Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus Christ, who comes to us, across the water. Amen.
I read in an article a few months ago that someone has purchased the rights to allow tourists to walk on the Sea of Galilee. (I did not know that you could buy rights to things like that!) They are not breaking the laws of physics, or of gravity. Instead, what they intend to do is build a Plexiglas walkway hundreds of feet out into the Sea of Galilee exactly at water level. To onlookers, the person will appear to be walking on water. And even for the person themselves, I assume that they can look down and see through the Plexiglas, allowing them to feel as though they are walking on water.
I don’t know how much it will cost tourists for this privilege, but I suspect that the market will bear a fairly high price for it. I’m sure that tour operators will start including it in their brochures. “Day 5: See the site of the Sermon on the Mount. Visit Capernaum. Walk on water at the Sea of Galilee.” There will be many people who will want to do what Peter did, many people who will want to “walk on water.”
So today, exclusively for you, my friends, in honor of the beginning of our Lenten sermon series and congregational study on the book, “If you Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat,” I offer an incredible bargain! I am going to save you hundreds, perhaps even thousands of dollars! Forget the passport, forget the airfare, forget the 5 or 10 or 20 shekels that it will probably cost to get on the plexiglass. Today I’ll teach you how to walk on water–for free. Yes, you can walk on water! You can do so with 3 simple steps:
- Imitating the boldness of Peter
- Learning from his weakness
- and relying on Peter’s Savior.
The details of our story are pretty familiar. Jesus had just finished feeding 5000 men–plus women and children. His teaching, followed by this miracle, had elevated Jesus to rock star status. The people were awed by Jesus, and were ready to make him their king. This kind of status however, political power, wasn’t what Jesus was seeking, and this kind of adoration was becoming a bit of a problem. It was distracting people from Jesus’ real message.
Jesus dealt with this problem in two ways. First, he makes his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him. By doing so, they would be removed from temptation to join in and buy into the idea of Jesus as an earthly king.
Secondly, he goes up on a mountainside by himself to pray. By removing himself from the situation, and spending time in prayer, I’m guessing that Jesus was hoping that he himself could focus, and that the crowds could calm down.
But Matthew tells us, “during the fourth watch of the night,” sometime after 3am, it was dark out, the sea was rough, the disciples’ nerves were all probably a little frayed from battling the storm all night, and so from a distance, when they saw Jesus walking on the water, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Popular Jewish superstition held that the appearance of spirits during the night brought disaster–very possibly death. While the disciples had faith in Jesus, they weren’t immune from the superstitions they grew up with and so they cried out in fear.
But Jesus calms their fear by saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” And the disciples recognized him. And Peter does take courage. He asks: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus said. Then Peter got down out of the boat…”
That seems like a huge leap of faith. But, there was every reason for Peter to have this kind of faith. After all, he has seen Jesus’ miracles, he knew Jesus’ power–and he also knew Jesus’ was the messiah…the Christ…the one sent by God to redeem Israel. Really, it’s no wonder that Peter got out of the boat. Frankly, I’m a bit more surprised that the other disciples didn’t get out with him.
But for us, we probably need to re-define what it is to walk on water, in the here and now.
For us, in 2015, in our culture, walking on water might mean to say: “Lord, my work is causing me to neglect my family and my faith. If it’s your will, tell me to come to you on the water. Give me a heart that craves your life giving Word. Help me see that the first step in getting out of the boat is to reorder my priorities.
Or, walking on water might mean, “Lord, there are these things; my sins, my habits and my hurts; that drive wedges between me and you, and me and those I love. But if I do set them aside, my life is going to change a lot. The ground I’m so used to standing on that I’m used to…that I’m comfortable with…won’t be there anymore. I fear that I might sink.
The first step to walking on water, then, is having the boldness of Peter that when our Lord bids us to come, we follow, no matter what stands in the way.
Journalist Jim Wallis tells the story of a visit he made to South Africa during the days of apartheid. He wrote that he was at St. George’s Cathedral in Capetown, South Africa. A protest rally had been called on the yard of the cathedral, but had been canceled by the government.
So Archbishop Desmund Tutu said, “Okay, no political rally then. But instead we’re just going to have church.” (Protesting in South Africa was illegal, but worshipping God was not!) So Tutu invited the protestors into that Cathedral for worship. The police were nervous, and were massing by the hundreds on the outside to intimidate, to threaten, to try and frighten all the worshipers. Wallis wrote that it was very scary. You could feel the tension in that place. The police were so bold and arrogant they even came into that Cathedral and stood along the walls. They were writing down and tape recording every thing that Archbishop Tutu said. But That didn’t stop him. Wallis writes that Tutu stood up, a little man with long, flowing robes, and he said, “This system of apartheid cannot endure because it is evil.” There was an audible gasp in the crowd. The government would consider Tutu’s words treason.
Then he pointed his finger at those police standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.” Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, “So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side” And at that the protestors, not turned into a congregation, exploded with cheers. And they began dancing in the church. They danced out into the streets and the police moved back, and unsure of what to do, they eventually just left. This event, and others like it, are an important part of why the evil that was apartheid was eventually eliminated.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu had the boldness of Peter. He wasn’t afraid to step out of the boat. And it is clear to me that in this moment, he was walking hand-in-hand with Jesus. My greatest hope is to have faith like that.
We need to be honest with ourselves, and admit that there have been times that it’s been easier for us to just stay in the boat. There have been times when we have tried to take care of ourselves first, because we haven’t trusted God, or others, to take care of us. And there have been times when we stayed in the boat simply because we wanted to. We liked it there…it’s comfortable…it’s feels safe.
We can lose sight of the life God calls us to; that there is more to life than just making ourselves secure. That God calls us to step out in faith, and to change the world.
And even when we have stepped out of the boat, sometimes like Peter, we have lost our focus. We stumble. We begin to sink. Peter overestimated the power of the wind and the waves, while at the same time severely underestimating the power of Jesus.
I think we do the same. When the wind and waves of life, our problems and issues, become the things that we see and focus on instead of Jesus, we forget to trust.
Sure, there’s wind. Sure, there will always be waves when we walk to Jesus on the water. Expect them. But don’t let them overwhelm you. Remember the words Jesus spoke to Peter before he got out of the boat. “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Things are under control. He speaks those same words to us today: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Yes, if we’re going to walk on water, we ought to learn from Peter’s weakness. We ought to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, focused on his power, focused on his promises.
How comforting, then are the words of Peter, and the response of Jesus. Peter faltered, yes–but only for a moment. And then he cries out: “Lord, save me!” And how quickly Jesus acts! He reaches out his hand and catches him. He gently reminds Peter of his foolishness when he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
When we act as Peter did…when we doubt…when we falter, we can say to Jesus the same trusting prayer that Peter said: “Lord, save me!” Jesus will reach out to us, take our hand, smile and say “why did you even doubt?”
We know that Jesus will catch us when we have taken our eyes off him and have begun to sink. How do we know this? Because, he’s already done it. That’s what this season of Lent reminds us of. Remember the old traditional hymn that says, “When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down; When I was sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul.”
When Jesus refused to receive a crown from the 5000 as their earthly king, when Jesus instead received a crown of thorns, he did so that he might save us…from our sins…from our distractions…from our wandering…from sinking.
As he reached out his hand and caught Peter, he has reached out and caught you. And if Jesus can do this, he can also allow you to walk on water, to do great and bold things, and to walk hand-in-hand with him.
And there you have it. Do you want the thrill of walking on water? No Plexiglas required?
- Listen for the voice of your Savior calling you to get out of the boat.
- Come to him in trust, and imitate Peter’s bold faith.
- Learn from Peter’s weakness, and;
- Don’t be intimidated by the wind and the waves.
Instead, “take courage” and rely on Peter’s Savior–a Savior powerful and loving enough to save us from our sins–and therefore a Savior certainly powerful enough to allow us to walk on water with him.