Sunday, August 10, 2008

Walking on Water Sermon

A photo of the Mississippi River near Waukon Junction, Iowa

This is the sermon that I gave at the Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on Sunday, Augsust 10th.

Once, on a church bulletin board there was the following notice:
Morning Bible Study: Jesus walks on water
Evening Bible Study: Searching for Jesus.

Somehow it seemed no one in that church had foreseen the confusing message their bulletin board was going to tell that day. Anyway this morning we have the familiar story about Jesus walking on water.

First a bit of background: John the Baptist has just been beheaded and the disciples (some of whom were followers of John) have not had time to grieve for him. They are immediately plunged into feeding the 5000, gathering up the 12 baskets of fragments left over and trying now to quell a crowd of people who want to proclaim Jesus as king. Jesus then sends them on ahead of him in a boat. Then Matthew says that Jesus dismissed the people and went alone up the mountain to pray. You know we could ignore this verse, see it as just setting the context of the next episode in the gospel and yet it contains some very important lessons for us all this morning.

First – Jesus is genuinely concerned in the welfare of us his disciples. They need rest after all that has happened. So he sends them ahead, away from the crowd and the demands of people. He sends them ahead so that the demands of ministry which have drained them cannot exert pressure on them for a time. We all need to learn to take time out from people and the demands of others.

Secondly – they obey and in obeying they will in fact come face to face with a storm. Learn from that – obedience to the will, to the Word of God does not guarantee a quiet life. It may in fact lead us through a storm. But remember this also – the storm was not unforeseen by Christ. He was not being careless or care free with the life of his disciples. There was a lesson that they could learn only in the midst of that storm.

Thirdly – Jesus had not forgotten them, even when he was praying. He went up a mountainside. Obviously because it enabled him to be alone to pray, but also because it enabled him to see the disciples in the boat rowing across the lake. Who was Jesus praying for? Himself, yes but I am also sure, from the example he set the disciples elsewhere in prayer, the disciples also. Here is an important lesson from Jesus about ministry. You are most vulnerable after the miracle has happened. You are most vulnerable and need to seek the face of God in prayer immediately you have done something for the glory of God. If Christ needed to seek his Father’s face in prayer immediately after feeding 5000 then how much more do we after the things we do for God’s glory.

Then we learn that the disciples are now caught in a storm. The wind has come up against them and their little boat is being buffeted about by the waves. They are struggling for all they are worth to keep the boat on course. Then Jesus comes walking on the water towards them. Matthew tells us it was the fourth watch of the night, that is about 3am.

Well the disciples are absolutely terrified, hardly surprising. They fail to recognize him because they do not expect him to come to them. After all they had left him on the shore many hours ago. They did not expect him and they certainly had not entertained the idea that he could walk on water. In fact Matthew says they think he is some sort of a ghost. Their fear is real and it is clear to Christ because he speaks to them. Note the middle phrase – ‘It is I’ or ‘I AM.’ This phrase again points to a self-revelation of God. But it is prefaced and followed by an exhortation to take courage and not be afraid. It is only at this point, the voice of Christ, the Word of God spoken that the disciples eyes are opened as to who it is that comes walking on the water towards them. You see, their eyes are blinded by the storm around them. They cannot see that it is Christ coming towards them because their eyes, their heart, their minds are full of waves, wind and rain. They are focused on the storm and they do not expect Jesus to come. With the result that when he does they fail to recognize him amidst the storm.

But Peter, does recognize Jesus. Not only does he recognize him he also has faith in him. So Peter calls out to Christ in the midst of the storm. You know, courage alone is not enough to walk on water. Courage must have wisdom and discernment. That is why Peter calls for Jesus to call him forth. Peter wanted to go to Christ but he would and could only do so if Christ called him forth. Why did Peter ask such a question of Jesus? I think Peter knew that where Jesus was no matter how dark the night, no matter how high the waves, strong the wind or wet the water –it was in fact safer than being in a boat without him. I think it is central to this whole story

Jesus says ‘come’ and Peter obeys. It took faith and courage to climb over the side of the boat and to let go and walk towards Jesus. We are not told how far Peter walked before he began to sink. I will come to the sinking in a moment. But stop for a moment and think abut what Peter has just done. There were, and are, all sorts of reasons for not getting out of the boat in the midst of the storm.

You can’t walk on water – it is impossible.
You will look foolish and get even wetter than you already are.
It is dangerous, the boat is the safest place to be.
You are needed here in the boat – we need all the help we can get to fight this storm.
You are putting too much faith in that call.

There was only one reason to get out of that boat – Jesus had said ‘come.’ There is no other reason to climb over the side of that boat and to walk on water. Everything said to do the very opposite but Peter obeyed the command of Jesus. The reality is that no other disciple in that boat obeyed. They sat there cowering in fear, blinded by their fear of the storm. The other eleven remained terrified in the boat and never experienced walking on water – only Peter did. Remain in the boat and you never know what it is like to walk on the water with Christ. And the truth is that only the call of Christ could and would make it possible – that is why Peter asks the question.

Then it all begins to go horribly wrong. For some reason this is the part that most people focus on – the fact that Peter’s faith failed him. Yes it did but not until after he had walked on water. Let me ask you a question: Which would you rather? Taking a few steps on the water towards Jesus and then sinking or never getting out of the boat? Yes Peter looked around him and when his eyes had moved off Christ and on to the wind and the waves he began to sink. He began to doubt the reality that had happened and it all began to unravel. He begins to listen to those voices that would have kept him in the boat in the first place. ‘What was I thinking?’ ‘I can’t walk on water.’ ‘I am going to drown.’ ‘What am I doing out here on the water?’ Immediately he yells ‘save me Lord!’ Jesus does save Peter and in the midst of the water, away from the hearing of those disciples in the boat he helps Peter to locate the source of his sinking – doubt and lack of faith. Peter had not doubted when he climbed out over the side of the boat. He had no lack of faith as he walked towards Christ on the water. It was when his focus left Christ and went on to the wind and the waves that faith left him and doubt assailed his soul.

But is that not the story of your faith and my faith? We walk on water, we begin to sink. We tell Christ to go away and then when we begin to drown we cry for him to save us. You see the reality for us all is that the world is a pretty stormy place. There are setbacks, opposition, unexpected obstacles and any one of them will shift our gaze off Jesus and we begin to sink and drown. The reality also is that people are very quick to come and say ‘I told you so!’ There are many who refuse to get out of the boat because of the storms of life and they sit around just waiting to point out the drowning of others because they stepped out in faith.

Here is the heart of this passage. You cannot grow unless you get out of the boat and experience both walking on water and that sinking drowning experience which leads you to cry from the depths of your soul for Christ to save you. Peter needed to sink in order to grow. He needed to sink in order that he might move to the next step of his faith in Christ. You see walking on water does not ultimately lead to spiritual growth. How often we read in the gospels of the miracles of Christ but how many followed only to see a miracle happen – they never came to faith because of the miracle. Those experiences may bring people back to see and experience more but it is the experience of suffering which drives them to cry out to Christ.

You see by sinking and being saved Peter would never forget. He would never forget the experience of taking that step of faith out of the boat and walking on the water. He would never forget that fear in his soul as he began to sink nor the cry for salvation. He would not forget the hands of Jesus lifting him up out of the wet and the experience of walking back to the boat together. He would never forget what it felt like to have the arms of Christ around him supporting him as together they got back into the boat. You know one of the things we fail to see and understand about the disciples in the gospel is that their faith and understanding of who Jesus was came grew gradually. They constantly come back to the same point time and time again. Each time their understanding has grown a little deeper and their eyes are opened a little more to who Jesus is and why he had come. It is not until the cross and the resurrection that their eyes are truly opened and their understanding deepened further. I would suggest that is the normal pattern for how people come to faith in Christ Jesus – over a longer period of time than we think or would like. But gradually eyes are opened, understanding deepened and the same point is returned to many times. It happened with the disciples and they had Christ as their teacher – why would we expect anything differently?

There are some lessons here for us this morning.

Obedience does not guarantee that we will escape adversity. Obedience may in fact lead us through some severe storms. When that happens let us remember Jesus has not forgotten us – he has foreseen every storm along the way.

When we least expect it, in the darkest moment of the storm He will come to us, walking on the very waves, through the wind and rain – the very things which frighten us and buffet us. He comes to rescue us and to bring us safely to our journeys end. Yet the danger is that our eyes will be so focused on the storm that we will fail to recognise him when he comes. I pray that will not be so.

Courage requires discernment and wisdom – but when Christ calls us to get out of the boat and walk on water – it is a call to obedience and faith. Yes there will be fear, there will always be fear when we step out in faith – but remember Peter had to step out in faith. Christ called him to come forth but Peter had to take the step of faith.

Yes we will experience great moments in our faith, walking on the water but we will also experience those moments when we are sinking and drowning. It is those moments when we cry to Christ to save us that we grow – because when all else fails, when there is no hope except him – he comes and lifts us and saves us. He brings us back to safety and takes us to where he had instructed us to go in the first place.

Here is a question: Would you rather sink having experienced walking on the water towards Christ or remain in the boat? There will always be reasons to stay in the boat. There will always be voices telling you how foolish, how stupid, how dangerous, etc it is to step out in faith on to the water. There is only one reason to get out of the boat and walk on the water – the command of Jesus to come.

Let me finish by saying this. Do you ever think that in quiet reflective moments Peter’s heart surged with the memories of that night and walking on the water? He experienced something none of the other disciples ever did because they stayed in the boat. There is a knowledge of Jesus that only comes through the action and experience of getting out of our boats and walking on the water with him. Peter walked on water, he sank and was rescued. The result was his eyes, the eyes of the others were opened further to who Jesus was. So when you begin to sink – your response is the key. Remember Christ will be there to save you all you have to do is call on him. But also remember you wont ever experience walking on water if you never get out of your boat – and that means taking a risk at answering the voice of Christ.


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