Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Step Out of the Boat

Step Out of the Boat
Matt. 14:22-33[1]
I’m not really much of a risk-taker. You may think it strange for someone who just moved here from Houston to say that. But it’s true. Even though I’ve moved around a fair bit, I’ve spent my whole life looking for a place where I could just settle down. Part of the reason for that is I much prefer to play it safe than to take risks. And yet life itself is a risk--not to mention the Christian life. The only way to “play it safe” in life is not to play at all. That’s certainly an option, but it’s not a very attractive one. You may avoid getting hurt, or being humiliated, or facing rejection, or dealing with failure. But you also miss out on the joy and goodness of life that can catch you by surprise when you least expect it. And you really can’t practice the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us all to live without taking risks.
The Apostle Peter seems to be the very embodiment of a risk-taker. Throughout the Gospels, it seems that Peter is the one who leaps before he looks. Our Gospel lesson for today is no exception. After spending a night struggling on the Sea of Galilee against a contrary wind, Peter and the disciples were confronted with what appeared to them as a terrifying sight--a ghost walking on the water coming towards them. But it was no ghost at all. It was Jesus himself, walking on the water. Despite their fears, Jesus reassured them immediately, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27).[2] And of course, Peter, being Peter, blurted out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). And Jesus simply said, “Come.”
So he did. Peter stepped out of the boat in the middle of a storm. Talk about taking a risk! They were having a hard enough time keeping the boat afloat. But to actually step out of that boat was quite a bold step. And the Scripture says he started walking on the water also! It’s one thing for Jesus to walk on the water, but for Peter, ordinary, impulsive, flawed Peter to actually walk on the water seems beyond incredible. Of course, it was short-lived. As the Scripture says, when Peter “noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (14:30). That sounds more like something we can understand. And, naturally, Jesus grabbed him and kept him from going under. He gently pointed out Peter’s mistake, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (14:31).[3]
I must confess, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I’ve never known anybody who could walk on water. And I certainly can’t do it! This is another one of those miracles in the Gospels that stretches our imagination. And because of that, it has inspired all kinds of rationalizations.[4] Some have said Jesus was walking on a sand bar, or that he was actually walking on the shore, and that it only appeared to the disciples as if he was walking on water. But of course all that leaves out a few details. First, these were men who made their living on the water. I think they could tell the difference between someone walking on water and someone walking on a sand bar! Secondly, if Jesus was walking on some sort of firm ground, I have to wonder why in the world would he have invited Peter to try walking on water! And thirdly, if Jesus wasn’t walking on the water, what was Peter walking on? I don’t really think any of the so-called “rational” explanations of what “really” happened do justice to this Gospel story.
But I think that whether or not we can explain this story is beside the point. It seems to me at least one of the details we’re meant to notice is the fact that Peter, a man who was no stranger to storms on the Sea of Galilee, actually got out of a perfectly good boat simply because Jesus told him to “Come”! As I’ve mentioned, Peter seems to be something of a risk-taker. Even though Peter the risk-taker has eyes to see the waves and ears to hear the wind howling around him, I think the astounding thing is that he stepped out of the boat in the first place.[5] Who does that kind of thing?
We might be tempted to think that this was the Apostle Peter, and so he must have had a special kind of faith that enabled him to take risks that the rest of us don’t normally take. But let me remind you that this is also the same Peter who denied even knowing Jesus not once but three times. I don’t think Peter or the other Apostles had any kind of special faith that was any different from the faith the rest of us have.[6] What made them special was that when they were called upon by Jesus to do something that was risky, or pushed their boundaries, or even may have seemed not to make any sense, they stepped up and did it.[7]
I think this is the challenge that this story presents to us all. Many people these days seem to think that the Christian life is a way to play it safe. They see it as a means of ensuring that their lives will have the kinds of positive outcomes they want--a stable family, a successful career, a happy life. But if we pay close attention to those first disciples of Jesus and what happened to them, we have to realize that the Christian life is incredibly risky. If we decide to follow Jesus, we may very well be called upon to “step out of the boat,” whatever that boat may look like, and do something that takes all the faith and courage we can muster.[8] In fact, I would say that if we take the Christian life seriously, we can pretty well bet on the fact that at some point we will be challenged to “step out of the boat.” My prayer is that when that happens, we’ll have the faith and the courage to do so.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/10/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Intepreters Bible VIII:328, where he points out that Jesus’ “It is I” is actually simply “I am,” which evokes God’s self-identification in Exod. 3:13-15.
[3] Amy B. Hunter, “Stepping Out of the Boat,” The Christian Century (July 26, 2005):19 interprets Jesus’ words in terms of “You were doing it! You had it! Don't lose that!” She says, “Faith is never settled once for all. I grasp God, or more accurately, for a moment I realize that God grasps me, and then I lose that knowledge. I never get to check off  ‘have faith’ on my list of accomplishments.”
[4] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 168.
[5] Cf. Hare, Matthew, 169-70: this story “graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt.” Contrast Boring, “Gospel of Matthew,” NIB VIII:328-330, where he suggests that Peter’s desire to step out of the boat was to put Jesus to the test, and reflects a lack of faith.
[6] Cf. Beverly R. Gaventa, “Doubt and Fear,” The Christian Century (July 14-21,1993): 709, “The variety of faith granted to human beings does not banish fear. No amount of moralizing or pleading will make it so. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us, for faith knows who is powerful over the deep of our fears as over the deep of the waters.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:538. He says, “Faith is not obedience, but as obedience is not obedience without faith, faith is not faith without obedience. They belong together, .... Peter and all of them did believe, and therefore they did at once and self-evidently that which was commanded.”
[8] Cf. Joanna M. Adams, “Faith and Fear,” Journal for Preachers 19 (Pentecost 1996): 28, “Faith is not the absence of fear, but the courage to walk through the fear; to take the hand that is offered. To be courageous is not to be fearless; it is to be able to act in spite of fear.”

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