Dear Working Preacher,
There are two ways to preach this story from Matthew. And a lot hangs on which one you choose.
The first tack — the more familiar of the two — is to stress Peter’s failure. Yes, he is bold and impetuous, attributes we often admire, particularly if they come in the lead character of a summer blockbuster film. But in the gospels these qualities are as often the source of Peter’s troubles as they are his successes. And so while he asks — demands? — to come out to accompany his Lord among the waves and eagerly climbs over the gunwale, he soon falters. Where did all that impetuous confidence go? It was cast aside with the flicker of his eyes, as he glanced away from his Lord and looked instead at the strength of the sea.
The theme of the sermon that ventures this way quickly becomes clear: keep your eyes on Jesus. And preachers all across the world will beat this thesis statement like a drum sounding the rhythm to a relentless march: keep your eyes on Jesus; focus on the Lord; keep your eyes on Jesus; the worse your troubles, the more you need to look steadfastly to the One who can save; keep your eyes on Jesus; don’t be led to doubt and fear by circumstances; keep your eyes on Jesus; fasten your gaze upon the master of wind and wave; keep your eyes on Jesus.
As drumbeats go, it’s not bad, pulsing away with its resonant good advice, imploring us to a livelier, more trusting faith than we often seem to manifest. And certainly there’s ample textual evidence to support treading in this direction. And yet…
And yet my problem isn’t that I don’t know I should trust Jesus. Honest. I picked that up early and haven’t forgotten. It’s just that no matter how hard I try, I seem to get distracted, worried, even overwhelmed at times by the waves all around me. Economic, political, social, medical, ecclesial — I can find things to worry about just about anywhere, and while I know that I should trust them all to the Lord, it just isn’t that easy. And, truthfully, having one more cheerleader tell me from the pulpit what I should do but can’t seem to just doesn’t help. If anything, it makes things worse.
Which is the problem, I think, with this familiar exegetical route. It confuses the gospel with good advice. After all, it’s not that the counsel isn’t good: we should keep our eyes on Jesus. It’s just that the funny thing with advice — and all the law for that matter — is that it can never create what it demands.
Which brings me to a second possibility, definitely in my experience in the pews the minority report when it comes to this story: instead of emphasizing Peter’s failure, look to Jesus. No, I’m not kidding, look and see what Jesus actually does when Peter takes his eyes off his Lord and begins to sink. It’s right there in verse 31: “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”
When I was nine, I went hiking with my brothers, sisters, some cousins, and an uncle. We came to some steep terrain and ended up in a cave of sorts. We ventured in and could soon see a hole up above, which we figured led out onto the ridge we were hiking to. The path through the cave narrowed until I was the only one small enough to climb any further. Bold and impetuous as the typical nine-year-old, I eagerly climbed farther to investigate. Just before sticking my head out of the hole, though, my foot slipped and I fell. It was, maybe, all of ten feet — though it felt like thirty — and it was over in a terrifying heartbeat, as my uncle caught me. Literally. He was down below and reached out his arms and just grabbed hold of me. And it was the best feeling ever.
I have a hunch that’s what Peter felt like. And then he didn’t need to be told to look to Jesus anymore. What else could he do? That’s the thing about the gospel, you see, it doesn’t just tell you to do something, it makes it possible to do it. Sometimes, it actually makes it seem impossible not to. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” There it is, the heartbeat, rather than drumbeat, of the story and sermon for me. Yes, Peter should have kept his eyes on Jesus…and so should we. But when we don’t, when we falter, or even fail, Jesus will be there to grab us, to catch us, to support us and set us up straight again, ready to give it another go.
So maybe we should try a little guided meditation in hearing this text, inviting people to imagine Peter’s excitement as he perceived the Lord, his eagerness to join him amid the waves. And then perhaps invite us to remember how big those waves are, the worries and concerns and anxieties we carry. In the middle of that, maybe we could even reach out and grab each other as we read verse 31. I don’t know what might work. You’ll know better than I. But I do know that there’s something remarkably tactile about being touched, about being grabbed hold of, that’s in keeping with the experience this story narrates.
Jesus, finally, isn’t simply our guide or life coach; he’s our Savior, the One who does for us what we cannot. Too much of American Christianity, I think, has forgotten that, reducing the gospel to one more spiritual self-help recipe, hardly different from what you might hear on Oprah. But the Lord who walks atop the sea in this story not only directs wind and wave but also death and life. This Jesus wants more than to command our attention; he wants to save our lives. And he has promised to do just that.
Two routes, Working Preacher. Even two paths, that diverge in the exegetical wood before us. I invite you to take the one less traveled, and I promise you that it will make all the difference.
Yours in Christ,
PS: No matter what you’re preaching this week, take a moment to read the passage from Romans 10. Slow down, read it aloud, and then imagine it’s about you. Why? Because it is. “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” This is what you do, Working Preacher — you proclaim Christ that we may believe and call on the Lord who unfailingly and indefatigably reaches out to grab us when we sink or fall. So there you go — whether you’ve got size 7 or 11, when your toes are calloused or adorned by painted nails, you’ve got beautiful feet. You probably didn’t know it, but you do. And I give thanks for them — and you! — regularly.