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Jesus walked on water, but what was the real miracle?

Take heart!  It is I – the I Am!  Don’t be afraid!”  
Matthew 14:22-33 August 9, 2020

Jesus never ceases to confront, confound, and challenge us.

In fact, if we read one of his parables or lessons and do not walk away feeling that our worldview has been turned upside down, then we probably missed the point.

That’s true today, too, with this famous passage of Jesus walking over the stormy waters to save the boat full of disciples.

To understand what this story meant to its original and intended audience, remember that when this gospel was written – about fifty years after Jesus’ ministry – Matthew’s community of second-generation Jewish followers of the Messiah was still trying to make sense of who Jesus was, and what it all meant.

And as they did this, there was always some new teacher stepping out from the church with a supposed new revelation that disrupted and splintered the community.

And with that backdrop of theological conflict and confusion among early Christians, Matthew’s community was trying to survive the rejection by their synagogues, persecution by Rome, and the fear that Jesus had abandoned them by not returning in person as they’d understood he’d do.

And one more thing.

As children or young adults, they may have personally witnessed the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the one solid, unchanging, constant home for all the diverse and dispersed members of Judaism.

Everything was changing and uncertain – for many it felt like chaos.

That’s one reason the gospel writers especially recalled this event, because in the Ancient Near East chaos was symbolized by deep, dark, stormy waters.

Many of us are feeling a bit tossed to and fro these days.

The pandemic is not receding as hoped.

The economy is headed south.

The election is only a few months away and who knows how that’s going to play out.

And, many of us are trying to make sense of our place and purpose in this “new normal” while also feeling worn thin by nearly five months of lock down with no end in sight.

Jesus was feeling worn thin, too.

He had tried but failed to get away for some personal time after learning that his cousin and gospel co-worker John the Baptist had been executed for the amusement of Herod’s stepdaughter.

His first attempt failed because the relentless crowds pursued him but he eventually packed his disciples into a boat and got himself to a lonely place to pray.

He told them to head to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and that they did this was a demonstration of their faith in Jesus.

The Sea of Galilee is famously unpredictable with violent storms erupting without notice.

That’s why fishermen normally stayed close to shore.

On top of that, it was now evening and no one in his right mind would venture out there in the dark – but, still, they did as Jesus said.

When I was in Israel, I got to ride in one of those creaky little fishing boats and right away I got how totally vulnerable you are, so I imagine that it must have been a terrifying couple of hours for the disciples when the storm slammed their boat.

And where was Jesus?

That was the nagging question for early Christians because every expectation was that the Messiah would return soon after his resurrection to set things right.

And recall that the early church often used the imagery of a boat to describe itself.

So, as Matthew’s community remembered this event they must have been reflecting on their own circumstances: a little church, battered in a storm while wondering where Jesus was – the one whom they called Emmanuel, “God is with us”.

We don’t know how long the disciples may have been left out there being hammered by the storm, but just before dawn, they saw the outline of someone emerging through the fog and spray.

They wondered if it might be an illusion, wishful thinking, or even a ghost.

Matthew 14:26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that even when we’re surrounded by danger and uncertainty, when Jesus does come our first reaction may be fear because he often comes in unexpected ways.

Matthew 14:27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take heart! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

This triple word play could be inscribed over the entrance of every church because they succinctly summarize the message of Jesus.

Take heart.

The world would drain the life blood out of us.

Social polarization, politicians, pandemics – but in the midst of it all, Jesus brings hope – a new heart for stressed and weary people.

The Apostle Paul – who survived many a storm himself – would write

1 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

Then, Don’t be afraid.

It doesn’t take much to think that God has abandoned us, yet when God does appear or His plan is revealed we often draw back.

That’s why the first words angels speak are usually Don’t be afraid.

But these two statements aren’t just plugs for positive thinking; they are rooted in the second thing he says, I Am!

For the sake of good English sense, most Bibles translate Jesus’ words into something like “It is I” or “I am here”.

But the Greek says only ego eimi: “I am.”

Now that’s really important because this simple designation connects Jesus to the God of Israel.

We first encounter this self-designation of God when Moses asked God in the burning bush for His name, and God replied that His name is “I Am.”

Exodus 3:14-15 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’… This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.

Jesus announced to his disciples who were feeling lost at sea that He is God and He is with them, therefore there was no need to be afraid.

Here is the fulfillment of the promise given at the opening of Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew 1:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” (which means “God with us”)

So, all is well, right?

Well, not quite because impetuous Peter suddenly does something all too familiar to the First Century church – he leaves the boat and tries going off on his own.

Peter asks Jesus if he can step out of the boat.

Matthew 14:28“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

The typical modern interpretation of what happens next misses part of what Matthew’s original readers would most likely have heard.

Rather than hearing this as counsel to have more faith, Peter’s words would have reminded them of Satan putting Jesus to the test during the wilderness temptation – prove yourself by doing something spectacular, maybe something that violates the laws of physics.

The lesson here is not “If Peter just had more faith he could have walked on water.”

No.

Only God can do that.

If you buy into that idea, then you’re setting yourself up to conclude that if you only had enough faith then you could overcome all your problems.

Or, as happens in some traditions, you end up blaming the victim for having cancer, being poor, or whatever because they don’t have enough faith themselves.

And beyond that, that thinking correlates deep faith with spectacular events rather than seeing God as our partner in regular life.

Peter does manage to stay upright for a while before Jesus rescues him, and Jesus does not condemn him for trying.

In fact, he said You of little faith – meaning he saw in Peter a mixture of faith and doubt – just like in all of us.

Our world is facing so many challenges, as are churches worldwide.

We need bold, visionary leaders who, like John Lewis and others, step out to engage, organize and encourage Christians in daring and effective ways to secure justice.

And we need creative leaders to help us learn new ways to be a faithful and engaging church in the midst of the pandemic and all the other social and technological changes we are experiencing.

They will surely sink if they don’t keep their eye on Jesus as they do their work.

And, we surely understand that we will never overcome our fears and personal demons if we only huddle in safety in our little boat.

Not facing them is surrendering and they will consume us.

But also – in addition to those things – as much as the church needs bold visionaries, as much as we celebrate people who persevere to follow their dream – the original community of Matthew would also have recognized something beyond that.

Jesus walking on the water would not have been seen as the real miracle here.

Matthew already knew that Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth, so walking on water would be no more surprising than our walking on the sidewalk.

No, the miracle is that while a soaked and chagrined Peter coughed-up seawater, and as the little boat continued to bob around in the dead of night – somehow the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them.

So, they worshiped him in the middle of their storm.

Yes, we need visionary leaders who take on great tasks, and prophets who have inspiring, life-changing insights.

But more often, faithful life in the “boat” that is the church involves no more than dependably pulling on our oar against the howling winds, trusting that Jesus is near and is taking us wherever we need to go.

We press on, not because we expect him to enable us to do something spectacular and eye-catching.

No, we press on because we believe Jesus when we hear him say, “Take heart!  It is I – the I Am!  Don’t be afraid!”

We press on because we know that somehow or other, Jesus will see us to the other side.