The text for this sermon is Matthew 14:22-33.
A seminary professor wrote in a cranky sort of way that generally pastors preach a motivational sermon about taking risks using this this text. Our general theme is Get out of the boat. Wow. Did I feel convicted when I read that. When we were building our new fellowship hall and welcome center, I used this text for exactly that purpose. We even once did a sermon series based on this text, using a book by popular Christian author John Ortberg as a reference. The title of Ortberg’s book? If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat.
A commentary I read got me thinking about this scripture anew. Maybe the point of the story is that we aren’t supposed to get out of the boat. Maybe the question is why didn’t Peter trust that the boat Jesus put his closest disciples in and pushed off from shore was exactly the protection they needed for the storm his phone app surely told him was coming that night. Maybe our uniquely human trait of confusing ourselves for God is a part of the problem in this story. God can walk on water, we can’t. Maybe great faith is evidenced not by being able to walk on water, but believing that God is present even when all evidence calls that into question.
A little leg work on this story is helpful. First, this is the first time in Matthew the disciples are not with Jesus. They are alone. It is easy to trust Jesus when he is the powerful charismatic guy in the room. It gets harder to do that when he is out of sight.
Second, a boat is deeply significant symbolism in scripture. The boat represents the community of God, the church. Just look above your head. The architecture of this sanctuary is meant to remind you of a boat. Just as God gathered all of the faithful people of the world into Noah’s ark. God gathers us together in this church to withstand the storms of this world.
Third, the ancients who heard this story first would have been more impressed that Jesus calms the stormy sea than that Jesus can walk on water. Stormy seas are also deep symbolism in scripture. They represent chaos, Satan, all the things that work in this world against God. Remember Genesis 1, In the beginning there was watery chaos that God calmed and plucked up land, and animals and sky, etc…God is the only one who can overpower the chaos of a raging sea. Jesus overpowers chaos, too. Hmmm.
Which leads to the fourth point. What do the disciples do in the boat at the end of this story? They worship Jesus. Who is the only one Jewish disciples of a Jewish rabbi should worship? God. They worship Jesus because he puts them in a boat before the storm starts. They worship Jesus because he saves them when they wander from the boat. They worship Jesus because he calms the stormy sea. They worship Jesus in their boat, their church, their protection from the storms of life, just like us. Jesus is God not because he can walk on water, but because he overpowers chaos, stomping on Satan as he marches across that stormy sea and saves us.
The disciples are separated from Jesus, but he made sure they were together, safely in that boat. While on the water, as happens in our world, a horrible, dangerous storm kicked up. They believed firmly that Satan controls those waters and responsible for all storms. This belief is only confirmed when they saw a ghost coming at them. It is three in the morning, the storm has about capsized their boat killing them all and now Satan sends Freddy Kruger out to finish the job.
Peter bravely speaks to the ghost who claims to be Jesus, which by the way is exactly what a ghost from Satan would say, right? Peter is skeptical so asks the ghost to do a trick to prove he is Jesus. Why he didn’t ask him what he ate last night or his mother in law’s maiden name, I don’t know. The trick is to let him walk on the water, like the ghost. The ghost shrugs. Says try. Peter does and sinks. Why? People can’t walk on water. Not during a storm. Not when it is glassy calm. There is this thing called gravity and physics that tells us we sink when we step out of the boat. Peter sank.
Your next question might be then why did Jesus invite him to come out of the boat? To that, I simply suggest that it was Peter’s idea not Jesus’. Whatever I know about God, I know for sure that God lets us find out where our bad ideas lead us. The better question I think, is why did Peter get out of the boat? Why did he doubt that Jesus who put them in the boat, wouldn’t protect him? Why didn’t he trust that the best place for him when the storms of this world rage, is that boat? Why? Because he didn’t trust Jesus, God, the boat, his friends on the boat when the storm kicked up. It is when we are alone and terrified that doing something stupid makes sense.
Verse 31 ends. “You of little of faith. Why did you doubt?” Maybe, it is not a rebuke of Peter whose faith was so small he couldn’t believe that he could walk on water. Maybe, it is a lament that Peter, the disciples, all of us doubt that God is with us in the midst of the storms of our life. Jesus put his most trusted followers safely in a boat because he knew that was the best place for them in the storm ahead. When the storm kicked up, they doubted God was present. Their doubt made them terrified on the stormy seas. Their terror that God had abandoned them, our terror that God has abandoned us, breaks God’s heart and is behind Jesus’ sadness in verse 31.
Every week for fourteen years I have stood with someone in this congregation as they have confronted pain, tragedy, heartbreak. The death of friends, children, parents. The breaking of relationships, marriages, friendships. The financial collapse that follows job losses, divorce, medical maladies. I never have an answer for why. I always though, witness the what next. If people stay in the boat, friends and family in this church will rally around each other when we are at our lowest and the storms are at their strongest. I have seen this boat protect the most vulnerable among us. The power of staying together helps us do the hard work of faith, believing God is here, even when it seems like God is absent.
No matter how scary it gets, no matter how much the waves are battering our little boat, no matter how much more powerful the forces of destruction seem than the ability of us to keep our heads above water, we are better off in this boat together than outside of it alone. Stay in the boat. You help me believe in the storms of my life. I help you believe in the storms of your life. Stay in the boat with me and I will stay with you.