Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 10 August 2014: Year A, Proper 14
Walking on water?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We live in a noisy, busy age. Especially for those of us who live in cities, we are so used to noise we often no longer notice it. We will switch on the radio when we get up. We might watch TV during breakfast. We will be assailed by recorded music in shops. Our phone constantly interrupt us with calls, emails, tweets and Facebook updates. Looking after children can be a non-stop whirlwind. Trying to make a date for something- for example a church meeting- can be a trying process, as each of us goes through our diaries, desperate to find a space.
A Christian ought to be someone who tries to live like Jesus. So why don’t we learn from Jesus? Yes, he often had a busy life. But he needs space for himself. Just before today’s Gospel passage, we hear that Jesus has heard the terrible news that John the Baptist has been executed on the order of King Herod. ‘When Jesus heard the news about John’, says Matthew the Gospel writer, ‘he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself’. But he was not to get any peace: ‘The people heard about it, so they left their towns and followed him by land’. Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, ‘his heart was filled with pity for them, and he healed those who were ill’. He even manages to feed them all, with only five loaves and two fish.
But then he takes time for himself: ‘Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people away’. No doubt there were mutterings of disapproval, disappointment, from the crowd and his disciples. There would still have been people needing to be healed, people who needed to hear the good news of the kingdom. But now Jesus needs time for himself. ‘After sending the people away, he went up a hill by himself to pray’.
But during the night a storm springs up- ‘and by this time the boar was far our in the lake, tossed about by the waves, because the wind was blowing against it’. The disciples must have been alarmed but suddenly they see something which terrifies them. They think they are seeing a ghost- a figure walking to them across the water. Matthew tells us that they ‘screamed with fear’. Jesus speaks to calm them: ‘”Courage!” he said, “It is I. Don’t be afraid!”‘
And then the apostle Peter speaks up. It’s always Peter- impetuous Peter, who so often seems to let his tongue go faster than his brain. Peter is the one who challenges this ghost. He challenges the apparition: ‘Lord, if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you’. And Jesus says, ‘Come’, and before we know it Peter is climbing over the side.
I often think that the real miracle of this story is not the Jesus is said to have walked on water. The real miracle is that the Peter should have tried to do it. When Jesus says he should come to him, he leaves the relative security of the boat and attempts to reach him. It is sometimes thought that religion is a sort of safety net for people, to give believers comfort in a stormy world. But in this story Peter shows a different kind of faith. He has promised to follow Jesus wherever it takes him, and so when he is told to follow him out of safety and into danger, he goes.
He could have had it easier. He could have said, ‘Lord, if it is really you, climb into the boat and have some breakfast with us’. If Jesus had just done that, that would have been fine- the disciples would have Jesus in the boat with them, they would soon have figured out that this was no ghost, but their friend that they knew so well. But what Peter actually said was in more in the nature of a challenge: ‘Tell me to come out there with you!’. He talks first and thinks afterwards. And often he has some hard thinking to do later on, after the event.
I’m sure most of us have known people who seemed to be full of faith, full of enthusiasm, who tried- for a while- to live like Jesus. But then the difficulties come- and difficulties always do come. And things get harder- things always get harder. The initial enthusiasm wanes. Being a follower of Jesus turns out to be harder than they thought. And soon it becomes tempting to deny that you’d ever known Jesus at all (which, indeed, happened to Peter when Jesus was on trial- he denied knowing him).
And yet there is something to be said for Peter’s initial, impetuous enthusiasm. At least he’s willing to make the leap of faith. Some people never learn to have faith in Jesus because they’re not like Peter. They want to work it all out first. They’re not going to commit themselves to anything until they’ve got it all figured out. They see the figure on the water, and they too have the questions which were in Peter’s mind- is it Jesus or not? But maybe I’ll just wait until he reaches the boat and climbs in. The trouble is, by the time you’ve figured it all out, the moment has passed.
In today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul describes the nature of faith in Jesus Christ. It is quite simple- it is faith which puts us right with God. We are to have faith above all. So in times of distress people of faith can call out to God and God will be there for them. The apostle Peter absolutely believes that. He risks going out on the water, and if he fails to get very far, at least he seems to have believed that Jesus would be there for him.
Faith is always a risk. There is always a chance it will cause us problems. People might scoff that we people like us still go to church. They will misunderstand us when we say we are trying, in some way, to live like Jesus. Our sense of morality might be misunderstood by others for hypocrisy. Even to be seem to take time for silence, time to pray, time to meet with God- as Jesus did- could open us to ridicule.
Yet the dangers Christians in our country face are as nothing compared to the sort of things we’ve seen happening to Christians around the world. Today in Syria and Iraq, Christians are being driven from communities where they have lived for centuries. It’s the same in other parts of the Middle East. The latest violence in Gaza is part of a struggle which we often imagine to be about Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims- but there is another community caught in the middle. Arab Christians are part of a church which has been there since the birth of Christianity, but year on year their numbers are falling, as many of them leave the region to escape the violence. In fact, there are claims that perhaps Christianity has now become the most persecuted religion in the world.
St Paul- quoting the Old Testament prophet Joel- tells the Christians of Rome that ‘whoever calls out to the Lord will be saved’. There are certainly many Christians around the world who must be calling out to God for help today. Yet the Christians of the Middle East can perhaps teach us much about the nature of faith. They are part of communities which have always been small minorities. Often, they would have been distrusted by the neighbours for being different. Governments would often have seen them as convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. Intimidation, discrimination and persecution has always been part of their history. They could, of course, have simply conformed, and taken on the faith of the majority (usually Islam). But for some reason, they have stuck to Christianity. With a boldness which reminds us of Peter, in a way, they have not conformed, but taken the risk of continuing to be seen as followers of Christ in very, very difficult circumstances. And I think that must be because they truly do believe that God is a God who saves, that whatever happens, no matter how terrible, God will never let them down.
When nothing else will help, when all else fails, we can cry out to God for help. Faced with the loss of a loved one, faced with loneliness, faced with illness, we might well find some comfort in other places- but many, many people, even those who claim not to believe in anything very much, find that they cry out to God when everything else has failed. And then comes death, which secular culture sees as the ultimate failure. But even in death we believe that God saves. Death has no hold over us any more- God has saved us from the power of death, God has saved us for eternal life.
The Gospel- which is for all people- is that there is a God to whom we can turn in their distress, who will save us even if we physically die. And the Church’s primary task is to take that message to all people. Listen to Paul as he writes about this- follow his logic. He writes- ‘As the scripture says, “Everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved”. But how can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out?’
Paul followed that logic. He allowed God to send him as a messenger of the Gospel. Travelling across the ancient world, he proclaimed the message, so that people could hear the message and believe. He created and supported small, vulnerable communities which faced suspicion, intimidation, and persecution- and yet they stuck to their faith, because their faith was the most important possession they had.
If we want the world to know the Good News, we need to be continually sending out messengers. In many different ways, we need to find ways to take the message that there is a God who cares to our careworn world. We need to have people able to go out and tell the world if they call out to God he will save them. Christ has died and Christ has risen- so we are saved even from nothingness after we die, for the Gospel hope is that even death has been defeated. That is the message we need to take to people, in all sorts of imaginative ways.
But we must get out and tell this to the world. And for that we need to take risks, to show the sort of courage Peter showed- to be brave if Jesus tells us to come follow him even where it might be dangerous. Any risks we might take are as nothing compared to the risks Christians in other parts of the world take for the sake of their faith. Yet Peter took the risk of getting out of the boat because he was sure it was Jesus who has called him. It was an act of faith- but not a cosy, comfortable faith- it was a risk-taking faith.
But Matthew tells us that Peter didn’t get very far. Look at the picture on the front of our order of service. It shows Jesus reaching out to Peter, who by this stage is waist-deep, looking rather forlorn, grasping for Jesus’ hand. The picture seems to say- look what’s happened to Peter. He took his eyes off Jesus and now he’s in trouble. And many a sermon on this text has said the same thing: ‘Look what happens when you start worrying about the storms of life and take your eyes off Jesus- you start to sink!’
But today I don’t want to go on about how bad Peter was at walking on water. No- I want to celebrate the fact that he had the courage to try it at all! I want to thank God for that impetuous faith of Peter’s that made him get out of the boat. I want you to go away with another picture in your mind. I want you to think about Peter climbing out of the boat and taking those first, few tentative steps on the water. Let’s not brood on Peter’s failure. Let’s instead be inspired by the fact he had faith enough to try.
Right at the end of John’s Gospel, we read of how Jesus met his disciples once more on the lake shore in Galilee- the scene of so much of the time they had shared together. And Jesus makes an interesting prophecy about Peter. He tells Peter to ‘take care of my sheep’, and then adds enigmatically:
‘”I am telling you the truth: when you were young, you used to get ready and go anywhere you wanted to; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will bind you and take you where you don’t want to go.” [And John the Gospel writer then explains:] (In saying this, Jesus was indicating the way in which Peter would die and bring glory to God). Then Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me!’ (John 21.17-19)
And, indeed, Peter did follow where the risen Jesus led- according to tradition, followed all the way to Rome, where he was martyred over 30 years later under Nero. But he could die knowing that even death would not be enough to separate him from his Lord.
Jesus called Peter to go where he didn’t want to go. But because it was Jesus who said ‘Come onto the water’ or ‘Leave your fishing’ or ‘Go to Rome’, Peter went. He very good at walking on the water- but that’s not important. At least he tried. May God grant that as individuals, and as a Church, we too might have the courage to follow Christ wherever he calls us, to risk living as Jesus did. Because if we do go, his strong arm will be there to help us.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo
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