Jesus Walks on Water
Sermon for August 7, 2011
Based on Mathew 14:22-33
There is an attraction in Israel that was created especially for the Christian tourists. At the Sea of Galilee a platform was built just an inch or so under the water’s surface that leads from the shore into the lake. Tourist walking on the submerged platform can create the illusion that they are walking on water, just like Jesus did. Their friends can take pictures of them performing the miracle themselves, no faith required. Even a non- believer can walk on water for a fee.
Our scripture lesson this morning is familiar to many of us. It is the story of Jesus walking on water. It has been the subject of jokes about Jesus at times and recreated many times in movies. The event like all of Jesus’ miracles has been the subject of scrutiny. Some scholars accept the story as fact, others as only a legend; some believe it just one of the many stories created after Jesus’ resurrection. Some believe that the original translation was incorrect. That it originally said that Jesus walked along the sea, not on the sea. What you chose to believe is up to you. There is a similar story in Buddhism of a disciple who is able to walk on water while meditating on Buddha but who sinks when he loses his concentration.
The author of Mathew has taken this story from the gospel of Mark and changed it to make his own point. The account of Jesus walking on water is also found in John. This story would have given encouragement to members of the early church. It would have taught them that no matter what trials they were going through that Jesus would come to their rescue.
For the first time, in Mathew, the disciples are sent away from Jesus. Jesus insists that the disciples get into a boat on the Sea of Galilee. They are reluctant. The boat in this story represents the church. Jesus in this story represents the presence of God. It is important to the author of Mathew that the reader of this story understands that Jesus and the disciples have been separated. It’s an important part of the story. The disciples go out on the lake in the boat and Jesus, as he will do many times in the future, heads to a higher place to pray, the mountains. The mountain represents a place of communion with God. The mountains are a place of strength, a place physically closer to God. It might be surprising to know that this is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus is pictured as praying.
The Sea of Galilee is not really a sea but a lake that is about four or five miles wide. The boat the disciples are on has drifted a considerable distance from the shore when a storm hits with strong winds. The boat is being hit by high waves. The scene becomes frightening and out of control. The disciples fear for their lives. Remember that the boat in Mathew’s story represents the early church. Mathew is thinking of how it will be for the church after Jesus is physically gone, when the disciples, the church, have been physically separated from Jesus.
The sea in this story represents chaos in the world. The sea represents a place that is always threatening, a place of unknown dangers. For the people of biblical times the sea was a place of anxiety and dark powers. It was a place that contained unknown things that worked against God’s created order. To the people of biblical times the sea was a place of death. In this story the sea is what separates the disciples from their teacher Jesus. Jesus represents the presence of God in the world. The boat in the storm hasn’t much to protect it, except Jesus. The future church in the storms of life will not have much to protect it either except Jesus.
Sometime between 3 and 6:00 in the morning, Jesus comes to the disciples rescue. He walks out onto the Sea of Galilee towards the ship. Of course the disciples cannot imagine this happening. It must be a ghost. No one can walk on water. But when we read the story with our modern minds we think of one thing, we think scientifically, we know no one can defy gravity that way. But in ancient times people believed that only the gods could walk on water, not mortals. And biblical minds believed that only God himself could walk on water. And yet there Jesus is, standing on the water. Jesus is doing not only what the disciples know only God could do, but Jesus also speaks with the voice, the authority of God. He says, “It is I”, in other words, “I am.” The same words that God uses to describe himself. Jesus is telling the frightened disciples, God is with you. Jesus is speaking to the disciples with the authority of God and not only that; he is giving the disciples that same authority.
Peter in act of daring and faith asks Jesus to invite him out onto the water’s surface as well. He will only go out with an invitation from Jesus. Jesus beckons him to come. Peter steps out of the boat onto the water and walks towards Jesus. But when Peter saw the wind he becomes afraid, he loses his focus, and he begins to sink. Peter’s reason for stepping out of the boat was to be with Jesus but also out of his own pride, “Look, I can do this too on my own.” But he was no longer on the water than he realizes he is in trouble. He cannot do this alone. And he cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Jesus seeing Peter in distress, sinking into the stormy waters reaches out his hand and saves him from drowning. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter.
The lesson that has often been taught from this story is that if Peter only had enough faith he would have been able to stay on top of the water. But Peter sank because his focus was not entirely on Jesus but on himself. The author of Mathew considered Peter to be a good example of the kind of person many of us are as disciples. Peter is a compulsive person who often leaps before he looks. The lesson that people often get from this story is that we can overcome anything if we only have enough faith. But the reality is that often in our lives despite our faith we do often sink in the storms of life. To suggest that having the right amount of faith will protect us from every danger in life is unrealistic. It creates unattainable expectations and anxiety and guilt if we are constantly beating ourselves up for failing, or for getting sick, or for having accidents saying “If only I had enough faith these things wouldn’t happen to me.”
We will experience the storms of life no matter how strong our faith. Peter’s mistake was not that he didn’t have enough faith; it was that he needed physical proof that Jesus was with him; his belief was not enough for him. When he stepped onto the water he allowed the wind to distract him and he allowed the storm to take his focus off of Jesus. Our faith is always strongest when we are focused only on Jesus. Faith that the presence of Jesus is always with us is never misplaced faith. We are always assured of a good outcome in the end when we remain focused on Christ.
Jesus said that Peter had “little faith”. But it was not a criticism of Peter, but an often used description of all the disciples. Having “little faith” is an accurate description of you and me. Even as people of faith, all of us, like the disciples, are a mixture of courage, and anxiety, of trust and doubt, of knowing the ever presence of God in our lives and yet still fearing the storms of life. It is just who we are as imperfect people. Faith is not being able to walk on water, only God can do that. Faith is believing that God is with us in the boat whether we see him or not. We don’t need to go looking for God. God is always there.
This story of Jesus walking on water is called a miracle story. But what is a miracle? Is it just something out of the ordinary that someone does that catches our attention? Is it only something that defies our understanding of what is humanly possible? A miracle is anything that happens or exists that takes us out of our everyday ordinary lives, out of our human heads, and makes us aware of the presence and power of God in our lives. Jesus physically did what men could not do and it took them out of their dull routine lives and made them stop in wonder. He performed miracles to show the people that with Christ all things are possible. That when we have done all that we can humanly do, hope still exists. Those miracle stories of 2,000 years ago should still inspire us today. But maybe they don’t because we’ve heard them so many times they just don’t inspire us anymore. So I would ask you, “What miracles have you seen performed in your own lifetime that prove to you today that the power and the presence of God still exists in your life? Perhaps the miracle of God’s presence is simply that you woke up this morning, that your heart is still beating, that your eyes are still seeing, that you can still smell and hear and speak. Perhaps the miracle of God’s continuous presence in the world today is that the sun has come up, that the moon and stars will shine again tonight, that babies are being born every minute of the day. What miracles do you see every day that tells you that God is with us, and the hope of Christ still exists? Although we may not stop to think about them, we need not venture far to find them.
While working on this sermon I couldn’t help but think about this sanctuary with its wood paneled ceiling built like the bow of a boat, a fishing boat perhaps, maybe an ark. In the windows of this sanctuary are depictions of twelve men, the disciples. On the outside wall of this church sanctuary are two more figures. I believe that figure on the outside wall might be Peter. The other figure with the outstretched arms is Jesus. We sit here this morning beneath the bow of a boat as a community of faith, as Disciples of Christ. The ceiling of this sanctuary a physical reminder for us each Sunday that we are under the continuous power and protection and refuge of God today as God’s people have always been. The bow of a boat above our heads is a reminder that the church will carry us through the storms of life. What a blessing to have that physical symbol of God’s life-saving shelter as our place of worship. What a blessing to have a God that loves us so much that he remains with us to protect us from all the storms of life.