August 10, 2014, Pentecost 9 – Anyone Can Walk
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On June 25th, 2011, a magician named Steve Frayne, also known as “Dynamo”, performed a really spectacular illusion in front of lots of onlookers in London. As people watched, “Dynamo” apparently walked out on the waters of the Thames River, without sinking in. Dynamo calls himself “magician impossible”, and he has done lots of spectacular illusions, like levitating people and turning lottery tickets into cash right in front of a live audience, and of course everyone knows it’s all a very clever hoax. But even as a hoax walking on water had particular significance, because walking on water is the ultimate God-thing. It’s the proverbial Jesus power. Jesus is the man who can walk on water. Other people might do miraculous healings, and even Elijah raised the dead, but when you mention walking on water pretty much everyone thinks of Jesus. And that’s because he’s the only one who ever did it.
Except that he’s not. Because every time I read this story, the thing that really amazes me is that Peter actually does walk on water.
This story comes directly after the humongous community supper in the wilderness that we read last week. As a veteran, myself, of many large dinners (though never as large as that one), I can’t help but think how completely exhausted they all must have been at that point, but Jesus commanded the disciples to get into the boat and head over to the other side of the Lake, while he stayed behind to dismiss the crowd and get them safely on their way home. And then, when the people were gone, Jesus went off into the hills nearby to pray in solitude.
Meanwhile, the disciples were not getting any rest out on the sea, because a truly terrible storm came up while they were far from any land. Matthew says that the boat was “battered” by the waves, and the Greek word literally means “tortured” or “tormented”. It had to have been a gruelling battle rowing against the waves, even for those among them who had grown up in fishing boats, not to mention it was a life-threatening situation for them all. And just when things were at their most desperate, they looked out into the night, at the dark ragged clouds all around, at the neverending crash and spray of the waves against the sides of the boat, and they saw the impossible. In the midst of the howling winds and crashing waves, someone was walking towards them, on top of the water. And they reacted in the only way one could be reasonably expected to react – they were struck with terror. It had to be a ghost; what else could it be?
But before they could panic, Jesus, who would have known exactly what they were thinking and feeling even if he wasn’t God, called out to them, “Don’t be afraid! Pull yourselves together, guys! It’s not a ghost; it’s me!” The translation I read says “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” but I am pretty sure Jesus didn’t speak so formally. It was the voice of the real live Jesus they knew. At least it is certain that Peter found solid reassurance in the voice that came to them out of the darkness, because he called back to him, “If it’s really you, command me to come out to you on the waves.”
“If it’s really you, command me.” To me, that is the very absolute heart of this story. Think – Peter could have asked for any kind of reassurance from Jesus at that point. He could have called out, “If it’s really you, make this storm stop.” Or “If it’s really you, make the ship suddenly arrive at the shore.” Or “If it’s really you, appear here in the boat with us.” He could have asked for any sign of power from Jesus. They had seen all manner of signs of power in their travels with Jesus: water turned into wine and demons cast out and dead people brought back to life. He could do anything. But it seems to me that something was beginning to grow within the disciples, especially since that very day when they had held the miraculous bread and fish in their hands and fed a cities’ worth of people from the meager gleanings of their lunch basket. The disciples – or at the very least, Peter – had begun to learn that the real secret of Jesus’ power was not just in the works themselves, but even more in his ability to empower them. And so, with the wind howling in his ears and the sea spray in his face and the boat rocking wildly under his feet, Peter called out to the specter on the waves, “If it’s really you, command me to come.”
It is an interesting thing that even the Muslims believe that Jesus performed miraculous works. They teach that Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, and they teach that Jesus walked on the waves of the Sea of Galilee. The difference in their belief, though, is that they don’t believe that Jesus had this power of himself. Jesus was only a man, according to Islam, but he was truly able to do all these wonderful things because God gave him the power to do them. And in teaching that, Muslims reveal a very true and important thing about God. It isn’t the working of miracles that is primarily the mark of divine power. Real divine power, real God- ness, is revealed in empowering others.
That is why Jesus taught his people a brand new kind of leadership. Because we are most like our God, not when we impress people or intimidate people, but when, in all humility, we empower them – which is what real servanthood does.
And that is exactly what Peter was beginning to understand. “If it is you, if it is really you, Lord, command me to come out to you on the waves.” Because only God could do that.
We tend to focus on the part of the story where Peter panics and sinks, but we really miss the point if we don’t first notice that the feet of that blustering, impetuous young fisherman stepped out on the surging waves of the Sea of Galilee and walked – we aren’t told how many steps, but walk he did – on the water toward the Lord in whom he placed his faith. Peter walked on the water. Because Jesus commanded him to come, Peter came, one foot in front of the other maybe, or maybe shuffling along like I do at the skating rink, but he did come, because he was right: if it was really Jesus, Jesus could command him to come to him walking on the waves, and if it was really Jesus, he could do it.
Of course, we know what happened next. He took his eyes off the trusted and beloved face of Jesus and looked around at the utter impossibility of what he was doing. And instantly he was overwhelmed by the howling of the wind and the sickening surge of the waves and his heart just melted with fear and he went down. But even in going down, he called out for Jesus, who was right there to grab his hand and pull him to safety.
“Why did you doubt?” Jesus asked Peter. “Oh you little-faith! Look at where you were, and what you were doing! That little bit of faith you had was all you needed! Why did you stop? Why did you listen to your fears? You could have come all the way out to me and never sunk at all.” To all of us little-faiths out here, Peter is the man for us, because on the night in the stormy sea he set out in faith to do the impossible, and he did it, if only for the space of a few seconds, before his fears got the better of him. In the years to come, Peter would step out with courage to preach the gospel despite beatings and threats and imprisonment. He kept the faith in the face of worse than stormy winds, and he kept the faith even when it meant giving up his own life. And it was in the midst of the howling winds and crashing waves on the Sea of Galilee that he began to learn the secret of faith, and that was to keep his eyes on the face of Jesus.
The wonderfulness of the power of our God is that he is able, and he is willing, and he loves, to share his power with us. And he told us that it’s ok to be little-faiths. He told us that we don’t need faith any bigger than a tiny little mustard seed, which is pretty tiny. With that little smitch of faith we can do all that he calls us to do – as long as we keep our eyes on him, and don’t let ourselves be intimidated by the wind and the waves. Because they are always there, and the thing is that the wind and the waves are more powerful than we are. Whatever storm it is that is raging around us, whatever waves are threatening to swallow us up – whether that is illness or financial trouble, physical pain or emotional pain, remorse over the past or the fear of not knowing how to face the future – we’re not imagining it, we’re not wrong or cowardly or weak, if we think that these things are just too hard or too scary or too much for us to handle. But they aren’t too much for Jesus, and as long as we keep our eyes fixed on him we can know, with all the strength of our little faith, that our feet are safe and secure on top of those waves.