like Peter (and we will falter), when we begin to lose our footings on the water and sink, we will not be left to slip beneath the waves.

When we cry out again for help, hands will reach out to us, pull us up, draw us back into the boat.

Some days we find ourselves walking on the water like Peter.

Some days we look around and see the wind and find ourselves sinking. And we cry out. And we find hands outstretched, pulling us up, hauling us over the side and back in the boat.

Some days we look around and see Jesus sitting there with us among his panting followers.

Some days the wind dies down.

Whatever the day, whatever the hour, this is our good news: Jesus is Lord over the waters, terrifying as they may become on any given night.

“Take heart.”

“Animo.”

“Be alive.”

Because, miraculously, Jesus can walk on the water.

And, more miraculously, he invites us to walk on the water with him.

And, even more miraculously, impossibly, like Peter, we walk on the water too.

Amen.

~

[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 33b (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 423.

[2] “tharseo,” BDAG, 3rd ed.

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