Let us pause for a moment to give thanks to God in prayer:
Ever faithful God, by whose guidance
we walk by faith in a wondrous and mysterious universe,
increase now our trust in you,
that in the midst of the many things we cannot understand,
we may not doubt your love or miss your delight,
or fail to offer you our thanksgiving.
The Gospel reading this morning is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water to reach the disciples who are in distress as the boat they are in is being battered by waves. This story is found in three of the gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark and John. In all three versions the disciples are terrified when they see Jesus walking on the water because they think he is a ghost. Jesus, recognizing their fear, calls out to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In Mark and John’s telling of the story, Jesus gets into the boat, the wind ceased and they were able to reach land. Only in Matthew’s version is Peter called out of the boat by Jesus to venture out in faith to join him. Jesus simply says, “Come” and Peter steps out of the boat trusting Jesus implicitly to guide his steps. All is going well until Peter becomes distracted by the strong wind and becoming frightened begins to sink. In a panic Peter calls out to Jesus to save him and “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” and together they got into the boat.
Often commentaries on this story dwell on the negative and focus on Peter’s lack of faith and they note the scripture tells us that Jesus said to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”. But, this week, in the midst of the upheaval of moving my office and household things from Nelson to Kimberley, I read this story with different eyes. To me, it’s a story about faith and trust in Christ and having the courage to risk answering his call and follow him. I admire Peter’s willingness to trust Jesus, to respond to his call to venture into the unknown with faith. After all, he was the only one who risked getting out of the boat in a storm tossed sea. Sure he had a moment when fear and doubt overtook him and he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink. Peter is human and it is a human frailty to let fear distract us from remembering that in the midst of overwhelming experiences God is with us. But, Peter’s faith is strong and when he realizes his momentary lapse he holds onto his faith and trusts something greater than his own fears and insecurities.
I have long held the conviction that the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear. It is fear that often holds us back from risking and moving out of our comfort zones to try things we’ve never done before. In some ways one could say that Peter failed because he began to sink but to me the greater learning for him was that with faith he could do something he never would have believed possible. Jesus didn’t abandon him, he encouraged him and was there to take his hand when he needed help.
Reflecting on the gospel story this week reminded me of an experience I had when I was a small child that I haven’t thought of in years. My family lived in an old house and whenever my father had the time and money he would work on rennovating things that needed upgrading. One summer he put in a new ventilation shaft in the ceiling across the width of the house. I wasn’t really aware of the work that he was doing until one day he said he had a special job that only I could do.
I was thrilled that he believed that I could do something important and eagerly listened to his instructions. It seemed that my father had some kind of cord that he needed to string from one end of the horizontal shaft to the other and he was having trouble getting it all the way through. I, being very small, could fit in the shaft on my hands and knees and crawl, holding the cord, from one end to the other. My father lifted me up into the shaft and then went to the other end to encourage me and so that I could follow his voice. It seemed like a good plan and all went well until I reached the middle of the shaft. It was very tight and very dark and I suddenly became terrified. I was so gripped with fear that I could not go forward or backward but was simply stuck in the middle. I was in such a panic that I was distracted from my father’s voice but persistently and calmly he assured me that he was there and that he would help me out. He could not reach in to pull me out – I was too far in – so he kept talking to me encouraging me to move forward. I was too fearful to move forward in the pitch dark so he suggested I let go of the cord and move backward toward the entrance, which I did. When I reached the opening my father was there to lift me out and embrace me with relief and joy. I was in tears because I had failed to do the task that my father had trusted me to do but he assured me that I’d done very well having gotten the cord half-way and that he could manage to push it the rest of the way. He praised me for doing the best I could and for being willing to try something new and difficult. And, I learned that I could overcome my fear by listening to a voice that I trusted and focussing on my faith in something greater than my fear.
There are many things that we can fear in this life. Fear of the unknown; fear of failure, fear of disappointing others; fear of not measuring up to expectations; fear of illness and death; fear of the loss of loved ones or loss of financial or emotional security; fear of violence; to name a few. Confronting fear, with the assurance of God’s presence and with Christ’s presence is something that is addressed often in the Bible. In the New Revised Standard Version, the words “Do not be afraid” appear 59 times and “Do not fear”, 43 times.
An integral part of my daily morning prayer includes a request of God to “help me to set aside my fears and trust in you”. Letting go of fear and letting God, not my ego, be in control is very liberating and has helped me to do things I never imagined I could do.
When the disciples experienced persecution simply for being followers of Jesus, stories such as today’s lesson from Matthew’s gospel reminded them that Jesus would never abandon them and he would always be with them in the turbulent challenges of their lives.
A simple boat, like the one the disciples used in this story, over time became the symbol for the Christian church. That is why the braces in many church ceilings look very much like the inside structure of a simple boat. Remembering Jesus and his disciples’ experience in rough waters reminds us that we are often called to leave the safety and security of the familiar and well known to venture into unknown waters with confidence and courage knowing that we are not alone.
What better lesson to hear, at the beginning of our ministry together, than this story from the Gospel of Matthew. It is a profound reminder that when we have the courage to leave the comfort of what is well known, and step out with faith and trust, we will be assured of Christ’s presence guiding us and walking with us on this journey of faith.
I’ll close with a statement of faith written by Dorothy MacRae-McMahon:
We believe in God
who takes our smallest moment of hope
and grows it forth like a tree
with spreading branches for the sheltering of new life.
We believe in Jesus Christ
who walks tall among us,
seen in our faces, felt in our hearts,
planted deep in the longing of our souls
for all that is true, just and full of hope.
We believe in the Holy Spirit
who waits on our moments of openness
and springs into the unknowns
with joy and delight,
that we might be called on
beyond where we thought we could go,
where every step is walked on holy ground.
May it be so, for us, this day and always. Amen
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