Sermon February 25, 2024 by Tricia Gerhard

Jesus walks on water.  What a great story! And one that you’d think would be easy to write a sermon about.  And it would have been easy, if it weren’t for one little verse in the middle that in some Bibles is recorded in red because the words are coming from Jesus himself: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (vs 33).  I found myself wrestling with this verse all week long, thinking grumpily “if Jesus had just kept his mouth shut, my job here would be so much easier.”

You see… I love doubt.  I feel fortunate to have grown up in the United Church in a time when doubting, questioning, and learning to use our critical thinking skills were a part of the curriculum.  It was never “the church or the minister says this and that’s all there is to it,” it was “here’s one way of looking at it. Now what do YOU think?”  In the original Greek, the word means “a double stance” or “shifting between two positions” and I like the image of going back and forth between two ideas, examining and turning them both over and exploring the space in between… and maybe at that point we land on a decision or maybe we just wander around in the doubt for awhile.

But then we read this story this morning and Jesus is coming in hot here with what feels like a real judgey tone: “You of little faith! Why did you doubt?”

Often this scripture is interpreted as “if your faith is strong, you’ll get out of the boat and walk towards Jesus without any doubts. Peter doubted and he fell in the sea. Don’t be like Peter.”  But I think that interpretation misses the point of what Jesus is actually scolding Peter for.  Let’s back up to a few days before Peter got his feet wet and see what’s really going on.

We pick up the story this morning in the gospel of Matthew, remembering that last week we heard from Luke so we’ve got a different perspective here.  Peter and the other disciples have been accompanying Jesus on his ministry for a little while now, and they’re starting to learn his message of radical love and grace as they help him spread the news that the kingdom of God was different than the oppressive empire that the people were living under.  Having lived their whole lives being steeped in the story of Empire, however, it was sometimes hard to really internalize the shocking truth of God’s love, and they had just been confronted with the fact that sharing that message could have dire consequences.  John the Baptist, their friend and coworker in sharing the good news, had just been brutally executed by Herod because he was seen as a threat to the powers that be.  When Jesus heard this news he tried to withdraw to grieve, but crowds of people were in need of his comfort and healing.  He went to where they had gathered, healed the sick, and fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish.

After the crowds had dispersed, Jesus finally has a chance to go up the mountain and pray, where I imagine he let out his grief and fear and horror at what had happened to John, and at this point the disciples are on their own.

Matthew goes to great lengths to tell us that Jesus was NOT with Peter and his friends.  He says “[Jesus] made the disciples go on ahead to the other side” (14:22), “he went up the mountain by himself to pray[…] when evening came he was there alone” (14:23), and then explains that the boat, “battered by the wind, was very far from land.” (14:24) OK Matthew. We get it.  Jesus, here. Disciples wayyyyyyy over here, far far away from Jesus.

Now, Jesus had been the disciples safety net for awhile at this point.  When they were hungry, he provided food (Matthew 14:15-21).  When their loved ones were sick, he healed them (Matthew 8:14-15).  When they got in trouble for plucking up grain on the sabbath, he stood up for them (Matthew 12:1-8).  So I think we can start to understand how the disciples could have started thinking that if God is near, things go smoothly. Things are easier and more comfortable when Jesus is with them… and if we follow that through to its logical conclusion, that means that when things are HARD, then God is far away.

Most of us have felt that way at one time or another, haven’t we? When life is so hard, when things are so challenging, we wonder where God is.  When we are faced with a horrible diagnosis, when we learn of the death of a dear loved one, when we experience a miscarriage or loss of a job or our home…. Or widening the scope, when there is war and famine around the world, when there is homelessness and poverty in our communities, when children are abused, when forest fires rage… we wonder where God is.  The disciples aren’t the only ones who wondered.  Psalm 74 begins “O God, why have you cast us off forever?”, the prophet Isaiah declares “You have forsaken your people, the house of Jacob” (2:6), and the prophet Habakkuk cries out “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “violence” and you will not save?” (1:2).   When we’re really deep in despair, it’s hard to remember that God is with us.

I’m sure the disciples had the memory of another boat trip close at hand as they set out to cross the Sea of Galilee again, this time without Jesus on board.  Although the Sea of Galilee is more of a lake than a sea, its weather patterns are such that the wind can whip up suddenly and cause dramatic storms, and on a recent trip a storm had nearly sunk their boat.  Fortunately, Jesus was with them, and when they woke him up to point out that they were in danger, he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and all was calm (Matthew 8:23-27).

But this time the wind was against them and the boat was battered by the waves and Matthew goes to great pains to remind us repeatedly that Jesus wasn’t there to save them.  They thought there would be no calming of the wind or the sea, and this is what had them so scared.

And then we get to Peter, stepping out of the boat.  It’s hard to know what he was thinking – was he trying to prove himself? Show Jesus, the others, and even himself that he was worthy of being a disciple? We’ll likely never know, but what Matthew did record is that Peter was doing ok, feeling confident, until he noticed the strong wind and became frightened (14:31).  And it is at this moment that Peter sinks into the water.  He cries out, Jesus catches him, and then says this phrase I’ve been stuck on all week “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (14:31).

Now this wasn’t actually the first time the disciples heard this from Jesus.  It seems that, just like me, Jesus could be a bit repetitive, and throughout Matthew’s gospel he exclaims “you of little faith!” on five different occasions.  To be honest, it’s nice to find out that Jesus gets irritated when he has to explain things over and over again.  Makes him more relatable.

Anyway, there are times when the disciples, as faithful and devoted as they are, just forget that God is with them.  They forget that God loves them.  And Jesus, who has been telling them “God is with you. God loves you” over and over and over at some point just throws up his hands and exclaims “you of little faith!” He’s not reprimanding them for not being brave enough or not doing the good and faithful thing.  When Peter starts to sink, Jesus isn’t scolding him for not having enough faith or perseverance or strength or positivity to keep going when the going gets tough.  What lands Jesus in a bit of a salty mood is when he discovers that Peter and the disciples felt abandoned when things were scary.  He was frustrated that they believed that God was only present when the sea was calm.

When we as humans read the Bible it’s so easy to focus on what the other humans are doing and to get stuck in the trap of thinking “ok so what does this mean I have to do, how is this saying I need to act, what’s the answer for me me me.” But these sacred stories are actually about where God is present and what God is doing. God is the main character, not us.  If we look at Peter in this story and think “what’s he doing that I should or shouldn’t do, what are Peter’s characteristics that I should try to emulate to be loved more by Jesus” we are not only putting too much pressure on ourselves to act or be or think a certain way, we are missing the point of the story.  It’s not whether Peter did or didn’t get out of the boat, whether he kept his eyes on Jesus and glided across the water or got scared and sank.  I truly don’t think Jesus cared about either of those things.  What he wanted his friends to know, what he got frustrated that they kept forgetting, is that even when things were frightening, even when things were unpredictable, when the winds came up suddenly and the sea was choppy and somebody perhaps made a poor decision like climbing out of a boat into the waves of a storm… even then God is with us.

Friends I want to say “never doubt that God loves you and is with you.” I’ve probably said it before and I’ll sure I’ll say it again.  But I know you will experience those feelings of doubt, and so will I.  We, just like Peter, are human and our wandering hearts spend time going back and forth, especially when times are tough.  But the more we hear the stories of our faith, the more we remind ourselves and each other of this truth, that God is especially with us in times of sorrow and despair and fear, the more it gets etched in our souls for when we really need it.   Whether we’re walking on solid ground or attempting to walk on water – we do not walk alone.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.