Walking on Water, Been There! Done That
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 14: 22 – 33. Jesus Walks on Water. Focus on how the Gospel is more than Good Advice. Anthem by Rasaan Bourke and Flutist Jason Moncrief.
There’s this story about an Anglican monk who thought he could improve his chances of enlightenment by seeking it on his own, so he said goodbye to his brothers at the Holy Cross Monastery, took the ferry across New York Bay, and went to live by himself on Staten Island high in the hills all by himself. There he meditated nonstop for twenty-five years. At the end of that time, he emerged from his meager dwelling, stretched his arms above his head like a man waking from a long sleep, and made his way down to the bay.
Without even pausing to test the temperature, he stepped out onto the water and proceeded to walk across it toward the monastery that he’d left a twenty five-years ago. Two monks who were waiting for the Staten Island Ferry saw him coming across the river.
“Who is that?” one of them asked. The other replied, “That is the old monk who has spent twenty-five years meditating by himself on Staten Island. Now look at him! He can walk on water!”
“What a pity,” the first monk said. “The Staten Island Ferry is free.”
The Christian tradition has its own water-walking stories, the most famous of which is the one we just heard in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a story about faith and fear with Peter as our example of someone who has too little of the first and too much of the latter.
It’s hard not to like Peter. He’s the Barney Fife of the disciples. He’s the one who talks a better game than he can actually play, but there is something so sincere and so familiar about him. He’s full of faith one minute and full of doubt in the next. And almost every sermon I’ve ever heard on this text deals with this issue of faith and fear and the advice is always the same keep your eyes on Jesus and have faith.
And yet I know all of that and so do you. You see, my problem isn’t that I don’t know that I should trust Jesus or have faith in him. My problem is that even though I know that, I still get distracted and worried, even overwhelmed at times by the waves that surround my life. Be they economic, political, social, or religious, I can find things to worry about just about anywhere and at any time. So my problem is not a lack of knowing that I need more faith or more trust. My problem is what do I do when my faith or trust suddenly turns to fear? And I certainly don’t need a cheerleader telling me from the pulpit what I should do to get more of it.
Which brings me to the problem that I have with the traditional interpretation on this text. The problem isn’t that the advice to have more faith is wrong. After all it’s not bad advice, but there’s a funny thing about advice and the law, for that matter and that is it never creates what it demands out of us. If anything it will make me more resentful rather than faithful. If anything it only makes things worse.
Good advice is not the same thing as Good News. Because advice is always man-made and the gospel is not. So instead of focusing our attention on Peter, we should look at what Jesus does in this text that makes this story so extraordinary. And again if we focus on Jesus walking on the water, just like focusing on Jesus turning bread and fish into enough to feed 5000, we will miss the point of the story, not to mention the real miracle that occurs. What makes this story something more than good advice about having more faith and makes it into a miracle is the salvation that Jesus brings to Peter and in turn to us.
I remember being out at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico at a Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center. My family and I were hiking along a trail that led up to a very high butte known as Chimney Rock, which stands at 7,100 feet. As we rounded one of the endless switchbacks toward the summit, my foot hit a small stone in the trail and I lost my balance and started to stumble toward the edge of the cliff. Panic seized me, because there was no way I could stop my fall. I was surely going to fall off the trail to my death when all of a sudden I felt this hand grab my arm and the guide who had been hiking behind me steadied me, stood me straight up and stopped my fall and held onto me until I regained my balance not to mention my composure. And it was the greatest feeling in the world to be saved. It was exactly what I needed.
I didn’t need to be told to watch where I was going. I didn’t need to be reminded to lift my feet up when I walked. What I needed was to be saved and that’s what Peter needed too. As Peter began to sink below the waves, Jesus reached out and grabbed him. Jesus saved him. He didn’t give him a lecture or offer him some good advice. He simply reached out and saved him from drowning.
The problem isn’t in knowing what we should do. Most of us know what we should do. The problem lies in not being able to do it. That’s what makes what Jesus does good news and not merely good advice. You see in the final analysis, Jesus isn’t simply our guide or life coach. He’s our Savior, the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He saves us.
Too often Christianity has forgotten that, reducing the gospel to one more spiritual self-help recipe to be followed, hardly any different from what you might hear from Oprah or Dr. Phil. But the Lord who walks on water in this story not only commands the wind and the wave, he also commands life out of death.
This Lord, the one who has conquered what we can never conquer wants more than our attention; he wants to save our very lives. And he has promised us nothing less than that. Now that’s more than good advice. That’s Good News. And that’s why those who were in the boat that day worshiped him saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Amen.