“Lord, Save Me”

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, It is a ghost! And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. 28Peter answered him, Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. 29He said, Come. So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, Lord, save me! 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, You of little faith, why did you doubt? 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, Truly you are the Son of God.

(Matthew 14:22-33, NRSV)

Because Spring was supposed to arrive this week and seems to have been delayed, I thought your brains might still be in winter hibernation, so I've got a little quiz to help get them moving today. I'm going to share with you some phrases that have come into common usage in the English language and I want you to tell me whether these phrases originated with Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible. Ready? You get extra points if you can name the book of the Bible or the play from which they come!

  • The milk of human kindness (Macbeth)
  • Eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes)
  • Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! (Ecclesiastes)
  • How the mighty are fallen. (1 Samuel 1)
  • Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown (King John)
  • A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)
  • Handwriting on the wall (Daniel)
  • God helps those who help themselves (trick: neither)
  • Walks on water

That last one was easy, right? We all know that it was Jesus who walked on water. And when we use the phrase now, what do we mean? Someone absurdly talented? Able to perform with superhuman strength? Loved by all? Or sometimes we use it sarcastically, Oh, she thinks he walks on water! (When, clearly, we have a different opinion!)

Sometimes these phrases that are so common have lost their original meaning to us, so let's take a closer look at today's gospel reading. This story about Jesus walking on the water to meet the disciples who are out on a boat falls into a category of Biblical stories called nature miracles. That is, a miracle involving the creation itself, not simply Jesus in relation to another person. As with any of the gospel miracle stories, one of the points is to demonstrate Jesus's divine connections.

But as with many Biblical narratives, it is in the details that the story becomes most interesting. The text begins with Jesus needing to be alone. He commands the disciples and the crowds to leave him, so that he can have time to pray. If we read earlier, we see that the previous story also began with him seeking time alone. In that story, however, the crowds found him and he ended up teaching them all day, followed by the feeding of 5000. So we know that by now, he really needs some time along. Note to all you compulsive helpers and workaholics out there: even Jesus had to get cranky and demand his time alone to rejuvenate and pray.

So Jesus stops to pray. Meanwhile, the disciples find themselves out on a stormy lake throughout the night. It is the early hours of the morning, probably before dawn, when Jesus comes to them on the water. They don't recognize him. This, you may know, is a theme throughout the gospels: the disciples, those few people closest to Jesus, don't recognize him. Often literally, as in this story, but also metaphorically. They keep failing to understand his true identity, his true purpose, his true divinity.

But in fairness to them, why would they recognize him? They had a long, tiring day, too, on that hill in the sun and then helping Jesus clean up after all those crowds. Now they've been awake on a stormy sea most of the night. They're tired and it's not quite light yet and they see something coming across the water which is, well, unnatural, don't you think? So why would they think, Oh, hey, it's Jesus. Jump on board, friend! Actually, a fearful response to a possible ghost seems like a reasonable reaction to me.

So Jesus does what he so often does: reassure them. Don't worry, it's me. It is Peter, that bold and often stupid disciples, who raises a challenge: Oh yeah? Well, if it's really you, tell me to come across the water to you. So Jesus, in his patient and loving way, invites Peter out onto the waves. Come. And Peter, bless his pea-picking little heart, goes.

Here is what I find most intriguing: why? Why did Peter do this? What inspired him to want to leave the relative safety of the boat and get out there in the waves with Jesus? Is it a guy thing? And what made him believe the voice that said, simply, Come. What in the world led him to believe that he could join Jesus in this bizarre demonstration of other-worldly abilities? What was he thinking?

I think that when Peter heard that voice, the voice that first said, Take heart, and then, gently, Come, he knew without a doubt to whom he was listening. He had learned to know that voice. He might not trust his eyes in the pre-dawn light, but he trusted his ears, and more importantly, he trusted his heart. That was the voice of his Lord and he knew it and loved it and trusted it.

And so, when the voice said, Come, Peter went. Now Jesus could have said any number of things in response to Peter's somewhat silly bravado. When Peter suggested that he jump in with Jesus, he might have gotten some good-natured ribbing, Who do you think you are, Peter? For crying out loud, stay in the boat until I get there! Or perhaps Jesus could have scolded him, not quite in the Get thee behind me, Satan mode, but something like, Get thee back where thou dost belong, fool! But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus says, come.

And so Peter trusts that if Jesus says he can do it, then he can do it. And Peter goes. Of course, once the waves begin to lash about him, he has second thoughts. But he does not do what I might well do in a similar situation, which is rely on my own capacity to get myself back in that boat! Here's what Peter does: as soon as he begins to sink, he calls out, Lord, save me!

And Jesus does.

Peter trusted Jesus when he said come and it is that same trust that inspires him to call out for help. Why then does Jesus respond as he does: You of little faith, why did you doubt? Think about this for a moment: Peter is the only disciple sure enough of Jesus' voice to speak to him in the storm. Peter is the only one bold enough to go out of the boat to Jesus. Peter is the one humble enough to call out for help when his own strength fails him. Why then does Jesus call him one of little faith?

We usually hear this story and think that Peter has too little faith in Jesus. But if he had so little faith in Jesus, he never would have gotten out of the boat. It is because he trusts Jesus that he can risk trying to be like him. If he had too little faith in Jesus, he would not have called to him for help. Wouldn't you rather be saved by people who are still on that boat, than by some other fool out in the water with you?

Here's what I think. I think Jesus was gently scolding Peter for not having faith in himself. For not believing that he had it in him to do wonderful things. For not accepting that if Jesus told him he could come, then Jesus believed he could do it.

Over and over in the gospels, Jesus gives the disciples more credit than they are willing to take. He sends them out to heal people. He tells them to feed the crowd of 5000. He even tells them that they will be able to do everything he has done and more! But do they believe him? Well, do we? Do we believe it when Jesus says that we have the God-given, Spirit-driven ability to do everything that he did and more?

I think for the first disciples, as for us, it is easier to believe that Jesus is a one-of-a-kind miracle worker rather than believe that the Spirit can also work through our own hands and minds and words and deeds. But that is what Jesus said. He said that when we received God's spirit we would be able to do all that we had seen in him. And when that seems just completely unbelievable to us, Jesus says, Oh you of little faith.

There is some irony here. If we have faith only in ourselves and not in Jesus, we would either stay in the boat, out of fear, or jump out and sink immediately, out of arrogance. Fear that we have none of God's power in us keeps us living safely, not taking risks, not jumping into the water at all. Arrogance that we can make it completely on our own, without God's help, leads us to go it alone and then find ourselves drowning in the inevitable storms that life brings.

Peter is really a model for us in this story. He had enough faith in Jesus to try and be like him and enough humility to call on him when his own powers failed. It was because Peter had been so close to Jesus that he recognized his voice and was willing to follow at all. And because he trusted Jesus, he had the sense to call on him for help.

Now, unless Jesus has specifically called and invited you to attempt to walk on water, I don't recommend that as a great way to test this theory. But Jesus has called and invited each of us to be healers and reconcilers and bearers of light. He has, in fact, entrusted us with the power to be his body. The Body of Christ! And he has given us many gifts to help us on the way. The gift of the Spirit, the gift of community, the gift of Scripture, the gift of prayer, the gift of us his own Body and Blood.

As we continue on this Lenten journey toward Easter, may we, like Peter, be bold enough to pray, Lord, if it is you, bid me to come. And may we be humble enough to also cry, Lord, save me!

The foregoing sermon was preached at the United Parish of Bowie on March 26, 2006, by Rev. Laura Collins.

© 2006 Laura Collins