Exodus 14:19-29, John 21:1-14
May 16, 2009
I don’t know about you, but this passage has always bothered me just a little. When the disciples realized it was Jesus speaking to them, Peter leapt overboard and swam to shore. I always wondered why he did that. Why didn’t they row or sail to the shore? That always seemed strange to me, until I saw the movie “Forrest Gump.” Did you see that movie?
Forrest Gump was a mentally challenged man who went through many challenges in his life. And at one point in the story, Forrest has bought himself a shrimping boat, and he’s been trying to unsuccessfully find and catch shrimp. Then one day, as he was bringing his boat in, he saw on the dock his old army buddy, Lieutenant Dan. And he was so excited to see him, he leapt out of the boat, into the water, and swam to the dock. And of course now there was nobody left on the still moving boat, and it soon crashes into another dock!
I love that scene! And seeing it has helped me to understand Peter a little bit better. And no, I’m not suggesting that Peter was mentally challenged like Forrest Gump. Far from it. But I now understand a little more of his “impetuous” nature. Because Peter has often been described to me as one who “leaps before he looks,” who jumps headlong into things with all of himself, and who can’t wait to be part of whatever’s happening. And as I think about that, I have to wonder. Are we ever like that? And most of the time, I don’t think we are. In fact, we’re taught not to be, aren’t we? But I wonder about that.
We’ve all had, or I hope we’ve had, moments in our lives when we realize we’ve been in the presence of God, but we didn’t know it. We talked about that a few weeks ago when we read the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. And I asked you then to think about those times in your own lives. But I want to ask you now, when that does happens, when that realization hits you, what do you do? When you realize that you’re in the presence of God, or you’re been in the presence of God, do you act with “wild abandon” like the people in those stories. Does it move you so much that you get up, like the disciples in Emmaus, and run back to Jerusalem, giving no thought for the time of night? When you realize it’s the Lord on the shore, do you leap into the water like Peter? That’s what I want you to think about for today.
What adds to the power of this story is the great symbolism in the act of Peter leaping into the water. Throughout the Bible, in fact from the very first page, “the waters” are seen as a symbol of the powers of Chaos. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The waters were all that existed at that moment. And the waters were seen as being deep, and powerful, and fearful. And ever since then, the waters, and especially the potentially stormy nature of the waters, have been the symbols of fear and uncertainty.
We still think of “the waters” as a metaphor for the chaos and the unknown in life, and we think of peace and security in terms of a safe harbor, don’t we? As we do, we might consider how truly courageous it was for Christopher Columbus to set out Westward with his tiny fleet, over waters that no one had braved before. We might think of the great courage of God’s people walking down into the middle of the waters as they escaped the Egyptians! And think about all that as part of the picture of Peter leaping into the water! What would he now do? Where would he go for the love of Jesus?
I was listening to a wonderful speaker recently who was talking about this. And he suggested to us that even in the powerful acts of creation, God did not remove that chaos. He worked with it. He separated the waters from the dry lands. He used it as part of his big picture. But even in all those acts of creation, God did not banish the chaos and evil from the world! But Oh how we wish he would have! O how we wish there were no chaos. How we wish that we never had to face evil, or trials, or difficult times. But we do! And at times we might wonder how strong we are when we face those stormy waters of life.
“The waters” still symbolize the difficulties in life. And those difficulties of life have the power to intimidate us. And of course that word “intimidate” literally means “to make timid.” In other words, the storms of life can make us lose heart, particularly if we’ve been battered by them again and again. And I know some of us have! When that happens, how do we regain our heart? How do we become “strong hearted” again? How do we become “brave hearted” when we’ve been battered by the wind and waves? And notice the common word in those expressions – heart. Courage and perseverance is a matter of the heart!
Sometimes it’s not big storms that weaken our heart. Sometimes it’s the “little accusations.” Isn’t that true? In that wonderful children’s story, Cinderella isn’t just made to live in the cellar as a dirty house maid. She’s intimidated by the constant accusations of her evil step-sisters. (Doesn’t that story give step-family a bad name? What is it about that?) But I think Disney may have given the story the wrong feeling. You’ve seen it. In the Disney version, Cinderella is happy. She sings all the time. She has her little animal friends who make life pleasant and wonderful. But I don’t think that’s the intent of the original story. It wasn’t a story of a happy-go-lucky girl who was in a bad situation, from which the prince finally took her away – and by the way, it could have been anybody! It’s a powerful story about a person constantly reminded by little accusations that she’s no good, she isn’t worthy, and she has no value. And then the prince comes and shows her the value she already has! The fairy godmother only gives her beautiful clothes. But Cinderella is already beautiful, just like we are already beautiful in God’s eyes!
Sometimes it’s the small but constant reminders of our weaknesses, the accusations about our failures, and the repetition of our troubles, that weaken our hearts – just as stress literally weakens our physical hearts. The stormy waters of life beat against us. And remember, in his parable, Jesus didn’t say that the wise man built is house “up high and away from the storms.” He built it upon the rock! Because those storms of life do come. And they can cause us to live timid lives of faith. They can cause us to want to stand on the sidelines and not get involved. They can make us want only to wade into the waters, maybe only up to our ankles, but no further. Or maybe we just don’t bother. How do we get our hearts back? That’s a huge question!
Peter got his heart back! He lost it on Good Friday, if you remember – well, actually it was Maundy Thursday. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter couldn’t stand up to the crowd around the fire, or even the questioning of a servant girl. But now, for the love of Jesus, Peter leaps into the sea! He rebuilt his house – on the rock!
I believe God wants us to be people like that! I believe he wants us to be people with brave hearts, who live courageous lives of faith. He wants us to be people who are so moved by the realization of his presence that we will leap from the boat. But there are many things in our lives that would prevent that. There are many voices that would silence the “en-couraging” voice of our savior. There are many things that would prevent us from realizing we’ve been in his presence. What do we do? To whom do we listen? On what do we focus?
The important thing to remember – the rock in our lives – is our relationship with God. That’s the key! When we know God’s presence with us, the waters are no longer the focus. Maybe you remember an earlier time in the story when Peter actually walked on the water. Was that simply a stunt he wanted to do when he saw Jesus doing it? Or was it that he wanted that power of God in his life? (Was he seeking power over “the waters”?) We’re going to talk about that story in a couple of weeks. But for now, just remember that when he kept his focus on Jesus, he too did the miraculous. And when did he start to sink? When he focused on the wind and the waves!
That’s a big part of what it means to have that new heart within us. It’s not just having a clean heart. It’s having a brave and strong heart. It’s having a heart that can love unconditionally. It’s a heart that has no constraints put on it by the ego. It’s a heart that Jesus suggests can love even enemies. And that can only happen when we focus on him. It is only then that we look, not to the wind and the waves, but to the one who calmed them both with the sound of his voice. And we can know that he calms those same storms in our lives, too. And it is he that gives us back the courage of our hearts when we find that courage in him.
We also do that for each other. When we uphold one another in prayer, when we stand by one another through the storms, when we do those things for each other, we are then able to show one another the strength of God, not just through our own strength, but as a reflection of God’s strength. Maybe you can think of those people in your own life who have done that for you. Maybe as we celebrate this Mothers’ Day, we can remember how your own mother helped to make you feel secure and valuable, and how she supported you and challenged you to venture out in your life, ready to take on the waters. I know that’s not the case for everyone. But for those of us for whom it is, isn’t that something to celebrate?!
For those of us for whom that’s not the case, what do we do? How do we find our hearts again? We do it by trusting in God. I know that sounds like a cliché, and I suppose it is. But only if we treat it as such. On the other hand, if we will search ourselves, if we will dare to know our true selves, and if we will have to courage to see ourselves as God sees us, then we will find that great and loving heart within us, a heart that reflects the very glory of God. That is the source of our strength, our hope, and our life. That is what makes us leap out of the boat, into the waters!
Eternal God, your love for us is everlasting and your grace is truly amazing. We ask for the ability to live our lives in your joy, knowing our hearts have been healed and made alive in you. We pray that we may see more of your glory every day. For we pray in Jesus’ holy name, Amen!