In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s so easy to make this a story about Peter. So easy to talk about what Peter says and what Peter does. Perhaps you’ve heard sermons preaching Peter and what you should do to be like Peter. There’s even a book called If You Want to Walk on the Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. And there’s a popular song that talks about walking in the depths of the oceans. Well, I suppose that’s what Peter does, but it doesn’t turn out all that well. I’m suspicious that perhaps Peter is not meant to be a positive example for us here in Matthew 14.
Consider the actual words that are written down for us: Jesus sends the disciples across the lake while He dismisses the crowds. Then He goes up on a mountain by Himself to pray. In the middle of the night, He comes walking on the water to where the disciples are. They’re not getting very far very fast because the wind is against them. And when Jesus walks up beside the boat, the disciples are terrified. They think they’re seeing a ghost. And it’s probably not a good ghost they think they’re seeing. Perhaps they think it’s some spirit come to drown them in the lake. And they cry out in fear. Immediately, Jesus says, “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” And then Peter says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to you on the water.” If it is You. Jesus had just told them that it was Him. If it is You. It’s the enemies of Jesus who say to Him, “If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” It’s the devil who says, if You are the Son of God. If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread; jump off the temple; bow down to me. But because the devil is trying to get Jesus to be a different kind of Son, Jesus refuses to do any of it. He will be the Son of the Father, and no other son. But, in Matthew 14, it’s not Jesus who’s tempted to be something other than what He is. It is Peter who’s trying to be something other than what he is. Instead of taking Jesus at His word, he says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus says, All right. Come. Everything goes well until Peter stops looking at Jesus and sees the wind, as Matthew puts it. He begins to sink and drown and cries out, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Peter finds out that this is no ghost. Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter and they get into the boat. Notice how the story doesn’t end: with Jesus taking Peter’s hand and then walking with him on the water to shore. He puts Peter back in the boat where he should be. Peter’s movement in this story is down: down out of the boat and down into the water. Jesus’ movement is pulling Peter up out of the water and up into the boat.
Jesus had given them a word in the midst of their fear and terror and foolishness: It is I. Which is a strange thing for Him to have to say. Nothing’s changed about Jesus. It’s the same Jesus who, just a few hours earlier, had been feeding the crowds. The same Jesus who taught them and did signs. The same Jesus who sent them across the lake in the first place. The same Jesus who would suffer, die, and rise from the dead. What a strange thing for them to fear the Jesus who comes walking to them on the water! From our perspective, it’s completely understandable. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a man walking next to your boat in the middle of the night? And yet, their fear is not directed at the storm, as it is when they are nearly drowned with Jesus sleeping in the boat. We are not told that they are afraid of the wind and the waves, even if they can’t go very fast. They are afraid of their Lord who comes walking to meet them. The peace of the garden has become the chaos of the sea, and they view the God who comes walking to them as their enemy. But immediately He speaks a word to their fear-filled hearts. Take heart. It is I. I alone am God and there is no other. I made the wind and the waves and you. You are not the Creator but the creature. So do not be afraid. I am your God. You of little faith, why did you waver? Why did you doubt My word? Why did you have to test it?
And immediately Jesus saves. Immediately Jesus puts Peter back in the boat. Immediately the wind is still. And faith does what faith always does: worship the God who saves. This is true worship: to hear Jesus’ words and to believe them. That is the highest worship. And then those same words echo from our mouths. Because it is Jesus before our eyes, in our ears, speaking to us and giving us Himself. It is I. Do not be afraid. It is I who made you. It is I who saved you. It is I who speak to you. It doesn’t matter where you are. It doesn’t matter what is happening. It doesn’t matter the circumstances. It is the same Jesus, always and everywhere. The same Jesus who forgives, feeds, and grabs hold to save. It is I, your God, here for you. Do not be afraid. It is I.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/11/17