Sermon for 01-15-12: “In Good Faith, Part 2: Trust”

The story of Peter’s walking on water, however briefly, in Matthew 14 is one of the most beloved in the gospels. The lesson we often draw from it is that “if only” Peter had enough faith, he could have walked on water successfully. At the same time, we admire his courage. We say, “Unlike the other 11 disciples who stayed behind in the boat, at least Peter had the guts to take that first step.”

What if this traditional interpretation is wrong? As I argue in today’s sermon, Peter’s faith problem didn’t start after he took those first few steps on the water; his problem started before he left the boat, when he failed to believe Jesus’ reassuring words: “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Can we trust that Jesus is with us even in the midst of hard times?

Sermon Text: Matthew 14:22-33

The following is my original manuscript.

It’s that time of year. You know what time I’m talking about? It’s the time of year when many of us resolve in this new year to lose some weight. Thanks to parishioners making wonderful holiday treats for me like “haystacks” and chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookies, combined with my own lack of willpower, I gained some weight over the holidays that I want to now lose. And so I listen with interest to all these ads that bombard us on radio and TV, telling us about some new weight loss plan or pill or product or program. They make losing weight seem so easy, so long as we spend a little money first.

Did you hear about Charles Barkley? He’s struggled with weight over the years, and now Weight Watchers is paying him to lose weight on their plan. He’s lost 38 lbs. in three months. The other night, while he was in the broadcasting booth for a Hawks game, Barkley was accidentally caught on mic saying that he thought getting paid to watch sports, as he does, is the biggest scam. But now he realizes that Weight Watchers is the biggest scam. I looked at his words in context, and what he meant was, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to lose weight, something that I would try to do—something I ought to do—anyway.”

If Weight Watchers or some other weight loss program or plan or home-gym company wants to pay me to lose weight and get in better shape, let me go on record saying, “I accept!” Getting paid would certainly give me that extra incentive and make it easier. But “making it easier” is what all these plans, pills, programs, and products promise. When are we going to learn—when will we ever learn—that there are no shortcuts in life? If something is worth having or achieving, there are no shortcuts. There are “longcuts,” to be sure. If you’re trying to lose weight, eating those Munchkins in the back of the chapel are counterproductive. But there are no shortcuts.

One of the themes of this sermon series, and of today’s scripture in particular, is that there are also no shortcuts to living as a faithful follower of Jesus.

Please notice at the beginning of today’s scripture: There were no shortcuts even for Jesus! For what do we find our Lord eager to do, as he sends his disciples away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee? Jesus is eager to pray! By himself! He had intended to do that earlier in Matthew Chapter 14 but had to put his plans on hold as these crowds followed him—so he  instead spent the day teaching, preaching, healing, and eventually feeding the multitudes.

If Jesus is so in tune with God that he has the power to heal the sick, give eyesight to the blind, make the lame walk, and miraculously feed thousands with only five loaves and two fish—not to mention to preach with such great authority—we might be tempted to imagine that Jesus had some high-speed wireless, broadband connection to his Father and could skip the basic and mundane spiritual disciplines like prayer, which so easily elude us in the midst of our busy schedules. But no, there were no shortcuts for Jesus, either.

Jesus is able to be successful in his mission the same way we’re able to be successful in ours: in large part because he prayed. It’s as simple as that. And as difficult as that. There’s no easy way to follow Jesus. There are no shortcuts.

Just in time for today’s scripture, we heard news yesterday of this Italian cruise ship running aground and capsizing off the Tuscan coast. I went on a cruise last summer, and truthfully I didn’t pay much attention at the mandatory safety training, and now I feel guilty about it! You get this false sense of security from being in such a large boat that it’s not going to sink! Clearly it can! And it can sink fast! Did you read about the mad and chaotic scrambling for the life boats? The panic that set in instantly. There were 4,200 people on board, and so far only a few known deaths and, as of this morning, 41 still unaccounted for. It could have been much worse. But these people were scared for their lives! The power went out. People were in the dark. The boat was tipping over. It was all happening so fast.

I’m sure the disciples were experiencing this same panic as they battled wind and wave in the darkness of night.

Do you think they also experienced some disappointment with Jesus? They surely thought about the last time they were stuck on this boat during a life-threatening storm. Jesus was with them back then. He was sleeping in the stern of the boat, but at least he was there. They could wake him up, and he could save the day by calming the storm. Where was Jesus now? Safe on the shore… dry, warm, and so far out of reach.

To make matters worse, the disciples are only in this predicament to begin with because of Jesus. He sent them here, into danger, into death. Matthew writes that the waves were literally “torturing” the boat. If so, they were experiencing this torture because of Jesus. Think about it: Just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested, so Jesus led these disciples into this wild storm to be tested.

Do you see the challenge here? What if Jesus doesn’t protect us from the storms of life? What if Jesus doesn’t steer us around them or away from them? What if Jesus doesn’t enable us to face them from the comfort, safety, and security of a well-armed aircraft carrier? What if we only have a small, rickety, leaky fishing boat?

I counseled with someone recently who got a troubling diagnosis from the doctor. I asked him where he was with it spiritually—where he saw God in all of this mess. He said, “Well, I don’t believe that God gave me this disease. I nodded. “Mm-hmm.” I nodded. Good theology. God doesn’t cause evil. But I think I heard the unspoken words he wanted to also say… I think he wanted to say, “I don’t believe God gave me this disease, but he certainly didn’t protect me from it, either.” If he had said that, all I could say in response is, “Yep.”

The Lord didn’t protect him from this illness, just as the Lord didn’t protect the disciples from this life-threatening storm, just as the Lord so often doesn’t protect us from the hardships we face. There are no shortcuts to being a faithful follower of Jesus.

And then we have Peter… His actions, as are so often the case, seem impulsive. Peter is a “ready-fire-aim” kind of guy. Some theologians compare his actions to Satan in the passage we looked at last week: Just as Satan asks Jesus, “If you are the Son of God” and tempts Jesus to put God to the test, so Peter says, “If you are the Lord” and then puts Jesus to the test. As Jesus tells Satan, we’re not supposed to put God to the test. But if Peter is putting Jesus to the test, he’s doing so in a very strange way! Because here’s the test: if this ghostly figure on the water is really Jesus, then Peter should be able to walk on the sea with him. If not, then what? Peter drowns! So if Jesus fails the test that Peter constructs, then Peter pays the price! It’s hard not to admire Peter’s courage here, if nothing else.

It’s easy to admire his courage but not his faith… But not for the reasons you think!

See, one lesson that we often draw from this passage is that “if only” Peter had enough faith then he could walk on water successfully. And at least Peter, unlike the other disciples, was willing to take that step of faith to begin with. If you’ve heard sermons on this passage, you’ve heard that sermon. Heck, I think I’ve preached that sermon! I remember going to church youth camp one summer when I was a teenager, and one of our adult leaders said that if we only had enough faith we could walk on water, just like Jesus. I wanted to say, “Well, there’s a lake right over there, and a swimming pool over there… Why don’t we just give it a shot? It would be more fun that sitting here on this hot summer day reading the Bible!”

“If only Peter had enough faith, then he could walk on water.” If only Peter had enough faith, then storms like this one would no longer be a problem; he could simply walk to shelter and safety. What else could Peter do if only he had enough faith? What could we do if only we had enough faith? We might infer from this story that if only we had enough faith, then life wouldn’t be much of a struggle for us. If only we had enough faith, we could just snap our fingers and have God work a miracle to get us out of any jam. If only we had enough faith, then we could overcome all our problems in spectacular ways. If only we had enough faith…

And then we feel guilty because we don’t have enough faith—because, let’s face it, life is often a struggle. But the hard truth is that God sometimes want life to be a struggle. It’s part of the plan. It’s good for us. We learn and grow and become better people because God doesn’t allow us to “walk on water.” There are no shortcuts! Later in Peter’s life, as recorded in the Book of Acts, we see Peter and the other apostles suffer persecution, imprisonment, and beatings. In fact, Luke tells us that the apostles “rejoiced” because they had been regarded as “worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name” of Jesus. We know from history that Peter himself was crucified upside down.

Hard times and suffering were part of the deal for these first disciples and hard times and suffering are part of the deal for us present-day disciples. There are no shortcuts when it comes to following Jesus. 

The problem with Peter’s faith was not simply that he took his eyes off Jesus, that he doubted, that he became afraid and began to sink. His problem started before he left the boat, when he failed to believe Jesus’ reassuring words to him and the other disciples in the midst of the storm: “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

If we only had enough faith, we could trust that no matter what happens to us, God loves us with a love from which no crisis, no failure, no hardship can ever separate us. If only we had enough faith, we could trust that Jesus is right there with us in the midst of life’s storms. If only we had enough faith, we could trust that Jesus will always take care of us, in our life on this side of death, and in our life on the other side.

If only we had that kind of faith, how would that change the way we live now?

Later in Peter’s life—after many more tests and trails and failures—Peter would finally have that kind of faith.

Brothers and sisters, we will never learn to walk on water, but if we keep on trusting Jesus we can have that kind of faith, too. Amen.

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