Stand Firm

Matthew 14:22-33

History records that two men have walked on water. Jesus went the full distance.  Peter sank after a step or two. It’s probably one of the most inspiring and well known stories of Jesus’ ministry.

Now when you consider a story about a man walking on water, you got ask yourself,  “Did this really happen?” Did Jesus really come walking across the water one evening while the disciples were out on the boat? And did one of his disciples really step over the side of the boat and start walking on water?

Some biblical scholars say no. They think you need to interpret the event symbolically – like an allegory.  Jesus departs from his church and miraculously returns. It’s symbolic of his death and miraculous resurrection.

Other scholars interpret it rationally. They say Jesus was just walking on shallow water and the disciples thought he was walking on the water surface. Clever trick.

Still others are bothered that this miracle, unlike other Jesus miracles, seems more for show than for freeing people. That’s because Jesus doesn’t meet a desperate need here. The disciples might have had trouble rowing, but their lives weren’t in jeopardy.

I side with those who refuse to put limits on Jesus. Because there is more to this story than a supernatural event. First of all, this incident conveys a powerful message about his identity. He’s more than a clever rabbi. The event triggers the disciples to tell him: Truly you are the Son of God. That’s what a supernatural event tends to do.

But the story does more than amaze the disciples. It’s a training miracle. Like the feeding of the 5000. It offers some training for the disciples that they will need once he is gone. It’s a two-part lesson One lesson for the church. And another lesson for a disciple.

Part one of the story speaks to the Church. If you remember from last week, Jesus amazed the crowds when he fed them on two small fish and five barley loaves.

After that event, Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat to go to the other side. They have a mission to attend to on the east side of the Galilee, but they don’t know what it is yet. Oddly enough, Jesus does NOT go with them. Instead, he takes off for some quiet time alone.

Now evening comes. The disciples are alone out on the dark sea: no Jesus, no crowds. They are straining to row that boat to the other side. Matthew says they were battered by the waves.

Riding in that boat was the church in its embryonic form. The church had done exactly what Jesus told them to do. And because they did what Jesus commanded them, they are facing battering waves all night long. Those waves were so bad that it was if something was trying to keep them from getting to the other side. We will see if we read on that they were on a mission.

They were headed to the other side of the lake where Jesus would exorcise a demoniac. So, of course, they can expect some push back. But that’s another story.

We should note here that the church of Jesus Christ may well suffer adversity for doing exactly what Jesus tells them to do. The first church in Jerusalem was scattered by the persecution from the religious establishment. Today we see the horrible atrocities committed by radical Islam against the church in the Middle East and in Africa. We see government sponsored persecution  in China.

Bishop Ben Kwashi is the Anglican Archbishop of Jos in Nigeria. I bought him lunch one Sunday after church when I was in seminary. Today he lives with persecution daily from the Muslim extremist group, Boka Haran. He tells of a village of farming families that were attacked in the middle of the night while they slept. Entire families of Christians were killed. Muslim families were untouched.

Canon Andrew White is the leader of Iraq’s Anglican community. He reports of the unspeakable atrocities that were committed against even children in Iraq by the Islamic State army.

This morning’s Gospel story raises the question for Christians down through the ages: If the church is being obedient to Christ, why does she suffer adversity? But Jesus doesn’t answer the why. Jesus suffered persecution and he tells his church that she too will suffer persecution.

But when that embryonic church in that little boat was threatened, when she was battered by the waves, hear what Jesus told them: Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.

When threaten by outside influences, in the face of adversity, Jesus does not tell his church to compromise. He does not tell her to seek common ground with the adversary, to submit. Just the opposite! He tells his church,  “Take heart, stand firm, remain resolute, give no quarter!”

Abp. Kwashi lives by those words. He says: I have no fear as to who will wipe out Christians in Nigeria.  I am absolutely confident in God that even if they killed all the 50 million or more Christians in Nigeria, the Gospel will still thrive.

Right now, the church in this country is being battered, not by wind and waves, but by a virus and the effects of that virus on the life of the church. It’s made it more difficult for us to meet. It’s restricted us from what we can do when we do meet indoors.

Yet,  we really don’t face persecution, we face inconvenience. Inconvenience is a more subtle attack on the church. Inconvenience can lull the church into complacency.  

All the more reason to “Take heart, stand firm, remain resolute.” We will continue to meet We will continue to worship We will continue to minister. Just keep rowing, keep moving forward through the wind and the waves.

Well, in part one of today’s Gospel, Jesus calls the church to take heart, to remain resolute. In part two he has a message for the individual Christian.

Peter sees Jesus and says: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Jesus says, “Come.”

I think the most significant part of this story is not when Peter walks on water. I think the most salient moment in the story comes right after Jesus says to Peter, “Come.”

There was no mistaking Jesus command. He tells Peter to leave the security of the boat in the middle of a storm and step out on to the water. Peter hears the command and has a decision to make. Do I follow my fears or do I follow my Lord?

What drives a person to defy their fears and take a step out of their comfort zone? Richard Marcinko is a Navy seal who rose through the ranks to create the counterterrorist unit called the SEAL TEAM SIX. They’re the ones that got bin Laden. Marcinko talks about what it takes to create a successful team.

In the movies, John Wayne makes a speech to his grunts about what they’re fighting for – truth, justice and the American way. And then his soldiers all band together for victory. But Marcinko says that in real life, it doesn’t happen that way. In real life, men don’t sacrifice everything for some abstract values like freedom or democracy. In real life, men sacrifice for their buddies.

When you build a bond between men, they will they will risk their lives for each other. That’s what we see in this morning’s Gospel.

Peter saw Jesus standing in the distance. And he said, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Peter made the decision to risk his life, to deny the realities that would hold him back. He stepped out of the boat. He didn’t take the step because it was the right thing to do. He didn’t risk his life because he wanted to promote orthodox faith and family values.

Peter stepped out of that boat to be with a person. There was a bond between Peter and His Lord. So when He heard Jesus call, nothing else mattered.

The remarkable part of the story is not Peter walking on water. After all, it was Jesus who enabled him to do that. The remarkable part was Peter’s decision to take that step.

Peter took it because he had faith in the person calling him. Being bonded to Jesus moved Peter to live beyond his own limits. He risked it all not for a cause, not for way of life, not for an ideal, . . . .He risked it all for a person.

That kind of devotion didn’t just happen. It came after spending a lot of time with Jesus. Just as the devotion of one Seal Team member for the others doesn’t just happen. It comes from spending time together, from learning about one another, from building trust together.

Peter had that kind of a relationship with Jesus. So that when Jesus called, Peter recognized the voice. And when Jesus called, Peter didn’t go half way. He risked it all when he made the decision to step out of that boat.

You can do more than you think possible when you’re doing it not for a cause, but for a person. And when that person is the one who died for you on a cross, you will surprise yourself by what you can do.

Ah, but Peter began to sink! Yes, when he took his eyes off Jesus he did begin to sink. And that raises the second question that nags us as Christians. If I have these times of great closeness with Jesus, why do I keep falling back?

Peter was walking confidently toward Jesus one moment and drowning in the sea the next. And doesn’t that sound familiar? We’ll be singing God’s praises in church on Sunday morning and then snapping at our spouse on Sunday night. We’ll get inspired to move mountains for our Lord one day,  and on another day we’ll walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Why is that?  Why can we be so double minded? It’s the human condition, call it sin. We believe our surroundings and our resources are more decisive than Jesus’ promises. We let the wind outweigh his words.

Peter lived with Jesus. He loved Jesus. He was the first to call him Messiah. Jesus said of Peter, “On this rock I will build my church.” And, yet, Peter wavered even as he was doing the impossible.

This story shows that we can go remarkable things when we believe. But it also shows that we can’t sustain faith by ourselves. Sooner or later, we start looking around at life’s realities and take our eyes off Jesus.

But look at Jesus’ response. He didn’t let him sink. “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” “Oh you of little faith” – Jesus says that several times in the Gospels. But, notice that he only says it to people of faith.

Even faith that walks on water will need a helping hand from the Savior. Peter did and Peter would betray Jesus three times. Nevertheless, Jesus never abandon him, Jesus saved him.

What’s important to see about Peter is that he kept coming back to Jesus. Peter would grow and would continue to do amazing things, not for a cause, but for a person.

This two part Gospel story has a message for the church and a message for the individual Christian. But it also has a message for the world imbedded in it. In the very heart of the story are these words of Jesus. I am.

Jesus tells the disciples” Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.

He echoes the words found in Exodus when Moses asks God his name.

God replies: “I am.” It’s one more instance where Jesus takes the identity of God for himself. And it’s the reason the church can take heart and stand resolute when threatened. It’s the reason that Peter can trust Jesus’ command and walk on water.

Peter’s walking on water is one of my favorite gospel stories, It’s a story for the church to reread each generation. And it’s a story for every disciple of Christ to remind  themselves of who they are.

You know Him. You know what he’s already done for you. So you can take the first step off the boat.

He’ll be there to meet you in the middle of the storm. You’re not going to sink. And the storm will pass.