Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 13, 2023
Matthew 14:22-33 Commentary
Jesus’s literal declaration, “I am” (translated as “it is I”) is the very center of this story. Literally: in his commentary on the miracles of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Birger Gerhardsson counted the Greek words and noted that these two, egō eimi, are the exact middle of this story.
Because Jesus is the “I am,” his disciples can “take heart” even though they are struggling against the wind and the waves beating them down. Jesus’s command to courage does not promise an end to the storm, but a call to be a certain way in the harsh circumstances. Matthew has used this verb tharseō before; it means “to be firm or resolute in the face of danger or adverse circumstances” (BDAG). By then saying, “it is I,” Jesus says to those struggling: “Be resolute as you face difficulty, for I am with you.”
And, Jesus follows the “I am” with another command: “do not be afraid.” I can’t help but wonder what Jesus is referring to here. Is Jesus telling them that they shouldn’t feel fear about their circumstances? That would correspond to the reminder that he gave his disciples about those who would persecute them when they were sent out on their mission of compassion in chapter ten. There, Jesus told them that they should fear their maker, God almighty, who was in charge of the destiny of their soul, more than they feared those who could do them physical harm. And, if that were the case, it wouldn’t matter if they perished in the storm: God, the “I am” was with them.
But Jesus is also responding to their fear that he is a ghost out on the water. As the disciples saw the figure coming towards them—which must have been rather close considering that it was just dawn and the storm continued to rage on, pouring rain and wind matched by churning waves—Jesus “immediately spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’” So could it be that he is telling them not to fear what they don’t understand as they encounter their rabbi walking on water? Thankfully, Jesus is not a ghost, but he is also not a normal human being, is he? Is Jesus the Christ telling the disciples not to fear him, and to keep their eyes on him? I’m reminded of Moses encountering God at the burning bush and how Moses “hid his face because he was afraid to look at God”—the same God who called himself “I am” (Exodus 3.6).
Moses was drawn to the bush because he did not understand how it was not consumed by the flame. Peter is drawn to the figure out on the water because he has some sense that if it truly is his rabbi, Jesus, then he can trust this ghost-like figure in spite of the circumstances. Dale Bruner makes the fruitful exegetical point that Peter doesn’t ask Jesus to promise that he will be safe if he goes out on the water, he tells Jesus to command him to come out.
If the great “I am” tells Peter to go, then Peter will go, making challenging circumstances even more difficult by leaving the vessel that has allowed him and the others to weather the storm thus far. Peter has great trust and faith in Jesus.
And even in spite of his great trust and faith, the storm continues to rage on and the circumstances do not change. Being resolute in faith does not rescue us from danger. I’m quite sympathetic to Peter’s sinking. When Matthew tells us that Peter “noticed the strong wind,” our English word “noticed” is putting it mildly. Not to overemphasize the Greek word used here, but the verb blepō is about seeing—having a tangible perception of something. This was not a thought experiment thwarted by a distracting thought. It was more like a literal being “blown off course.”
Maybe imagine it this way: Peter was truly standing atop the waves, but those waves were unpredictably moving. That wind was a force of nature, pushing or pulling or swirling. If I try to imagine myself in Peter’s place, the difficulty of continuing to move towards Jesus in those circumstances is overwhelming and far from an easy stroll on a paved sidewalk.
It is so very easy for us to get overwhelmed and have an anxious response. This is why the command to “take heart” is such an apt image: we must continually re-grab our heart when it’s been pulled from our chest out of fear or worry. I actually think that this is what Peter does as he’s sinking: he cries out, “LORD, save me!”
In his fear, there is only one place Peter turns. It isn’t back to the boat and the other disciples, it is to the one who is “I am.” It is to Jesus, who is with him in the stormy sea. I love that Peter is not ashamed to ask for salvation, even though he has failed to keep the very command Jesus just gave him. I love even more that because Jesus is right there in the midst of the wind and the waves and the pouring rain, he is able to immediately take Peter by the hand, catch him and hold him close.
And what if we tried a new way of hearing Jesus’s question to Peter? Instead of hearing Jesus say, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” as a judgement question or accusation, what if Jesus was asking Peter a learning or faith-building question?
When it comes down to it, we are all people of little faith in relation to our omnipotent, omniscient, infinite God. Being able to parse out our doubts, to figure out why circumstances challenge our faith, how we are impacted by hardship and challenge—and doing so in conversation with the living God—will ultimately grow our faith. When we do so honestly, we may find ourselves better equipped to face the same (or even more challenging circumstances). Growing our faith this way may actually make it easier to keep Jesus’s command to not be afraid.
It’s worth wondering some things about the timeline of our lectionary texts. Last week, Jesus fed thousands upon thousands of hungry people who had followed him as he went to be by himself to mourn John the Baptist. He did so because he saw them and was filled with compassion for them. The disciples, on the other hand, were reluctant partners in Jesus’s mundane miracle of providing supper. Now, having had them gather an impressive bounty of leftovers, Jesus sends the disciples away first, choosing to dismiss the crowds himself. Then, Jesus goes off to be himself again, spending time in prayer; is this related to his grief? Is it related to any frustration he might feel about his disciples? Is it because his compassion for the people also drives him to intercede through prayer? Is it all of these and more? To say the least, even before the storm whips up on the Sea of Galilee, it has been a full day of complex experiences.
“And just when I thought, ‘Things can’t get any worse…’” is a pretty familiar storytelling trope. A google search produces plenty of memes that play on the sentiment, drawing both on personal experience to the socio-political arena (the economy, the climate, the pandemic…) It is not hard to imagine the disciples, perhaps especially Peter, recounting the events of this night. He might say, “There we were, caught in one of those storms that just pop up on the Sea of Galilee, struggling against the waves and getting nowhere. It was miserable and frightening. And then, just when I thought that this night couldn’t get any worse, we see this figure out on the water! We were convinced this was the end—a ghost was coming to finish us off! But you’ll never believe who it was…”
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