This week, like last week, we get a story that takes place overnight. Last Sunday we talked about Jacob wrestling all night in the dark. In today’s gospel it’s night once more. When darkness falls, after a long, exhausting day spent feeding the crowds, Jesus and his disciples are separated. Jesus goes up the mountain, to pray, to be alone. He knows that’s what he needs right now. The disciples get into the boat, and are driven far from land, battered by waves, the wind against them. Both Jesus and the disciples are wrestling with the disturbing news that was delivered earlier that day: King Herod has murdered John the Baptist. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what might come next. This would be a long night.
The exhausted disciples have to deal with wind and waves, and as they struggle to keep their boat afloat, out of the darkness they see a ghostly figure walking towards them on the sea. They are terrified.
But immediately, Jesus speaks to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter, who is in the boat, takes it upon himself to respond to Jesus. In fact, Peter speaks twice.
The first time Peter speaks, he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
The second time Peter speaks, he says, “Lord, save me!”
What do you think of those two responses? Which one do you like better? Which words would you be more likely to speak to Jesus?
Listen to the two phrases again:
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
and then, “Lord, save me!”
Which phrase is a more authentic expression of faith, of our relationship with God?
There are a lot of reasons that I might want go with the first statement. It’s bold. These are the words of someone who wants to do great things. After all, walking on water isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes courage to get out of the boat. Me and Jesus, doing great things together. But of course, first I have to make sure it really is Jesus calling me to this great adventure. Show me a sign, that seems a reasonable request, a reasonable precaution. After all, it’s dark, it’s hard to see, there’s a lot of confusion with all this wind and these waves, it makes it hard to recognize your voice. So Jesus if it really is you, speak to me, command me to come to you on the water. If you do that for me, then I’ll jump out of the boat for you.
Are you feeling that first response?
Peter’s second response, “Lord, save me” has none of the swagger of the first. It’s direct and to the point. No surprise there; Peter’s circumstances have changed since he first spoke. His first words were uttered from the relative safety of the boat. But now that safety has been stripped away. He cries “Lord, save me!” as he’s going down in the water, sinking, about to drown. There’s no time for testing Jesus, no time for a sign, no time for deals. When it’s this urgent, there is only time for three words. “Lord, save me!”
When Jesus draws close to you in the midst of the wind and waves of your life, which words are you going to go with?
One of the great things about Matthew’s gospel is that whenever a question like this comes up, there is a place in the text that we can go to help us with our response or interpretation. That place is the Sermon on the Mount, back in chapter five, the heart of Jesus’ message. We don’t have to look far; the text begins as follows:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I’m thinking that one who is poor in spirit would not cry out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Those are the words of one who is trying to be in control, of one who is willing to put Jesus to the test, of one who is reserving judgement, of one whose ambition is to do great things, of one who is overconfident. I hear not poverty of spirit, but spiritual arrogance in Peter’s first statement. The result of that arrogance? Peter almost drowns.
Sometimes it’s the threat of drowning that brings us to our senses, that forces us to be a little more honest about ourselves. In this story, all the boldness, any arrogance that Peter may have disappears in a flash when he notices the strong wind, becomes frightened and begins to sink. Spiritual arrogance turns to poverty in an instant. And that’s when Peter cries out the words of all those who are poor in spirit:
“Lord, save me!”
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The response is immediate. Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs Peter.
For many of us, it’s hard to ask for help. We don’t want to admit that we need salvation, at least not until the water’s up to our necks and we have no choice. But maybe it’s when we finally cry out “Lord, save me!” that we are closest to God. And God is closest to us.
That’s where Jesus had been that night. Before he walked on water, Jesus went up the mountain to pray, to be with God. Because he was tired, and exhausted, and scared. Because his cousin John had just been murdered, and Herod would be coming for him next. We’re not given the words of Jesus’ prayer that night; he was alone, no one was there to record the words for us. But perhaps his prayer that night was a very simple one: “Lord, save me!”
It is not when we feel called to do great things, but rather when we can humbly acknowledge our dependence on God and on God’s saving power that we are closest to God. Our faith is not based on what we have done and can do; it is based on what God has done and continues to do for us. The foundation of our relationship with God is not that God calls us to walk on water but that God saves us when we are drowning. When we are overwhelmed, afraid, sinking, Jesus reaches out and grabs us and puts us back in the boat. In all the circumstances of life, we have to have the spiritual humility to acknowledge that we need God more than God needs us.
Peter wanted to walk on water. He wanted to do great things. And eventually he did do great things. But before that, he had to learn humility. He had to learn to acknowledge his dependence on God. In Peter’s case, he had to endure a series of humbling experiences to get there. He had to be exposed to some difficult truths about himself. He needed Jesus to reach out and grab him, to stop him from sinking, to save him, on more than one occasion. Humility is hard to learn.
But Peter got it right when he said, “Lord, save me!”
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Homily: Yr A P19, August 13 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 37.1-4, 12-28; Ps 105.1-6, 16-22, 45c; Rom 10.5-15; Mt 14.22-33
Image by Ian Bowen, Creative Commons