Walking on Water – April 2, 2017, the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 89:5-18, Matthew 14:22-33
April 2, 2017
Today we have the story of Jesus walking on water. And this is a big story! I’ve said before that if a story is included in all four Gospels, it’s one we should pay attention to! Well, this one is found in three of the four. And in this case, even John remembers this story! Usually, if a story is in three of the four, it’s John who doesn’t have it. But in this case, only Luke is silent!
If you think about it, somebody walking on water is a pretty amazing thing. And the phrase “Walking on water” has become synonymous with someone who is “amazing,” or “highly admired” in some way. If we think so highly of someone we might use this expression. “As far as I’m concerned, so and so ‘walks on water!’” We might even use those words sarcastically, “As far as he thinks, so and so ‘walks on water!’”
As I said, this is a big story. And as we read it, we find there are little differences in the way each of the writers tell it. For example, when Mark tells the story, he adds that, when Jesus was walking on the water, he seemed as though he was going to “pass by” the disciples in the boat. Which is kind of weird, isn’t it? Did Jesus not see them in the boat? That’s not likely! Take my word for it! If you can walk on water, you can certainly see through a storm! Maybe he was planning on going to the other side ahead of them – to surprise them, to show his power? Oh but then, they happened to see him through the storm?
We read this today from Matthew. And Matthew tells the story with a little difference of his own. He adds the story of Peter. And I think that makes his the most interesting version. Because it puts the human factor into the story. It puts us into the story!
Jesus sends his disciples across the Sea of Galilee by boat. Why? If you think about it, he set this whole thing up! And so they’re out there, and there’s a storm, and they’re struggling against the wind, and we’re told they’re not making much headway. (I suppose if they were, Jesus might not have caught up with them just by walking! This might then be a story of Jesus “running on the water.”) (I don’t know. I tend to think these weird things!)
Anyway, whether or not Jesus intends to pass them, they see him. And all three Gospel writers say, they thought he was a ghost. That makes me wonder how many strange visions they might have seen out on that sea at night over the years. Being out on water does that to people. Over the centuries, sailors have claimed to see mermaids, and other kinds of ghostly visions.
Well, the disciples se Jesus, and they’re frightened! So he calls out to them, telling them everything is cool. “It’s me! Don’t be afraid!” And he gets in the boat, and they’re whisked off to the other side instantly. (And they’re amazed and astounded. “Truly you are the Son of God!” etc, etc, etc…)
Seriously, though, this is a truly amazing story! But as I said, Matthew adds one more part. In his account, Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, bid me come to you on the water.” I’ve always wondered about that. Was Peter needing some kind of assurance it was Jesus? Was he feeling “extra spiritual” in the moment? Did he think, “Woah, that’s awesome! Let me try!” It’s really not clear which it is.
It’s really not clear why, but for whatever reason, he says it. And Jesus says “Come, then!” And that’s the part of the story I really like! Because at first, it works! Peter is walking on the water, too! But then! He looks around, and he sees the wind and the waves. And he sinks!
Now, here’s what occurred to me about this. Do you remember Wile E. Coyote! He’s the coyote who used to chase the Road Runner! Do you remember him? Well, do you remember how he would sometimes run off the edge of a cliff and stop? But he wouldn’t fall, until he looked below him! He would stand there, in mid air, until he looked down, and realized there was nothing under him! (Then, whistle and boom!) (How many remember that? How did we turn out the way we did, watching such violent cartoons?!)
Well, it’s the same thing here! Peter’s doing fine! He doesn’t sink till he looks down! Then, down he goes! (sorry, I don’t have the sound effect for that one!) He shouts “Lord, save me!” Which is interesting, because we know Peter can swim! In the post-Easter story, when the disciples were fishing, and they realized they were seeing the resurrected Jesus on the shore, Peter didn’t wait. He jumped right in and swam to shore – like Forrest Gump did when he learned his momma was sick!
So Peter sinks, and Jesus has to catch him! And I’m thinking that this was more than just being in the water that scared him. It was being in the water in a storm! And that’s the other thing I don’ want us to miss here. Jesus calms the storm – again! Last week we read Mark’s version of the story where Jesus calms the storm. Matthew’s version of that story comes in Chapter 8. Well, here in Chapter 14, Jesus walks on the water and he calms the storm!
Peter sees the wind and waves and he starts to sink. And what I want you to see is that Peter doesn’t sink so much because he saw the wind and the waves. He starts to sink because he took his eyes off of Jesus! He doesn’t sink because of the storm, but because he stopped looking to Jesus. And without looking to Jesus, his faith faltered! That’s what I want you to take with you today. (That and the image of Wile E. Coyote!)
Isn’t it the same with us? There are so many things in our world that would distract us. There are so many things that would take our attention away from Jesus. And when that happens, when we don’t look to him, what does that do to our faith? Sometimes people come to me and tell me their faith seems so weak. And I ask them, “Are you looking to Jesus? Or are too many things distracting you from doing so?”
Remember Hebrews 12. Paul says, “…Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, (what?) looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith!” When I neared the end of my first Boston Marathon, I was in pain! But when I turned the corner of Boyleston Street, and I could see in the distance the giant banner over the finish line, the pain didn’t matter!
That’s not to say that there aren’t things in this life that need and deserve our attention! But we can’t forget to look to Jesus. But we do, don’t we? And then when the storms rise, they can be scary! They can overwhelm us, no matter how strong a swimmer we might be!
There are so many things in our world that would cause us to take our eyes off of Jesus. In fact, there is always that “tension” over what is demanding our “attention!” And I think this is part of the “Road to the Cross,” we’ve been talking about. The “powers that be” could not bring themselves to acknowledge Jesus for who he was. The pull of their world was too strong!
And remember, they couldn’t deny his powers! And they didn’t! They said, “What are we to do? He does these miracles, and they’re real!” They never claimed that Jesus was a fake. They knew he was the real thing, but they wanted nothing to do with him! Because he didn’t measure up to their understanding about God. Jesus had powers that the powers that be could not explain nor control! But they could not accept that. And we think that to be ironic.
But they were not alone! Hasn’t that been the problem with people down through history? It’s been said that the main human problem is Pride. All other sins come down from that.
You see, many people don’t deny God. They just ignore him. They don’t say Jesus was a Charlatan. As I’ve often said, if you stopped somebody on the street and asked if they knew who Jesus was, they’d probably give you a pretty good answer. They might even say he came back from the dead! They just don’t want anything to do with him. If you tell them that they could face eternity separated from God, they don’t see that as a problem. They’ve already been doing that!
So what about us. Do we look to, and listen to, the world around us, or do we look to Jesus? In a way, he bids all of us to get out of the boat we’re in. He asks us to step out onto the stormy waters. It’s not always going to be easy. It might even be scary at times! But as we do, as we live our lives of faith, will we look at the wind and waves? Will we look below us like Wile E. Coyote and see we’re hanging in mid air? Or will we keep our eyes on Jesus?
Eternal God, there are so many things in the world that vie for our attention. Help us in the midst of all that, to keep our eyes on you. Help us to seek your kingdom first, so that all those other things might be kept in perspective. Help us to know at all times that your spirit dwells within us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.