My sermon from this past Sunday (October 29, 2017) is below the fold. My text was Matthew 14:22-33. This is an extremely rare instance where my sermon notes almost form a complete manuscript, so I’m simply sharing them.
Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
UPSET: During my time in college, I worked as a grader for the “General Logic” Class. Every so often there were two correct answers on the key. One would be the answer most people arrived at. The other answer would be given by only a small minority of the class even though it was also correct.
This second kind of answer (not the popular answer, but one that is correct nonetheless) is what I want to share with you in today’s sermon. The way I’m going to be interpreting this passage today is the minority position. It’s an intriguing interpretation that I haven’t found in very many places, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, I think it may be a better fit for the story than the way we normally understand it.
DEEPENING: I’ll begin with some things that both interpretations of this text agree on:
At the beginning of this story, Jesus needs time alone, not only from the crowds but also from his disciples, so he sends the twelve off without him.
They begin to sail across the sea of Galilee (really a freshwater lake). The wind is against them, so they can’t just unfurl the sail, they have to row. And they are rowing not only into the wind but into the waves the wind is creating. The waves were battering the boat, and the going is rough. They made little progress and were still a long way from the opposite shore when in the very early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus appeared, walking on the water.
They’re scared, Jesus reassures them that he’s not a ghost, and then Peter tells Jesus to command him to step out on the water. Things go well at first and Peter, like Jesus, walks on the water, then things go less well, and Peter begins to sink, Jesus rescues him and rebukes him for his doubt.
Now this passage never showed up on a “General Logic” test, but like the questions on some of those tests, different answers, different interpretations are possible.
The usual answer given for this problem, the regular interpretation of this passage, goes something like this: Peter had enough faith to get started, but not enough to finish and so he started to sink. The typical sermon then urges us to take heart, to step out on faith, and keep our eyes focused on Jesus.
SUDDEN SHIFT: But there’s a difficulty with that reading and it’s a big one: Peter’s doubt seems to begin before he even steps out on the water. To review verse 28: “Lord IF it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
The location of that “if” while Peter is still in the boat points to another interpretation. That interpretation holds that Peter’s doubts didn’t kick in while he was walking among the waves, they didn’t begin just before he began to sink, they didn’t start when the wind came up, they began while he was still on the boat.
That’s indicated by the fact that, while he was still on the boat, Peter wanted proof that Jesus was really Jesus.
Peter wants proof, and preferably proof that would transform his doubts into heroic faith and so he says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus commands him to step out on the water, and for a short time he’s an exemplar of faith, but in the end, his shortcomings are revealed and he goes under.
By the end of the story, Peter gets what he wanted: assurance that Jesus is who he says he is. The thing is, all the other disciples (the ones who had stayed in the boat) get that as well, while Peter is the only one who’s doubt is rebuked.
GOSPEL: And that leads to the conclusion that maybe the faithful disciples in the story are the ones who stayed in the boat and enacted their faith by following Jesus’ instructions to sail for the far shore even though it meant rowing against the wind.
This interpretation can still serve as a paradigm for our faith today. More often than not we’re called to enact our faith, not by stepping out onto the water, but by staying in the boat and persisting in the difficult task of rowing against the wind and waves.
The disciples who stayed in the boat epitomized a great deal of faithful living.
UNPACKING: Unlike the disciples in this story we aren’t on the Sea of Galilee in a small boat. Instead, we stay in the metaphorical boat of the church by remaining within the Christian community and growing together in our faith.
Looking at the pulpit and the lectern, looking at the stoles Jenny and I are wearing, you’ve probably realized that green is presently the liturgical color. It’s a color that symbolizes growth. It’s not the color of the high holy days like Christmas and Easter, it’s not the color of the special preparatory seasons, like Advent and Lent, it is the color of what is sometimes called “ordinary time.” [21st Sunday after Pentecost]
And there is wisdom in the fact that the color of growth is placed upon our altars and pulpits and lecterns not on the high holy days, not in the special preparatory seasons, but during what is sometimes literally called “ordinary time.” “Ordinary time” is a time for growing in our faith as ordinary disciples.
Few of us are called to be paradigms of the faith who step out on the water. But we are all called to row even when it means rowing against the wind and waves.
Today, we, as Christ’s followers are still called to grow together in faith, by staying in the boat and rowing against the ordinary winds of life by participating in the means of grace, and practicing the love of God and neighbor. When we do that, we need not fear rebuke. Amen.