Stepping out into the Storming Sea

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Matthew 14:22-33

And immediately He made the disciples get into the boat, and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And after He had sent the multitudes away, He went up to the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already many stadia away from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were frightened, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!”

A very familiar story with a very familiar conclusion–“you are certainly God’s son!” Also included in the context is Peter’s faith, and lack thereof, in Jesus.

Most people relate well with Peter, and I believe it is precisely the reason that Jesus chose him as a disciple. We have, or will see, Peter, proclaim Christ, deny Christ, walk on water, sink into the sea and suffer all sorts of shipwrecks and yet become the first Pope. Actually there is no shred of context that indicates that. Nevertheless, Peter will become a great apostle. Therefore, I always caution people who claim to be, “just like,” Peter.

Having recently returned from a mission trip to a certain communist country in the Caribbean, I have learned something about myself. I am the opposite of Peter, at least according to my reading of today’s text. Peter, who thinks that he and the disciples have seen a ghost, then hears Jesus tell them to not be afraid because it is, in fact, him. Picture the scene as it was written by Matthew: The disciples are far from shore, winds whipping during the darkness before dawn. When in the midst of the darkness a figure appears, walking on the stormy sea. Look at the context, the disciples thought the figure to be a ghost and they were terrified.

Yet we are told that the figure was Jesus and he called out to the disciples to not be afraid. Peter responded by saying, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” Forgive me for my lack of faith but that is the worst possible response. The following are a few responses I think would have been better: Lord, if it is you, stop the storm; Lord, if it is you, get in the boat, you’ll catch a cold out there; or even, Lord, if it is you, do you have any gum? It seems silly but it’s clearly a better response than to say, “command me to come to you on the water.”

It, like it usually does, gets worse for Peter. Jesus, being the Lord of the universe, says to Peter, “come!” Peter then exits the boat and walks on the waters of the stormy sea towards Jesus. Who does that? Place yourself in this boat during this storm. Would walking on water be your first thought or even a thought at all? Yet, for what ever reason, if you did make that first step out of the boat, would not all subsequent steps become increasingly easier? The first step is always the most difficult.

We had made it all the way to Miami on this most recent mission trip to a certain communist country in the Caribbean before most of us found out that our religious visas had been denied. For me, mileage wise, that’s 9/10ths of the way there. Nevertheless, at this point, we were a thousand miles from nowhere. We were told that we could buy humanitarian visas at the airport–that wasn’t exactly true. We were, however, able to buy tourist visas for $100.00. This being our only option for legal travel to the largest island in the Caribbean, we bought the tourist visas. The problem with the tourist visa is in the context of its name, it’s only for tourists–our intent was to not be tourists but rather, servants. The tourist visa limits one to tourism and precludes preaching and working. We have but two main goals in the mission trip; to work and to preach. Yet there are secondary goals of giving gifts and of fellowship. These goals should be able to be accomplished with the tourist visa. Nevertheless, it’s questionable and if ever there was a time to turn back it was at this point. As when Peter saw the wind and began to sink, we also could easily have lost faith and turned back and truthfully, the thought crossed my mind. We could have sent our gifts with those who had already procured visas and the rest of us could have gone home.

But we are not like Peter, we trusted the Lord this far, we weren’t about to stop trusting him now. Like I said, the first step is the most difficult, all other steps get us closer to our goal. Think again about Peter; which was more difficult, stepping out of the boat or continuing on towards Jesus after he was called and began to walk? Honestly, why would Matthew tell us this story–it makes no sense?

Hopefully you have continued to read to this point because the fact is, I lied, we are all exactly like Peter. We were no different in our mission trip, despite what I said. Our faith was tested every step of the way and it was not our faith that carried us through but that Jesus chose to bring us through. Notice that Peter didn’t drown, only that his faith wavered and he cried out to Jesus to save him.

Yes, ironically, the first step is always the most difficult. We trust the Lord for our salvation, which is all but impossible but we don’t trust him with the little things like food, clothes and many other things that compared to the first step are baby steps.

When we arrived in the certain communist country, the largest of the Caribbean islands, a scant 90 miles off the coast of Key west, about the same distance from the west coast of Haiti, I was the first to enter into passport control but the tenth or eleventh to make it out. They knew exactly who I was and why I was there. In Spanish I was told explicitly that we were not to work, teach, preach or anything else that one would equate with a successful mission trip. Nevertheless she did give us a loophole–we could “help,” at least I think that’s what she said, my Spanish is not very good. Helping is exactly what we went to do and help we did.

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It was actually a great blessing to be told that we could not do the work but could only help. Yes, you read that correctly. The churches there have come to rely on us too heavily. When my group of 3 Americans showed up to help build a roof over a dining area, we were only slightly outnumbered by people from that church who were willing to work. We had to tell them, we can’t do this work for you we can only help. They were forced to take ownership of the project which is how it should be. It is their local gathering place but they have become so accustomed to us doing much of the work that they had become complacent. A few words from the director of these mission trips and they realized just how complacent they had become. After that it was all able hands on deck and the project was finished ahead of schedule. Which gave us more time for fellowship and to do a few additional, smaller projects. God, once again, used the “problem” as the solution.

And yet it was not a complete success because we were not able to teach at the college conference due to our tourist visas. I was set to teach the CAGED method to the hundreds, actually over a thousand, young people. Not the CAGED method per se but an equivalent Spanish version (English acronyms don’t translate well). Trust me; it is desperately needed. Their culture, even in the church is for the speaker to read a verse, or part of a verse, or in one particular case, no verse at all, and then to ramble on and on about what ever the speaker “feels led” to say.

In a large way it breaks my heart. One has the enormous opportunity to teach a thousand people the bible but would rather use their words than the words of the Bible. It’s infectious in this country also and is beginning to take over this missive as well. Please pray, starting now, that we will be able to obtain religious visas next year. Back to the context of Matthew.

Jesus placed the disciples in the boat–he knew what he was doing. The disciples obeyed him and set out for the other side of Galilee. We can assume they all understood that Jesus would eventually catch up with them.  But before he did Jesus desired to have alone time with the Father. Luke and Matthew have this scene in different places, chronologically speaking. I believe, based on the way in which both authors write, that Matthew’s account is the chronologically correct account. This places the story immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. That is to say that the disciples have seen and experienced a myriad of miracles by this point.

When the boat was far from land, like the theme from Gilligan’s Island, the tiny ship was tossed. That in itself is enough to make the disciples fear for their lives. However, the majority of them were experienced fishermen and had probably seen a storm or two in their days. The context doesn’t tell us that they had fear until they saw Jesus walking on the water but they didn’t know it was Jesus, they thought it was a ghost. Do with that what you like but all we are told is that the disciples were frightened, thinking that Jesus was a ghost. What else would they think? We’ve heard this story a thousand times and we would probably react the same way if it happened to us.

Jesus, knowing their fear tells them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Jesus could have approached them in a boat and then they would not have been afraid or thought that they had seen a ghost but he decided to walk on the water, knowing that they would be frightened. I don’t think Jesus did it to frighten them but to seize on the opportunity to teach them. Yes, he knew that they would be frightened but the intent was not to frighten them but to teach them. And as crazy as Peter’s response was, it was exactly what Jesus wanted. Yes, come Peter, it’s not a problem at all. As a reminder, this is Jesus, in the flesh, to Peter. It is a story of example in the gospels that may not apply today. That is to say, maybe don’t try to walk on water.

But Peter did, literally, walk on water. He made that faithful leap out of the boat onto the stormy sea and the rest is history. Despite what I wrote before,  this is not a stupid story of the impetuous Peter being Peter. He didn’t simply leap out of the boat. Notice the context, he asked Jesus to command him to walk on the water. Notice most importantly that Jesus told Peter to come.

Most pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers zoom in on the phrase, “But seeing the wind, he became afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!'” They then proclaim, Peter took his eyes off the Lord and focused on the wind and his faith wavered and he began to sink! I don’t think that is exactly the point. Look closely at the immediate context, Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” The context is clear, Peter was still in the presence of Jesus, look at the continuing context; “And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him…” That’s probably the worst part of the story, that Peter was within the grasp of Jesus when he began to sink.  Also notice that the wind did not stop until they were all back in the boat. Put it all together and we see clearly, based on the context, that although Peter had got out of the boat, walked closer towards Jesus on the stormy sea so that he was within the reach of Jesus, his faith wavered due to his remembrance of the wind.

That’s us–at least that’s me. How often does the Lord bring me to a particular place, only for me to doubt?

 

 

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