When We Can’t Walk on Water

Those of you who listen regularly to Sermon Brainwave, our weekly podcast text study that I co-host with my colleagues at Luther Seminary, Rolf Jacobson and Matt Skinner — and if you don’t, why not? You should. We are the Car Talk of the preaching world! — know that in January of 2013 I led a group of students on a trip to the Holy Land. For a number of weeks after that trip, more weeks than my colleagues likely appreciated, my “go to” response for virtually every text was, “Well, when I was in the Holy Land … ”

My references to that trip have tapered off considerably over the last year, but with this week’s passage from Matthew, I just can’t help myself.

“When I was in the Holy Land … ” we stayed at a kibbutz on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. We could see Tiberius from the shore. From that location we traveled to various places where Jesus “could have” fed the 5,000, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes; where Jesus “possibly” preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of Beatitudes; where Jesus “could have” hosted breakfast for his disciples, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. These sites were certainly significant. I will never forget listening to the Beatitudes on that mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

But the moment during that leg of the trip where a biblical story literally came to life was our last day at the kibbutz. In the morning, the winds started up; trees bending from the force, lawn chairs scattered on the shore, and whitecaps on the sea. Suddenly, there I was, in the boat with the disciples. So this is what it would have been like? Our guide, Johnny, said wind storms like this were sudden and frequent, a characteristic feature of the weather pattern for that region.

In reading the story for this week, however, I realized that the disciples don’t seem to be too afraid of the storm, that this is not the same story as Matthew 8:23-27, and if Johnny is right, and I am sure he was, that these fishermen should be used to these kinds of storms. I also noticed that Jesus doesn’t actually rebuke the winds in this passage. He just shows up.

So, of what, then, are the disciples actually afraid? They think Jesus is a ghost, some sort of phantom, and that would probably scare me, too.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” (14:27) are Jesus’ words to the disciples. Jesus will say the same thing in Mark (6:50), also the boat scene. In John, “take heart” appears in Jesus’ last words to his disciples before turning in prayer to the Father (16:33), “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (16:33 NIV). Why “take heart”? What is Jesus saying to the disciples with these particular words? Only Matthew’s version includes the dialogue between Peter and Jesus and Peter’s attempt to walk on water.

Peter thinks he can walk on water. What will that prove, anyway? How is Peter being able to walk on water going to help him believe that it’s really Jesus? Maybe Peter hopes that by stepping out on the sea, that will be the act of courage he needs for faith. Maybe Peter wonders if he will be convinced of Jesus’ promises if he thinks big. Maybe Peter will believe in himself if he is able to do what Jesus does.

“‘Lord, if it is you … Is it really you, Jesus? We need to know. How can we really trust that you will be with us always, to the end of the age?”

And I have in mind that Jesus’ answer would be something like, “Well, it’s certainly not because you will be able to walk on water, if that’s what you are thinking, Peter.”

Another way to translate Jesus’ words to the disciples is, “have courage” and it’s also in the present tense. Jesus is not saying “buck up, be brave, Peter. Have some fortitude, for crying out loud. Where’s your gallantry?”

Is courage the same as bravery? Courage seems to be connected to faith in this passage. Unlike Mark’s version, Jesus follows Peter’s less than successful try at walking on water with, “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?” How is courage connected to faith?

The root meaning of the English word “courage” is the Latin cor and the French coeur — “heart,” which may explain English translations that vary between “take heart” and “take courage.”

What is Jesus saying to Peter, to his disciples? I wonder if Jesus is saying to them, to us, faith means living out of your heart. You are going to have to lead, live, and love with your heart, Peter. You know who I am. Deep down in your heart, you know me and you know I will be there. Trust yourself. Trust your heart. Jesus’ words call Peter back to himself — to his truth, to his heart, to his faith. And no valiant feat is necessary to verify what Jesus wants Peter to see that is already true about who Peter is.

I have a feeling that this is something preachers need to hear as well. It seems that only impressive statistics substantiate Jesus’ presence these days — that you are successful in your ministry if attendance numbers look good, you have a large staff, a nice, big church building, an impressive budget, or some other outside acknowledgement of your worth. Trust yourself. Trust your innermost space, your heart, that what you are doing matters, that what you preach makes a difference, and that truly, Jesus is with you and trusts you. Sure, there will be times when you feel like you are walking on water, or at least think you could, no problem, and that is a great feeling. But in the end, only Jesus can manage such a miracle. The daily life of ministry is not extraordinary acts of faith, but hoping for a little more than “little faith.” Take courage.