Sermon by: Rev. Brian Combs, August 2020
Peter is so easily dismissible. Puffed up with hubris, he rebukes the Christ, silencing any talk about wooden crosses and sandy graves. Unhinged with violence, he unsheathes his sword, cutting off a servant’s ear. Hurried with rejection, he denies being a follower, refusing his Christianity three times. Looking down with elitism, he clings to his purity, saying nothing profane or unclean has ever touched my tongue. Filled with such obvious flaws, he’s routinely mocked for his unfaithfulness.
Filled with grief, Jesus needs to be alone since word came back that his dear friend, John the Baptizer, had been beheaded. He dismisses the gathered crowds and sends the twelve to the other side of the sea and searches for a lonely place to fall apart. Folded over on the mourner’s bench, he gets interrupted by a violent squall and the disciples’ frantic plea. Screaming loudest is Peter and what happens next, according to many, is his most dubious moment on record.
Still, for all of his discipleship disasters, Jesus ends up anointing Peter the rock, the cornerstone of his Church to come. In today’s text, despite his countless miscues, what does Jesus see in Peter that’s so faithful?
Matthew 14:22-33 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
A compulsion to reach God regardless of the circumstances.
If the Church is the boat, then Peter knew to get out of the sinking ship.
Like the mustard seed, short Zacchaeus, and the little children, Jesus believes in small things.
Years ago, I traveled to the Holy Land. Our bus tour was packed with an 8-day itinerary all over the crossroads of religious history. We took a tram up to Megiddo, the literal location of Armageddon named in Revelation, the proposed site of the world’s end. Huddled outside caves at Qumran, the archeology site where the Dead Sea scrolls were unearthed. Stepped down into the bowels of the Church of the Nativity where Mary gave birth. Peered up at the branches of a Sycamore tree in Jericho where Zacchaeus went out on a limb. Slowed down by the ditch beside the road up to Jerusalem where the Good Samarian crossed over. But of all the stops, Galilee was the most memorable. It was the ministry field of the early followers, the landscape thickest with a sense of the divine, and the location where our tour guide offered an editorial comment. Gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he told us about the next building project. “We’re planning to construct a submerged wall from here to the other side so every tourist can walk on water like Jesus.” Or, not fail like Peter.
Even in his place of origin, where he could have been a favorite son, Peter was picked on. His blunders were so blatant, his mistakes so public that a scribe scribbled them down for later canonization. Yet is was the other disciples, who instead of having little faith, had no faith. Like the 11, the Church has too often huddled below deck waiting out the storm, praying to ride out the waves. Or assumed we can only leave the harbor when the weather is perfect and the breeze is at our back, that afternoon cruises with smooth sailing are always preferable to dinghies in disrepair negotiating troubled waters.
But Jesus doesn’t call us to be responsible boaters, but brazen believers. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea… If Peter had not taken the risk, he would have never learned the meaning of faith… Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into the air, and if people imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.” The faithfulness in Peter is his readiness to talk back to his fears and reconsider the spiritual costs of staying starboard side, to release his grip on the oar and unbuckle his life jacket, to hurl himself overboard in the direction of God.
According to the Gospel, lack of faith isn’t sinking, lack of faith is refusing to get wet. So, take heart, put yourself in peril, get in over your head. Jesus, after all, doesn’t need any more dry deckhands, only more inglorious disciples willing to take the plunge.