Pentecost 9A: Jesus walks on water

In the Bible, any time you read something about the sea, a red flag should go up.  The Bible often uses the image of water to represent death, chaos, fear, even sin and evil… especially when we’re talking about the ocean or sea.  Although in the Church we use water as a symbol for life, and a sign of God’s love for us…  In the Bible it represents everything we want God to save us from.

Maybe it’s the unknown depths, or the experience of powerful floods… water can represent a threat to human life.  The very first thing God does in the Bible is calm the chaos of the waters, and the last thing God does in the Bible is make sure that “the sea is no more” (Rev 21:1).  God delivers Noah through a flood, and leads the Israelites safely through the Red Sea.  Even in our Baptism, there is a sense that we are dying in those waters, drowning even… to be raised up into a new life with Christ.

And so, when we read this story about the disciples being terrified in a ship being ravaged by a stormy sea, and we see Jesus walking calmly out on the water, we should read this as Jesus actually trampling all of the forces of chaos and danger underfoot.  It’s not an arbitrary miracle that Jesus is walking on water… the author is trying to show us that Jesus tramples over the powers of chaos in the world.

It’s a really great image, actually… being stuck at sea in a storm.  If you’ve ever seen even one episode of deadliest catch, you know how dangerous being at sea is.  Or we can at least imagine how lucky you would be to have Jesus on board when your ship is getting ravaged by waves and storms.

But for those of us who have never been out to sea (cruises don’t count, this is not pleasure sailing)… we are more than welcome to read our own “storms” into the story, whatever they are.  Sure enough, these often include water: floods, tsunamis, super storms… The image of water and storms is actually so good, that we have an expression about trying to keep your head above water that fits whenever you are struggling with something.  Like the disciples, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are very afraid of drowning… metaphorically OR literally.

And so that image of Jesus walking over whatever we are struggling with us, saving us when we are drowning should be a sight for sore eyes no matter what you deal with.  Not only does Jesus come to the disciples when they are in dire straits, but he even lifts Peter out of the waters when he is literally sinking and brings him to safety.

Which brings me to Peter, who I want to talk about today.  Unfortunately, Peter gets a bad rap for this story.  In the suspense of him getting out of the boat (a stupid idea), we almost expect him to be able to walk on water.  There’s a risk of shaming him for sinking, and even Jesus seems to blame him for failing, for not having enough faith.  It’s easy to shake your head in disappointment at Peter, and be thankful that Jesus was there to rescue him.

But wait just a minute.  Can any of US walk on water?  Not only literally, but even in terms of those metaphoric storms… Can any of us trample the forces of chaos and danger in this world, and NEVER find ourselves in a position where we struggle to keep our head above water?

No.  So before we criticize Peter’s lack of faith, we should first scratch our heads and wonder why NONE of us seem to have enough faith.  After all, Peter, whose name means rock… yes he sinks like a rock but he is also the very same rock of faith who Jesus says he will use to build the church on.

I can’t help but think that Peter’s real mistake here was getting out of the boat in the first place.  After all, Jesus didn’t even ask him to do it, it was all Peter’s idea.  I can imagine Jesus thinking “OK Peter, that’s cute… yeah come on out and try that.”  I actually wonder if Jesus suggests Peter didn’t have enough faith because he felt the need to get out of the boat and prove something.

I wonder if the story is warning us to not to make the same mistake.  When life gets stormy, it is easy to think that we are struggling because we simply don’t have enough faith.  It’s the saying we hear too often, “you just have to have faith!”  Peter would probably wonder how that advice could possibly be helpful.

Or worse, we go on self-righteous quests to prove our faith to others.  We hear the message that it is up to US to accept Jesus as our savior, or that we need to “come to Jesus”.  If we just make a decision to choose Jesus, he will protect us from all of our problems.  Again, I think Peter would disagree.  In fact, it was his “coming to Jesus” moment that caused him to sink!  Whatever we can say about Peter’s faith or his relationship with Jesus, we CAN say that if he had just stayed in the boat, he wouldn’t have sunk.

The boat represents safety in the storm, and it’s a key part of the story.  If you read closely, you can see that there are three key players in the story: Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the disciples who are safe in the boat.  And if you haven’t figured it out yet, the boat and the rest of the disciples represent the community of believers… the disciples that are here, gathered in the presence of Christ.

Interestingly enough, most of the commentaries I read this week pointed out that the word nave, the area of the church where you all sit comes from the same word that we get navy from, and literally means a ship or boat.  The assembly of believers gathered in the presence of Christ is THE boat that carries us safely in the midst of the storms of life.  We are all aboard that ship that carries us safely in the storms.  We gather here to hear that promise that Christ is present with us in the midst of the storms, and we receive the bread and wine where we actually experience and encounter Christ who is risen and here with us.

So the message today is that when we, like Peter, leave the boat, our chances of sinking increase exponentially.  Stay in the boat, remain in community, rely on one another, and worship together, strengthened by the presence of Christ.

Of course, there will still be storms.  In fact, Jesus will SEND this boat of ours out INTO the storms, just like he did with the disciples.  You might find that Jesus WILL call YOU out into the storms.  He will let you leave the boat and take risks.  Every week we leave this Sunday “nave” of ours with words similar to being SENT OUT to serve.  And we will go out and find storms.

Fortunately, Jesus is present with us there too.  We will find Jesus walking out in the storms, ready to pull us up when we sink.  Like the disciples in the story, we will rejoice when even one of us who is lost out in the storm is brought back into the boat.  Jesus will find us in the midst of our storms, lift us up, and put us right back in the boat.  Again we’ll hear the promise and encounter Christ in the Eucharist and be sent again and again.    And having been saved by Jesus again and again, we will return here to worship him and say “Truly he is the son of God” (Matt 14:33).

Note: Image “Stormy Seas” is copyright (c) 2010 Ishtaure Dawn and made available under license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

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