Proper 14A Pentecost +9 | Matthew 14:22-33
During the week of August 7, 2011, summer chapel-goers at Luther Seminary heard five sermons on the story of Jesus walking on the water and Peter getting out of the boat to go to him. Here is one of the five. (By the way, while it is true that the Greek construction for "Come after (or Follow) me" in Matthew 4 is different from that in Matthew 14, I decided the difference did not preclude the use of both texts here.)
Not recognizing Jesus
I especially like this story for a few of its details. First, I like that the disciples do not recognize Jesus for sure right away. They see him and they cry out, “It is a ghost!”
I like this detail because most of the time, when Jesus is coming toward me, I do not recognize him right away either. Lots of people have more clarity on what God is up to in the world than I do. Throughout the years, when I have considered one call or another, one vocational path or another, I have never been able to distinguish in a conclusive way between Jesus talking and my own imagination.
- Am I interested in this new thing because it’s new, or because it’s a call?
- Is whatever it is that is coming toward me frightening because it’s a miracle or because it’s a delusion?
Around seminary we hear and tell call stories just about every other day, maybe more. I have almost always felt a little out of place in that conversation. I imagine that I have mistaken ghosts for Jesus and Jesus for a ghost more times than most disciples.
Peter comes up with a way to solve this problem. Like Gideon of old, trying to figure out if God was really calling him, Peter sets up a test for Jesus. Now a test is not necessarily a bad thing. In 1 John, we read, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (4:1).
In seminary, we call this kind of testing “discernment.” We discern a call by praying, talking with others, listening to advice, and yes, running some tests. “God, if you really want me to do this, I have to be able to sell my house.” “God, if I’m supposed to make this move, my kids are going to have to be OK with it.” “God, if I’m supposed to do this, you have to show me where the money is going to come from!”
“If it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” That is Peter’s test of Jesus. Jesus says, “Come,” and I imagine Peter thinking then, “I should have made the test harder.” Or, “Why didn’t I say, ‘Lord, if it is you, calm this storm!’?” The problem, of course, with asking for a sign has always been that you might get what you ask for. The house sells. The kids are fine with moving. The finances starts to look doable. Jesus, not a ghost, says, “Come.”
Little faith and deep water
And now we have arrived at another detail I particularly like about this story. Peter answers what has turned into a real call from Jesus, a true imperative, “Come.” He steps out into the water.
I sometimes feel like the only person on this campus who has never warmed to that quote from Frederick Buechner about vocation. Buechner wrote that “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a really meaningful sentiment to many, and I suppose there is truth to it.
I want only to point out that in our text neither deep gladness nor deep hunger seem to be at play. That place where Jesus calls Peter to is the place where Peter’s little faith and the Sea of Galilee’s deep water meet. In my own vocation, I do not know much about deep gladness meeting deep hunger. I know rather more about little faith meeting deep water.
Christian vocation is a lifetime of stepping out of the boat and then thinking, “What did I just do?” or if the risk is something a whole congregation takes, it means stepping out of the boat and then thinking, “What did we just do?” What were we thinking? And what was Jesus thinking? Why would he call anyone to something so dangerous, so foolish?
Always, my first reaction when hearing this story and getting to the part where Peter gets out of the boat is to think, “What a stupid thing to do!” “Stay in the boat!” I want to yell at him, every time. “Stay in the boat!”
He never listens.
Fishing for people
And then I realize that for all his foolishness, and all his little faith, Peter is onto something. He is going where Jesus is, deep waters and fierce storms notwithstanding, and I can understand that. I understand wanting to be where Jesus is. Not that it is safe or wise to get out of a boat on a stormy sea and take off across the water, but who said anything about safe? Since Jesus so rarely plays it safe, going toward Jesus in most any context is not safe... except that, finally, it is, because it’s Jesus, and Jesus is all about fishing people out of water.
“Come,” he had said to Peter and Andrew along this same lake, some time before. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).
“Come to me,” he had said to a larger crowd on land, “all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28f).
“Come.” It is the way we speak our Lord’s own invitation to his table. “Take and eat.”
As we gather around this altar, we are heading toward Jesus. More to the point, Peter might say, Jesus is reaching out to all of us. Jesus reaches out to you here, and to me, with gifts as tangible to us as the hand of Jesus was tangible to Peter as Jesus fished for him, caught him around the wrist, and hauled him into the boat.
Answering the call of Christ to “Come” is as likely to leave you soaked and sputtering as it is to leave you “deeply glad.” Either way—both ways—the one who calls you already has hold of you. You and Peter... you’ll be fine.