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"Rescue Us from Danger" -- Matthew 14:22-33 (3rd Sunday in Lent)




Artwork: “Lift Off,” by Nicole Peñaranda 

used with permission via A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org




This morning’s Scripture is the story of the time that Peter walked on water.[1] Now, you may not have heard it called that before.  More probably, you’ve heard it called the story where Jesus walks on water. Someone I read this week called it “the story of Jesus’ adventure at sea.” Someone else called it “the story of the sinking Simon Peter.”[2] But we all just heard it. The disciples are out in a boat in the middle of a storm. Jesus walks out to them on the water, and then calls Peter to get out of the boat and come to him; and Peter does. Just a few steps maybe. But this is the story where Peter walks on water.

        

But first, let’s talk about the storm – let’s talk about the very real fear and danger in this story. As it begins, we are back at the end of another exhausting day of  Jesus teaching and working miracles. Jesus has been teaching the crowds, and the crowds have kept growing – and just before this, Jesus has enlisted the disciples to help him feed the 5,000. As the Scripture opens, here we are again with Jesus, back at the lakeshore, ready to send the crowd home.

        

And, here we are, back again in the world of the Gospel of Matthew. More than the other gospels, Matthew’s world is a dangerous world. We spent a good bit of time in Matthew last year, and we noticed that in Matthew, Jesus is announcing a Brave New World[3] – blessed are the merciful, the meek, the peacemakers – a Brave New World, even as the crumbling old order continue to oppress. In Matthew, terror is all around. We think that Matthew’s community has just been kicked out of the broader community because they follow Jesus. So in Matthew’s world there are real enemies, real threat, real contention. The wind is almost always against them. They’re almost always in the midst of a storm.

        

As this Scripture begins, the disciples are at the end of this long exhausting day, and Jesus tells them – compels them to get in the boat and go ahead of him across the lake. It’s the Sea of Galilee – a big lake. They set out, and Jesus goes up a mountain to pray.

        

Time passes. It’s well into evening now. They are a good distance from land, and a storm rises up. The wind is against them, and the waves buffet them. (The Greek verb there is really vivid there – basically, the waves are tormenting the boat.) And they stall out there in the boat, battling the headwind. Time passes. All night long. Stalled, making no progress, in the midst of a storm.

        

At the end of that long night, just before morning, Jesus comes down the mountain and goes out to them, walking on the water. Note that Jesus does here what only God can do.[4]He’s just fed the 5,000 – miraculous provision – and now he masters the chaos of the waters and moves through the storm to find his people – not unlike God commanding and parting the waters so that the people can crossover to freedom on dry land.[5] Jesus does here, what only God can do – and at the end of this story, the disciples will say so: “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

        

But in this moment, they have no idea what is going on. They think they’re seeing a phantasm – a ghost, or maybe a spirit from the deep. So Jesus says to them: “Take courage – it is I – I am – fear not.” And only Peter answers back, “Lord, if it is you – if you are – command me to come to you on the waters.” And Jesus says: “Come.” And Peter does. Peter climbs out of the boat – in the storm – and he walks on the water toward Jesus. This is the story where Peter walks on the water, with Jesus. Jesus is doing what only God can do, and Peter does what Jesus does.[6]

        

But then the wind hits Peter. Wait. There’s a storm. He sees it – every bit of it. The waves are tormenting the boat. And Peter thinks, and here I am... out here... on the water... and he begins to sink. Peter actually does two things – (1) he begins to sink – and (2)  he cries out to Jesus: “Lord, save me, rescue me.” And immediately, Jesus reaches his hand down, and grasps hold of Peter, pulls him up and brings him to safety. And once in the boat, the winds die down, and the waters become calm.

        

Now, we could call this the story where Jesus walks on the water – or, the story where Peter walks on the water. Or, we could call it the story where Peter sinks in the storm. Or, we could call it the story where Jesus reaches out his hand, and pulls Peter up out of the depths.


Whatever we call it, this is a story of deliverance.[7] Across the Scriptures and down through the generations, we tell and return to these stories all that time. I was sinking, and God pulled me out of the depths. Remember from the summer, those Psalms of deliverance. This morning’s psalm:


19 But you, O God, do not be far from me.

         You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver me from the sword... 

24 For God has not despised or scorned   

the suffering of the afflicted one...   

but has listened to their cry for help.


Or Psalm 77: “ With your mighty arm, God, you delivered your people. The waters saw you God; the waters saw you and writhed... Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters.”[8]


The Psalms sing God’s deliverance – we do that too. In that hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing...” Maybe you’ve wondered about that strange line. “Here I raise my Ebeneezer.”  Ever wonder what an Ebeneezer is? An Ebeneezer is a “stone of help” – in Hebrew:  eben ha’ezer. It’s from 1 Samuel – God has just delivered the people from certain death on the battlefield, and Samuel sets up a stone to mark the moment – to remember the story of deliverance. Cole Arthur Riley says that Samuel does this to remember: “Every time someone would walk past it, [this Stone of Help] was a reminder that God was for them, that God had protected them [from danger], and that God would come to help.”[9] It was a reminder of who God is. And what God does. Then, and now, and in the next storm on the horizon.


This morning’s scripture, too, is a story of deliverance:

Walking on water, Jesus reaches out his hand, and delivers Peter from the depths. Again: Jesus does here what only God can do.


And then Jesus asks Peter that question: “O you of little faith – why did you waver?” You were walking on water, why did you waver?


Now, this is not a story whose moral is: Just have more faith.  If you just have more faith... if you just try harder... if you just focus more.. you, too, can walk on water. That’s not the point here. That’s not faith. That’s not grace. Faith isn’t something we initiate, certainly not something we do on our own. Faith is always a response. It’s a response to Gods’ abounding grace. It’s how we lean into, live into, the grace that comes to us first.


We’ve talked about this before – and I’m sure Joanne said it before me: Faith, the Greek word pisteos, isn’t about believing in certain propositions. It’s not going through the Apostles Creed and checking things off: I believe in the Holy Spirit, check; in the communion of saints, check; in the resurrection of the body, check. No.


Faith is more like trust. It is encountering God’s abounding grace and leaning into it – and finding there our life. It is trusting in the grace of God, the goodness of God, the power of God to pull us up out of the depths.


Notice here in this story that faith is a conversation. Peter challenges Jesus – “If you are...” It is a call and response. Jesus tells Peter to come; Peter respond. Peter cries out for help; Jesus reaches out his hand.


Faith here is movement. Jesus moves toward Peter. Peter moves toward Jesus. When Peter sinks, Jesus stretches out his hand and grasps hold of Peter. Faith here – this trust – is dynamic – it grows and changes over the course of the story. In this back and forth, Jesus draws Peter near.


Now notice, too, that Jesus says to Peter – “O you of little faith.” Notice that he doesn’t say, You of NO faith. Peter has a little faith – a little trust. Yay, Peter. Jesus’ question starts there – with Peter’s little faith – and keeps the conversation moving forward: “Now tell me, why did you waver?”


This is the story where Peter walks on water with Jesus. We have this moment – this moment out in the water – where Jesus and Peter are there walking on water – doing together what only God can do.


And it’s the story where Peter sinks: We have this moment – this moment where Peter sees the severity of the storm – the whipping wind, the tormenting waves. He begins to sink, and he cries out to the one he knows can help. And then we have this moment, where Jesus reaches out his hand, and does what only God can do.


With Jesus, Peter sinks, and then rises up again.  In the days, and months, and years after crucifixion and resurrection, Matthew’s community remembers this story – and they tell it to each other, again and again, and they come to write it down – like setting up a “stone of help” – for themselves and for those who will follow – this story of walking on water with Jesus, and sinking, and rising up again.


There’s a story in another of the gospel traditions – in Luke’s second volume – the Book of the Acts. Just after Pentecost, as they are trying together to understand Resurrection: Peter is walking down the street, and there’s a man who can’t walk, begging at the temple gate. He calls out to Peter, and Peter walks over, and reaches out his hand, grasps hold of this man, raises him up, and the man walks, and jumps, and runs.

As we travel through this Lent, with our wandering hearts, I think this story offers us two questions:


The first is this: How will you reach out your hand for help? Where are you in the midst of life’s storms? Where do you see the wild winds? Where do you feel the buffeting waves? Where do you need to cry out for help? How will you reach out your hand for help?


And the second question is this: How will you reach out your hand to help? In the storms close at hand – and those that buffet our world – to those in need – and in the perils that we face together – in response to God’s abounding grace: How will you reach out your hand to help?

        

This is a story of walking on water – Jesus and Peter. Of sinking and rising up again. Of reaching out our hand – for help and to help. It is a story of deliverance – and of trust – and of living together into our full humanity.


In the midst of the storm and in the presence of our real fear, Jesus moves towards us and calls us to take courage, to trust (even a little trust), and to walk out into the storm – like Jesus, with Jesus – to sink and rise up again – to reach out our hand – to live out our full humanity with Jesus, and to do with Jesus what only God can do.




© 2024 Scott Clark



[1] For general background on this text and the Gospel of Matthew, see Gennifer Benjamin Books, Commentary in Connections, Year A, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp.222-24; Alan Culpepper, Commentary in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol.2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), pp.14-19; Terence Lester, Commentary in Wandering Heart Lenten materials from A Sanctified Art; Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976). 

[2] See Luz, p.93.

[4] See Culpepper, p.17.

[5] See id. p.15

[6] See id. p.17; see also Waetjen, p. 163.

[7] See Brooks, p.224; Culpepper, pp.15-17.

[8] See Culpepper, p.15.

[9] Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh (New York: Convergent Books, 2022), pp. 174-79.

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