Sink or Swagger
Did you notice that it was never Jesus’ idea that Peter get out of the boat?
This story of Jesus walking on water is one of the most dramatic, urgent and evocative in all of Matthew’s gospel. And there’s good reason for that. Today’s text is a hinge, a critical moment in the plot and the first unveiling of the question that animates the gospel throughout: who is Jesus?
You might recall that back in Chapter 8, there was another story of Jesus on a boat with the disciples in the midst of the storm. In that story, like this one, the disciples are terrified, but when Jesus calms the storm, their response is a question: “what sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
That question has been kind of hanging there in the narrative so far, never far from the surface as Jesus unveils his ministry, teaching with authority, healing the sick and feeding the crowds. Now, however, it’s time for the big reveal.
It’s a carefully constructed moment. Jesus makes the disciples to get into the boat and head out onto the water. It’s a critical moment. Immediately, immediately, immediately Matthew writes, conveying the urgency of what is about to happen. It’s a moment that is well prepared. For Jesus, preparation means spending the night in prayer, going up to the mountain to pray, being alone with God.
It’s a drama that is rich in images, symbols and the mythology of the ancient world. The mountain is the place where humans encounter God, and it is the place where Moses, the greatest of the prophets would go to speak to God face-to-face. The sea is the place of danger, of chaos, of evil forces and sea monsters, all the things from which we need to be saved. The scene begins in the dark, in the fourth watch of the night. By the time they’re back in the boat, a new day has dawned.
This is not just a miracle. This is a theophany, a deliberate revealing of Godself to humans, in this case, a tired group of disciples trying to cross the sea in their boat, tormented by waves, and about to be given the scare of their lives.
The scene is set, the time is right, and Jesus comes walking towards them on the lake. The signs are all point in the same direction. The disciples knew their scriptures. In the book of Job it is written that God alone can trample the waves of the seas. In Psalm 89, we read, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise you still them.” In Genesis it is written, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”
Still, the disciples react to the ghostly figure walking towards them with fear. They are terrified.
Immediately Jesus speaks to them and says, “Take heart. I am; do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid” is God’s signature phrase when revealing Godself to human beings. It is found over three hundred times in the Bible.
“I am” has even deeper significance. The original, “ego eimi” in Greek or “ehyeh” in Hebrew, is the very name of God that God speaks to Moses when asked “what is your name?”
So when you put it all together, the images, the setting, the scripture references and the words of Jesus, the intention is clear. This is God revealing Godself in the person of Jesus. It’s not just a miracle but a theophany.
The answer to the big question of the gospel has just been given to the disciples. Jesus is God, or to use the messianic language of the time, the Son of God.
“Take heart, I am; do not be afraid.” This is the hinge moment: God is revealed - how will the disciples respond?
We’ll look at that in a moment, but before that let’s think about something even more important. When God shows up in your life, how will you respond?
Will you be terrified? Will you want a sign? Will you say anything? Will you ask for advice? Will you even notice?
Think about that for a moment, share a response if you like, then we’ll turn to the way that Peter reacted.
OK, let’s look at Peter. The theophany has just happened, Jesus says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
How does Peter respond? He says “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
What do you think of that response? Quick, first reaction, write it down, or tell the person beside you, or put it in the comments. Imagine yourself in the boat. What do you think of Peter’s response?
There is first of all an element of doubt in Peter’s response, Jesus himself points that out. “If it is you …” I get the doubting, I’m not commending it, but I can sympathize with it.
Then he asks Jesus for a sign. “Lord if it is you, then do this.” Hmmm, not so good. I mean, Jesus is standing there on the water, and Peter wants another sign?
Then, I think that where Peter really goes wrong is that he inserts his own agenda into the moment. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I admire the confidence, I like boldness, but maybe there’s just a bit too much swagger here. This is Jesus’ moment, not Peter’s.
In the book of Exodus, in a reading we’ll hear together in a few weeks, Moses offers a different way of responding to a theophany, the revealing of God. When he catches sight of the burning bush out of the corner of his eye, the first thing he does is turn towards it. He starts by noticing, by paying attention. Then, when God calls to him, Moses responds “Here I am”. He responds with presence and listening. And when God reveals himself as the God of his ancestors, Moses hides his face. He responds with humility.
How would you respond? Like Peter or Moses? With swagger or humility?
I think we know what the better answer is. But did you notice that Jesus doesn’t chastise Peter. He goes along with Peter’s request, I think that maybe Jesus knew what Peter needed in that moment. He says to him “Come”, and Peter gets out of the boat, and starts walking on the water towards Jesus. Then he begins to sink, which I suppose is what most of us would have predicted.
Sinking has a way of knocking the swagger out of us. Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reaches out a hand and catches him.
It might have taken two tries, but on the second try, Peter gets it right. “Lord save me!” is a pretty good response to God showing up in our lives. And so is the response of the rest of them when Jesus gets in the boat. They worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
So back to the more important question: How are you going to respond when God shows up in your life? Because I firmly believe that God will show up in your life. That’s not to say that God is absent now, no I believe that God is always with us. But I also believe that there are particular times and places that God reveals herself to us in special ways, times that call for a response on our part. Will you notice? And if you do notice, will you be attentive, will you be able to say “here I am” and make yourself present. Will you listen? And will you have the humility to say “Lord save me”, before moving to your own agenda?
As you can see, I’m proposing here that Moses is a better model for us in responding to a theophany than Peter is.
But we still need Peter. I get Peter. I get Peter because I’ve been Peter. There are times in our lives when we respond to God with our own agendas, when we respond to God, and to the people that God sends into our lives, with swagger rather than humility. Some of the most difficult but also most profound moments in my life have been the times when I had a bit too much swagger and stepped out of the boat, but then started sinking as the waves crashed around me, knocking the swagger right out of me, and bringing me to the place where all I could say was “Lord save me”.
And here’s the beautiful thing, we call it grace: even when our response is not great, even if we miss the theophany completely, even when our faith is weak, even when we get the swagger knocked out of us and start sinking, God reaches out and catches us and gets us back in the boat.
Homily: Yr A P19, August 9 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, Ps 105.1-6, 16-22,45b, Rom 10.5-15; Mt 14.22-33
Image by Steven Van, Creative Commons