11 Pentecost, Proper 14 – August 13, 2023
Matthew 14:22-33

         Jesus sent the disciples ahead by boat to the other side of the sea, while he went up on the mountain to pray, by himself.  By evening, the boat was battered by waves. The Greek “basanizo” literally means torture, torment or harassment; figuratively it means severe distress. The boat is far away from land, and the wind was against them.

After a night-long battle for their lives, the disciples were understandably afraid. When they saw Jesus walking toward them, they were terrified, did not recognize him, and cried out in fear. Jesus identifies himself and tells them to not be afraid.

Apparently, Peter takes Jesus at his word and steps out of the boat to walk on the water toward Jesus. He discovers quickly that Jesus’ words of assurance did not mean the dangerous wind and waves had subsided. So he was frightened for his life once again, for good reason, as he began to sink into the turbulent sea. Peter has a perfectly good reason to be afraid.

And, often, so do we. Whether it’s a fear of a serious illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of financial stresses, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives, of the direction of our country…. You name it, there is a lot in our individual, congregational, and corporate lives that can make us afraid. And that fear can be debilitating. It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence. Fear is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us.

Think about this….perhaps, the heart of the issue is not fear itself; the issue is where fear leads.  Notice the first place that Peter’s fear leads him. Peter has every right to be afraid when the boat pitches in the dark sea; feeling scared in the face of danger is not the problem.  The problem is that his fear leads him straight to suspicion and distrust.  His fear leads him to test and question Jesus’s identity, instead of taking Jesus’s self-disclosure at face value.  “If it’s you, enable me to do the impossible.  If it’s you, make magic happen so that I will be dazzled out of all doubt.  If it’s you, reorder reality and prove to me that you’re God.”

Well, don’t we also fail to recognize Jesus when the going gets rough.  When we face fearsome circumstances, is our go-to position trust or suspicion?  In our fear, do we forget that our relationship with God is multifaceted and complex or do we reduce it to something crassly transactional, like saying:  “Okay, Jesus, prove that you care about me.  I’ll do A, but you had better do B in return.”

As Debi Thomas shares, “To truly trust Jesus is to hold two pictures of God’s kingdom in productive tension.  Yes, sometimes Jesus demonstrates his power in miraculous, technicolor ways.  At other times, though, we need to trust that his Incarnation — his quiet, abiding presence in our wild, untamed lives — is sufficient for the circumstances we face.  Sometimes, Jesus’ power is paradoxical; it comes to us in what looks like vulnerability, like weakness, like strangeness. The wildness of the sea is no proof of God’s absence”.

Trust that the same Jesus who drew near to the disciples in that tiny fishing boat also draws near to us when the storms come. Author Robert Capon says that most of us would like to think of Jesus coming to the rescue in some heavenly tow truck, offering us hot chicken soup as he tows us to safety. In reality, Capon writes, Jesus does come to us in the storm, and he sits and suffers with us until the storm has passed. Jesus draws near to those who are hurting. He got into the boat with the disciples. He gets into the boat with us.

Debi concludes: “From the very beginning of the story, Jesus moves toward his disciples.  He moves toward them when they’re struggling at sea.  He moves toward them when they decide he’s a menacing ghost.  He moves toward them when they’re terrified by his approach.  He moves toward them when they’re reckless enough to send him a dare.  He moves toward them when they begin to drown.  He moves toward them when they ask for help.  He moves toward them when they’re shivering and sorry for their rashness.  He moves toward them when they realize — for a beautiful, flickering instant — who he is and what he is.

In other words, Jesus never stops moving toward the ones he loves.  He never stops crossing the dark water to come to where we are.  Neither our fearfulness nor our faithlessness ever alters his steady approach.  We are the ones he’s bound for.  Our flailing bodies are the ones he pulls out of the water.  Ours is the boat he climbs into.  It is for us that he calls out across the terrifying waves, again and again and again: “Take courage.  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.” “  Amen.