At our socially distanced service this morning and on zoom we heard the story of Peter walking on water.
Matthew 14:22-35 Time to get out of the Boat
We have just heard a remarkable story – Jesus walking on the water – but really the most notable aspect of the story is not what Jesus (who is after all the Son of God) did, walking on the water, the evening after feeding 5000 people from five loaves and two fishes.
No, the remarkable thing about this story is that Peter walks on the water. Peter, the one who always seems to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing: who makes the crass comment, at the Transfiguration, about building shelters for Elijah and Moses; who cuts off the High Priest’s servant’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane; who denies Jesus, when he is taken prisoner and who doubts when Jesus is standing right in front of him on the waves.
Peter who with all his foolishness, impetuosity and doubts is so like…us, like you and like me.
But the same Peter, whom Jesus described as the ‘rock’ upon which he would build his church.
Peter surprisingly, given all his weaknesses turns out to be…the model disciple, a disciple – a follower of Jesus Christ, someone who learns from Jesus Christ, someone who, if we dare call ourselves ‘Christians’, is who we are trying to be…..
So what can we learn about being a disciple in this episode?
Firstly, we need to paint a picture of what is happening.
Jesus has just fed 5000 people in the desert from five loaves and two fishes. This is not just an amazing feat of catering that even the ladies of Itchen Valley would find a challenge, this event is a striking claim as to Jesus’ identity.
You see God through Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and then fed the Israelites in the desert with manna from heaven. So, for Jesus miraculously to provide bread to a crowd in the wilderness is an incredibly potent statement that someone at least as important as Moses is present.
Moses, who led Israel to the promised land; Moses, upon whose authority the land belonged to Israel, not to Rome….
The crowd must have been ecstatic at this miracle as Jesus raised the bread to break it, this could easily have stirred the emotions of the crowd as much, perhaps, as the lifting of the World Cup might have on a modern nationalistic football crowd; heady stuff!
Indeed, so powerful is this image, that when John tells the story, he says that the crowd intended to come and make Jesus king, by force, if necessary.
One can easily imagine what the disciples must have been thinking. It must have been exhilarating, they are Jesus’ closest friends, his lieutenants in the Kingdom of God. They were probably imagining the victory parade and their role in it, as they swept the Romans from Jerusalem, following their latter day Moses.
But Jesus punctures the balloon of nationalistic excitement, of the disciples self-importance: ‘immediately’ (in Matthew’s words), Jesus sends the disciples into the boat to go ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee and then he dismisses the crowd;while he goes off to pray, alone, on the mountainside.
Jesus is about to give his followers a lesson in discipleship. These experienced fishermen start off rowing across the lake a distance of about 8 miles. In perfect conditions this would take about 1.5 hours. But the ‘wind was against them’ and they still hadn’t crossed the lake by the fourth watch of the night, about 6am the following morning.
So from the excitement of the feeding of the 5000, with all its nationalistic ramifications
comes the crushing actual experience of following Jesus’ instructions, when Jesus is….absent….and they get nowhere….the waves are huge, the wind batters them.
What should be an easy row across the Sea of Galilee for these experienced men,
turns out to put their lives at risk.
It is at the moment of their maximum frustration, exhaustion, defeat and fear
that they see the ghostly figure of Jesus walking towards them on the water.
The Sea in Biblical theology is seen as a symbol of chaos, needing to be tamed. And Jesus walks on the waves, through the chaos, towards them. He says:‘Take heart; it is I.
Don’t be afraid’.
It is at this moment that Peter makes his move. He asks Jesus ‘to command him to come to him on the water’. Jesus says ‘come’.
Peter gets out of the storm tossed boat and walks towards Jesus. But then, as he sees the wind, he takes fright and begins to sink (some say that Peter, like many fishermen of the time, could not swim).
Peter calls out for help. Jesus saves him.
What can we learn from this passage?
I think there are two points: To walk on water – to do the incredible; to have a life which is way beyond what we expect, way beyond what we can do by our own abilities; way beyond what we imagine we can do, knowing our weaknesses and foolishness, fearing for the consequences.
To lead that sort of life; we need two things: To hear a call and to make a response.
Firstly, we need to hear a call.
Peter does not get out of the boat to do something impossible – walk on water – without a command from Jesus to do so.
We are never going to do anything amazing with our lives, if we are limited by what we think we can do in our own strength, within our own abilities; if we are limited by our age – or our youth; by our infirmities; by our level of education; or by our confidence; or if we allow fear to dominate our agenda.
If we are called by God to do something, we can be sure that God will enable us to do it, to do what we cannot do by ourselves.
But what does a call sound like or feel like?
As I have said before, my own experience, is that some things that I read in the Bible, or that people say to me, quoting the Bible; or that I hear in talks or sermons, have greater significance for me than others.
It’s as if the significance of some phrase, hits me in the chest, the thought just wont go away, it keeps coming back.
So for example, as I have often said before, when thinking about whether I should leave the City and in a turmoil about whether it was responsible to do so or not, a Christian friend said to me ‘do you believe that you should seek first the Kingdom of God’; ‘yes’ I replied, rather reluctantly. ‘Well are you?’ he asked
I knew I wasn’t. And that was it, I gave in my notice.
Amazingly this was two years before the financial collapse, when I would certainly have been sacked. It would have been awful to leave the firm after so many years
in that way. God knew what he was doing when he called me to leave in 2005
There have been numerous occasions when reading the Bible, listening to a sermon or a Bible talk, I have thought – that applies exactly to me.
We all have these calls, but sometimes the call sounds rather faint, but the more we listen to these calls, the more we become sensitive to them and we do start to hear the all the time.
But it is not enough just to hear the call.
Secondly, we need to respond:
to get out of the boat,
to get out of what gives us security,
to get out of the material thing that gives us identity,
to get out of what makes us comfortable,
to get out of what is preventing us from growing,
to get out of what is preventing us from being who we were made to be.
We need to overcome the fear.
And I think that the time to get out of the boat, has become more urgent with the Covid crisis; with this pandemic.
Particularly now we can see that it is not going away any time soon.
This makes it urgent to respond to the call that God is placing on our lives. The time to get out of the boat is NOW.
You see until March this year, our Western life style has tended to lull us, into a false sense of security that our lives will just continue until we fade away in our ninth or tenth decades. But Covid 19 has shown us this is a dangerous illusion, we don’t necessarily have all the time in the world to get this right. At any moment someone’s sneeze or cough could bring our lives to an unpleasant end.
God has a call on our lives, which is really what our lives are about. And the more we follow that call, the more God can do with our lives and we get a sense of God’s faithfulness to us.
But we may not be being called to leave our job, as I was. We have families to support, after all.
It may be that now the call is to do something that may seem quite trivial to others but may be huge to us. And if you are having trouble identifying what that call is then I would be happy to help you discern it. Just ask me – its my job!
A call will almost always involve doing something for others and it will always involve doing that something in the name of Jesus.
In my speech for the APCM this year I will be emphasising the importance of us all being the church and not just the Rector. Not just being spectators to worship God; not just being fans of Jesus but being followers of Christ, you see followers of Christ hear their call from God and follow it.
Lavinia and Nick feeling the passion to set up CAMEO – that’s a call; Clare feeling the passion to set up Little Rainbows – that’s a call; Lucy, Nicky and Julia being inspired to lead the Walk of Hope – that was a call; Elaine leading the Bereavement Journey that was a call; Naomi helping on the Sycamore Tree Course that was a call. Theo and Judith becoming Street Pastors, that was a call; Sonia leading Open the Book at Itchen Abbas Primary School that was a call.
But sometimes it may be something smaller; appropriate for our age and stage. For some being interviewed in Valley Worship about their faith journey, that’s a call. For others reading a lesson in church is so terrifying that it will involve heart palpitations. ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ we might think.But its time to get out of the boat.
For years I used to say, on our Christian holiday each year, ‘I cannot possibly be a vicar’ because whenever I got up to speak, I would weep. So embarrassing for everyone, but here I am. And aren’t you glad that I don’t weep every time I preach now! It was time to get out of the boat
For others it may involve a little prompt, to lead some prayers in church, or lead a Bible study for other mums or other men, or an Alpha group. ‘I cannot possibly do that’ we may think (and that is exactly what many of you have said to me several times when I have suggested this sort of thing to you). But its time to get out of the boat.
When someone is confiding in us about the challenges they face in their life, we may be prompted to pray with them…audibly, but we are embarrassed to do so – ‘I can’t possibly do that’, we may think. But its time to get out of the boat.
And like Peter, the imperfect model disciple, the man like you and I, who walks on water – suddenly the thing that we thought we could never do, that impossible thing – we are doing.
But then comes the next stage – we see the wind, we are reading the lesson and we see the whole church looking at us, we feel we are about to be overcome with emotion, even though we are the vicar, we see the events in Paris and we are just terrified.
And we turn again to the example of the imperfect model disciple, to Peter again, we refuse to allow the waves to prevent us seeking the reassurance we need. We call out to Jesus, the one who says ‘Fear Not’. And we say to him (even silently) ‘save me,save me, save me’ and he does…..
How? He just does.
And then, we wonder why we ever doubted. But the whole experience gives us confidence, because once we have seen how he saves us, we can trust him to save us again and we can get out of the boat again and again.
And as we do so, the world is changed.
And the time to start to learn this, the time to get out of the boat, is NOW.
We must not miss the opportunity.
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 14:22–33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.