August 10, 2014 Psalm 69: 1-3, 13-18 Matthew 14: 22-33
Rev. Catherine Purves
In the cosmic battle between good and evil, water is not your friend. If you stop to think about it, in the Bible, water, storms, the sea, floods, and even rivers pose a real threat to God’s people. The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth wrote that, water in the creation story is “the principle which in its abundance and power is absolutely opposed to God’s creation.” The waters, remember, had to be contained and bound. From the story of the great flood to the natural barriers of the Red Sea and even the Jordan River that separated the Israelites from the Promised Land, water always held an element of threat that inspired fear. It was the realm of Leviathan, great sea monsters, and terrifying storms. Barth concluded that water in the Bible “is a representative of all the evil powers which oppress and resist the salvation intended for the people of Israel.” And that is why I have no desire to go on a cruise.
We can see this elemental fear of water reflected in our reading from Psalm 69. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” This vivid picture of drowning in the fathomless deep is a metaphor that was often used in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, to describe all kinds of threats and fears. This was the cry of utter desperation that assumed that only God could help. Water represented all of the unbridled forces of nature that were beyond our control, and always there was the underlying sense that the storms and the floods and the unpredictable threat that water posed was not simply a random occurrence in nature, but that it was pitted against us as a force foreign and malevolent to God’s good creation. For who could calm the sea? Who could restrain the floods? Who could walk on water?
Of course, we know that in the creation story, God separated the waters and set their boundaries. In the story of Noah and the great flood, God provided the means of salvation, the ark, and eventually it was God who drove back the waters so that the dry land appeared. And again it was God who divided the Red Sea so that the Hebrews could escape from Pharaoh and his chariots, and God held back the waters of the Jordan River so that Joshua could lead the people into the Promised Land. God can control the waters.
In one vivid passage from the book of Job, God answers Job’s challenges out of the whirlwind and asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…Who shut the sea with its doors when it burst out from the womb? – when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?…Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?”
Clearly, only God can walk on water or control the raging power of the sea. Set in this context, we can see the real power of our Gospel story in which Jesus walks on water and calms the storm. This also explains the real terror of the disciples, because not only were they at the mercy of a malevolent storm that they associated with the powers of evil, but now they saw someone walking on the waves, an act which, biblically, had only ever been attributed to God himself. In what the disciples were experiencing as a cosmic battle between good and evil, they knew that water was not their friend, but who was this strange ghostly figure who was not threatened by the sea and who could walk on water? No wonder they cried out in terror. But Jesus called to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The disciples were in no position to ponder the theological meaning of what Jesus had just said, but we are. Jesus’ response to them, in Greek, ego eimi, is correctly translated “it is I,” but this is the same phrase which was used in the Greek Old Testament as God’s response to Moses at the burning bush when Moses asked God to reveal his name. “I am,” ego eimi, was what God said, and that cryptic revelation then became the divine name throughout the Old Testament. When we couple this fact with the obvious power that Jesus had over the wind and the seas, then the disciples really would have realized that they had front row seats in a colossal confrontation between the powers of good and evil, between God and everything that is opposed to God.
I find all of that interesting, and I hope you do too, but what has it got to do with us, exactly? Well, we are the disciples. And we have those front row seats in a cosmic battle, whether we know it or not. And, like the disciples, we are not just observers. We are caught up in that life and death struggle. The ship has often been used as a symbol of the church, and in this story, Jesus’ little band of believers was huddled together in the hull of their fishing boat as it was wildly tossed about by the wind and the waves. So here we have an arresting picture of our life as Christians. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. We are gathered in our little ship, the church. We are being tossed about mercilessly. But Jesus is there too, affirming by his word, ego eimi (“it is I”), that he is the Son of God, master of the sea, and the victor over all the powers of death and evil, the one who walks on water.
And now we get to the part of the story where Peter shouts out to Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of sermons about Peter getting out of the boat, and I still find it puzzling. What was he thinking? What preachers often say about this is, “You’ve got to have faith. You have to be willing to leave your comfort zone. You need to trust Jesus. You shouldn’t have doubts or you will sink. But Jesus will save you, if you step out in faith.” There are a lot of guilt-inducing ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ in those sermonic conclusions which I don’t find terribly helpful. I still want to know why Peter wanted to get out of that boat in the first place. It wasn’t Jesus who suggested it, remember. Jesus was coming to them. Why didn’t Peter just sit tight with the rest of his shipmates and wait for Jesus to save them? And why did he leave the others? They needed to be saved from the storm as well. If he knew that water was not his friend, why would Peter try to walk on it?
When I shared this puzzling question with Andrew this week over lunch, he said, “Maybe Peter was trying to act like God.” I’d certainly never thought of that, and I never heard a sermon in which Peter’s willingness to get out of the boat was viewed in such a negative light. But it somehow made sense. Peter’s act of extreme bravado may not have been merely reckless. It could have been virtually blasphemous. If only God can walk on water, what did he think he was doing when he tried to imitate that? Far from being an inspirational example of faith and bravery, this may have been an instance of unbelievable pride and presumption. Was Peter really thinking, ‘I can do this because I believe in God. I can
defeat the powers of evil myself. Because I have faith in Jesus, I can do what Jesus does, and even walk on water.’?
Of course, we know what happened next. When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter managed a few steps, when he kept his eyes fixed on Jesus, but when he looked down at the waves, he promptly sank. Peter was no match for the powers of evil (and neither are we). Only Jesus can walk on water. Then, Peter cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Now pay careful attention to what happened next. Peter did not reach out and grab Jesus in one last desperate effort of self-generated faith. It was Jesus who stretched out his hand and caught Peter. Peter remained to the end the same kind of mixed up bundle of faith and doubt, hope and fear, sin and saintliness that is characteristic of all disciples, including us. He needed Jesus to save him, and so do we. He couldn’t save himself.
This is what it’s like for us to be in those front row seats and to be caught up in the struggle between good and evil. It is an experience of faith and doubt. In my opinion, sermonic ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ don’t help us here. We’re all in the same boat, so to speak. We all need Jesus to save us. We’re not the ones who are meant to walk on water. That is what God does for us. It is Jesus who comes to us in our little ship of the church. It is Jesus who calms the storm and who defeats the powers of evil for us. It is a scary and dangerous world out there, and water is not our friend. But we do have a powerful friend and Savior in Jesus Christ. And he can walk on water.