This is the sermon I'll be preaching at St. Timothy Lutheran Church's Drive-In Worship tomorrow. The gospel is Matthew 14:22-33.
One of the best things I learned in seminary is that looking at scripture, the first thing to do is to ask, “What is God doing in this passage? If Paul is teaching something to the Christians in one of his churches, you would ask, “What is God teaching the people?” because God is working through Paul.
What is God doing in today’s gospel? Jesus, who is God, is walking on the water. That’s a nice trick, but why is he doing this? He is revealing himself to his disciples, so that’s what God is really up to. The story is a kind of epiphany, an appearance of Christ similar to his resurrection appearances. On a dark night of fear and helplessness, Christ comes to his disciples (Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A).
This small story is inserted between the description of the disciples as fearful (vv. 26-27) and as confessing and worshiping (v. 33), right on the heels of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people. Peter, as the voice and heart of the group, is thus between fear and faith. He walks and he sinks, he trusts and he fears.
The heart of the incident is the back and forth between Peter and Jesus. Peter’s response enables Matthew to move the story along in three phases. In Phase One, Jesus announces, “It is I” (v. 27). Jesus had a reason for announcing who he was. The disciples were fighting for their lives amid a bad storm. Their boat was "battered by the waves" (v. 24). "Early in the morning" is the fourth watch of the night, between 3 and 6 am, just before sunrise. The disciples see someone or something approaching them on the water and it was not in a boat. Someone was walking on the water! Of course, they’re afraid, thinking it was a ghost. Wouldn’t you be? Jesus reassures his disciples by announcing, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (v. 27).
It’s interesting that Peter doesn’t respond by asking Jesus to help them, but rather as we go to Phase Two of the story, “Lord, since it is you command me to come to you on the water,” responds Peter (v. 28). Peter addresses Jesus as believers or serious seekers do in Matthew’s gospel and bases his petition on the truth of Jesus’ presence (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV--Year A).
We get the wrong impression of Peter’s request if we use the translation, “if it is you…” In this case, “since” is preferable to “if” because it is used with an indicative verb. This means Peter believes it is a true condition (Rob Myallis, lectionarygreek.blogspot.com) that he is addressing Jesus.
Jesus tells Peter to come. Peter gets out of the boat and we know the rest of the story: He walks and as he gets distracted by the wind, he becomes afraid and his attention is diverted from Jesus. He sinks and nearly drowns, crying out, “Lord, save me!” (v. 30) and Jesus rescues Peter. Of course, Peter also gets a gentle slap on the wrist, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (v 31). I love the way Bible commentator Charles Cousar explains, that this is:
not the story of the skeptic who habitually doubts, but the story of the faithful follower who becomes overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him, who begins to lose his nerve when he discovers the odds stacked against him, but who from Jesus finds a steadying, delivering hand.
That is us. We are those who along with other disciples of Jesus are persons “of little faith,” portrayed throughout Matthew’s gospel (8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20).
We come to Phase Three, “Truly you are the Son of God,” responds the entire group (v. 33). A lot has transpired between the disciples’ initial fear that they were seeing a ghost and this worship and confession of Jesus as God’s Son. They have been transformed by this encounter with their Lord and that’s the point. Jesus’ miracles are not about neat tricks that he can do because he’s God, they are to enhance his followers’ relationship with him.
Jesus wants to transform us, just as he transformed the disciples. If we keep our eyes on Jesus, we too will see miracles, but we must not allow the problems all around to distract us. We can be easily distracted by the environment of the pandemic of COVID 19. If we watch the news too much, we’ll be scared to death and will stay in our little cocoons, never reaching anyone with the good news of God’s love.
Jesus heard Peter’s cry to him to be saved from drowning. People are crying out for help all around us: the sick, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, those subjected to racism, and the list goes on. As children of a heavenly Father who loves his children so much, can we hear the cries of those around us, and then can we act? It was good that Jesus heard Peter's cry, but what if he left it at that? We have a world with so many needs. For example, is there something we can do to help the people of Lebanon following that terrible explosion? You betcha! Lutheran Disaster Response is working with ecumenical partners in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. You can give to LDR through the ELCA website and in other ways too.
People of God, Jesus comes to us in our times of need. However, like Peter, if we want to walk on water, we have to get out of the boat.