Are you a boat person? Are you the kind of person who has a boat and enjoys boating activities such as skiing, tubing, and skimming across the water? Or maybe there have even been times when you got to enjoy someone else’s boat or you have even tried skiing a couple of times.
Maybe your dad had a little fishing boat and put a small outboard motor on it and you would zip across the lake looking for fishing spots. Do you remember wanting to ski behind it, or at least tube, but it would strain the engine, so you never got to ski? But maybe not. Maybe you’re just a dry ground kind of person. Perhaps it is your overactive imagination that keeps you from getting a boat. It is easy to think of everything that could go wrong when you are out on the water. Just ask Peter.
OK, you’ve read this one before. You might even have your own sermons already worked out for this passage. I don’t blame you. But before you go off on your own direction, consider these questions: First, did Jesus want Peter to get out of the boat? And was the reprimand about Peter’s lack of faith really because he couldn’t walk on water?
Most of the time you hear sermons - and you may have even preached sermons - on this text with the tagline to keep your eyes upon Jesus. This is a familiar theme in the New Testament. Paul tells us to keep our eyes on the prize that is the upward call of Christ Jesus our Lord. The writer to Hebrews tells us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Keeping your eyes on Jesus is a smart thing to do.
In our story for today, it is when Peter looks at the wind and the waves that he begins to sink. It is when he takes hold of Jesus’ hand that he rises above his struggles and finds his way back to safety. It doesn’t take a lot of study to come to the conclusion that keeping focused on Jesus is a better way to walk—whether on dry land or on water. Certainly, we should keep our eyes upon Jesus.
Now, maybe I am trying to justify my own cowardice, but I wonder if Jesus is really asking us to walk on water. We are told in many places that we can do mighty works in Jesus’ name, it’s true. I know too that we shouldn’t shy away from difficult tasks because we are given the power of the Spirit. I know that there are labors that the Lord needs to be done, and his plan is that we are the doers. I know that there are many unexplainable things that I have encountered and that others have encountered for which the only proper response is to give praise to God.
Jesus sends them away. In the story, he is trying to have some time alone to pray and rest in the presence of the Father. He got interrupted by the crowd earlier and ended up having to cater a meal no one was planning for (except maybe him). So, now he sends them off so that he can stay back for a little while. Of course, there was nothing said about how he was going to catch up to them later. The trains didn’t run that late and the airport was closed due to fog. Actually, it could be argued that Galilee was a pretty busy lake, and he had already commandeered one boat. Who’s to say he couldn’t do it again?
But there is a layer beyond the immediate story. This is the tale of the church that has been sent on ahead without the physical presence of Christ. This was the environment in which Matthew was writing the Gospel—a church adrift on the sea of persecution with storms rising (if not persecution, then perhaps confusion, or apathy, antagonism). But here we are drifting, wondering if we can make it to the other side on our own.
Then we see a ghost or something. That’s all we get, isn’t it? A ghost. A vision. A hope and dream that we dare not place too much trust in. We are, after all, left to our own devices. Aren’t we? We’ve got to make this thing work on our own. We’ve got to solve all the problems ourselves. Don’t we? We’ve got to conquer the enemy all by ourselves now. Don’t we?
Of course not. In the story beyond the story, Matthew’s readers knew that the sea represented all that opposed God. In the ancient world, the sea was the source of death and pain. When sailors set out for deep sea work, their families would perform rituals that were essentially funerals, because they didn’t expect them to come back. And if and when they did return, the reception was as though they had returned from the dead. The sea was the absence of God—at least in popular belief. The biblical witness is that God is the God of sea and dry land both.
Jesus reaffirms that he is lord of all; he is the one who can calm the storm; he is the one who is present even when it feels like he is absent. When the disciples see him from their beleaguered boat, they can’t really believe it is Jesus. It is a ghost, they cry in fear. It is something else to trouble us. It is no real help to us in this desperate situation. But Jesus says, “No, it is really me.” Actually, he says, “I Am” —just as the voice from the burning bush did; just like the force that freed a nation from despair. “I Am,” he says. “Trust me,” he says. “I am with you even when you don’t think so.”
Peter isn’t sure. He needs proof. He needs to step on the waves, to conquer his fears on his own. He needs to see that which oppresses him beneath his feet. So, with a sigh, Jesus says, “All right. Come on.” And Peter does it, for a moment. Then he fails and asks for help. “You of little faith, why did you doubt,” Jesus says to him. But did Peter fail because he couldn’t walk on water or because he got out of the boat?
I believe that the great work of faith that Jesus asks of all of us is to trust in his presence, even when, or perhaps especially when, we can’t feel it. When there is no external reason to believe that Christ is with us, that’s when we need all the faith within us to get in the boat and sail. Certainly, I’d like to walk on water sometimes. But in the end, I’d rather get in the boat with Jesus and ride out the storm all the way to other side.
Then Paul comes alongside and says, “The word is near you” (Romans 10:8). It sounds as if he is asking us to stay in the boat too, to claim what is already ours. You don’t need to climb up to heaven (to walk on water?), because Christ has already come down to you. You don’t need to dive down into the depths to raise Christ from the dead, because Christ has already been raised. We don’t need to do miraculous things for God; we just need to do faithful things. That’s what Paul wants us to hear; that’s what living by the law means now— not slavish obedience to the written law, but day-by-day application of the law of love. You know that law, don’t you? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.” You’ve heard that before. You know that. That word is in you.
So then Paul gives us a way to live that out. Oh, certainly not the only way to live that out. There are all kinds of ways to live love for God and neighbor in our context. But one way is to speak that word aloud. Yes, Jesus is in our hearts, but if Jesus is never on our lips, if we never speak about Jesus, then what is going on in our hearts?
Paul takes it even further. He says that proclaiming, speaking about Jesus in public, is necessary for our salvation. Believe in your hearts, yes, then you are justified. But confessing, speaking, telling about Jesus, and you are saved. Is there a distinction between justified and saved? In this passage, Paul says yes. Justified, being made right with God, is a personal thing, a reorientation of one’s life, becoming a new person. “Believing” is never just intellectual assent; it is a reordering of one’s priorities, a realignment of one’s behaviors; it is a shift in one’s values and actions and convictions. To believe in Jesus is to stake one’s life on him, which is much more than just thinking that faith in Jesus is a good idea.
Salvation then flows from that reorientation. Now you live it outwardly. Now you tell others. Now you proclaim who and what and why you are the new person that you are. You do this not to brag or draw attention to yourself, but to lift up the one who caused you to redo everything about your life. You do this to bring glory to the name of Jesus.
And before you think that “confess with your lips” means answering some questions in the safety of the community of faith, keep reading. Paul goes on to say that this confession is a part of the process of bringing others to the faith. It is telling others about what you know. Confessing with your lips is understanding that you have been sent. This gift of salvation is not something to keep to yourself. It is not a secret that you hold in the hidden places in your own heart. No, it is meant to be lived out loud.
Ultimately, our salvation is wrapped up in everyone else’s salvation. Our task is not complete, our salvation is not complete, until everyone else has heard and responded to the word that is near you.