There is nobody who has been in church for any amount of time that hasn’t heard sermons on this text, and 99% of the time, they bypass the whole rest of the story and zero in on Jesus’ question to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” then urge us assess our faith meter, check the balance on our faith account, and uh, oh, it’s low. So have more faith, we say, more than Peter’s little faith, anyway. Have faith enough not to doubt, faith enough to get out of the boat like he did, but not to get distracted by storms, faith enough to keep your eyes on Jesus, whatever that means.
If we doubt, we call ourselves bad Christians and assume that (if there’s a God) God is surely disappointed in us. When we’re afraid we judge ourselves for not believing and are sure God is judging us too. If we’ve learned that faith doesn’t mean certainty or fearlessness, but means trust, we conclude we don’t trust enough.
So right now, let’s just acknowledge this is super messed up. The way of fear is shaping our thinking here. We’ve made faith a commodity to acquire, a product to stockpile, and so none of us will ever have enough. None of us, ever, will be worthy of whatever we think “enough faith” is supposed to eventually accomplish for us or bring us to—which is what, actually? God’s love? Our own worthiness to exist? We’ve strapped ourselves into completely winless game of our own making. In fact, this whole thing has nothing whatsoever to do with God. We don’t even need God for this debacle. We’ve got it locked down. In our relentless pursuit of “enough” faith, God can stay a vague idea, a critic made in our image, an unreachable longing and brutal projection of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves. Then we are never expected to actually encounter God, or God-forbid, participate in anything God is doing. We are simply never good enough for the role (so, side bonus? We’re off the hook of those intimidating propositions!)
But we know that the stories in scripture are to tell us who God is and what God is up to. A good indicator that we are completely missing the point is if we’ve taken God out of it and made it about ourselves. Let’s return to this story and perhaps we can hear it again as showing us something about Jesus, who is God right here with us, which, in and of itself has enormous implications for us after all.
This year we are getting to know Jesus. If you want to follow along at home, we’re spending the next 2 ½ months in inside four chapter of Matthew: 14-18. Before celebrating Pentecost, first we were with Jesus and the bleeding woman who was healed, and the dead child who was raised. Then we were with Jesus and the crowds at the feeding of the 5000, just before the moment that opens our scripture today. There we saw how, after hearing about his cousin John (aka the Baptist’s) cruel and senseless death at a royal feast, Jesus went to be by himself, but the crowds went to be with him. Then they all spent the day together, living in the kingdom of God—in direct opposition to the kingdom that had just murdered John—a day that culminated in a radically different kind of feast, a feast of abundance and life, in which the God who created everything from nothing fed every single man, woman and child from practically nothing, with leftovers galore.
We pick up here, with Jesus sending the disciples on ahead, and finally going to be alone with God. But now he goes to be alone with God as one who is fundamentally never alone, always part of a bigger, truer story than we often see in a world filled with evil, bravado, and cruelty. After a day of healing, sharing and kindness, going to be alone with God is another way of connecting to the ancient true belonging of all creation and all creatures to the love of God that holds the universe intact and flows between you and me.
But meanwhile, the disciples, who had just witnessed, nay, participated in, this vast and unbelievable miracle, instead of arriving early and getting a good night’s sleep, spend the entire night struggling for their very lives against a raging storm. Wind and rain tossing their boat, they bail and battle, bracing against the gale and wrestling torn sails, coursing with adrenaline and dread, for hours and hours, with no relief in sight.
And in the wee hours of the morning, wind still gusting and waves still heaving, here comes this figure, strolling atop the water, toward the disciples, who watch, exhausted and scared.
If you want to see human being doubt even what they know to be most true in the whole world, start watching when we’re exhausted and scared. Exhausted and scared are when abundance and belonging feel like a faraway fantasy, not something that we maybe, literally just experienced. Exhausted and scared are when the disciples doubt God’s love and care, and you and I, and Jesus too, actually, who, even thought he was God incarnate, even though all he did and said flowed from the deep, unbreakable connection to the Father through the Spirit, still, when he was exhausted and scared, cried out from the cross My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
If you’re measuring the faith meter, better do to it when you’ve just witnessed people being healed, and delivered, and fed, and connected, and your own belly and heart are full too, and the vast, harmonized kumbayah is still buzzing in your soul. But if, even a few hours later, you find yourself exhausted and scared, that faith supply can plumet. Serenity is impossible to even recall, let alone conjure up.
So, right in the midst of the raging storm, Jesus comes to the exhausted and scared disciples. And when he’s within shouting distance, Jesus calls out, “Don’t be afraid, guys, it’s me.” And Peter, dear Peter, trying to beef up his faltering faith, climbs out of the pitching, heaving boat into the storm, puts his feet onto the water and stands, and begins walking toward Jesus.
But then, (oops, darn it, Peter!) he’s distracted by the furious sea and the roiling sky and the wind screaming around him and he begins to sink.
And here is where we get told to just keep your eyes on Jesus, as though God’s goal is to get us out of storms, or perhaps God sends storms to test us, and we are supposed to have faith bigger than Peter’s little faith. Here we act like faith is a mental game of concentration and focus, like karate or zen golf, and if we only believe hard enough we won’t sink. Seeing the storm is what causes the sinking, so if we just keep ourselves from acknowledging that the elements are raging around us and threatening to break us down, somehow we’ll coast along the top of the water and everything will be peachy. But, if we admit our fear, or notice how terrible things really are, down we go, under the waves. And apparently, Jesus is just there to get us back on track, our own personal, robed and bearded life coach, our cosmic advice columnist. Denying a loved one’s pain or refusing to face your own fear becomes “faith.” Faith is pretending to understand things you don’t, or believe things you can’t. It’s plastered-on smiles and buried secrets, denying doubt and aggressively cultivating a deeply dishonest positivity. This is faith without God, salvation without a savior.
But here comes Jesus. Jesus, who heals the sick, cures the injured, feeds the hungry. Jesus, grieving his cousin, needing to be with people and needing to be alone, walking steadily on an unwalkable surface, bearing calm and peace into a violent storm, reaching out his hand and catching Peter as he falls, climbing in the boat with them and quieting the wind. And those overwhelmed, exhausted and scared disciples, with shaken trust, and raging doubt, and little faith, worship him. Truly you are the Son of God.
There are two places in Matthew where doubt is mentioned – here, and after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And both put doubt with worship. They doubted and they worshiped. Doubt belongs with worship, doubt precedes worship, doubt is part of worship. Because worshipping is turning to the presence of the living God right here, with all that we have and all that we are, (doubts included), coming in our own weakness to the source of life and salvation, with genuine gratitude, to receive the life God offers us, in whatever miraculous ways it is coming to us at this moment.
We need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. This is good news. Saving ourselves or each other is not our job. Receiving salvation, going to be with those who are grieving, welcoming one another, lifting up those who need healing, passing the baskets of abundance, expressing our doubts and our fears to the One who comes to us in the storm, reaching out our own hand when our trust has collapsed and letting him grab onto us, hearing his voice gently invite us to trust again, watching the calm descend and pouring out our hearts in gratitude to the source of all life in worship – that is our part. Encountering Christ and participating in what God is doing. This is faith: to live our fully human lives inside the story of a God who comes to us. To let that story take us where it will.
Where it took the disciples that morning was onto gentile shores, to people who had no precedent to believe this salvation was for them, and also no reason to think it was not. And the people recognized the savior, and sent word throughout the region, and they brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; like the bleeding woman who trusted salvation was for her too when she encountered Jesus, and whose story of faith spread far and wide making way for them to follow her lead, because we are all connected and participate, and all who touched it were healed.
(Check out who Jesus was and what God was up to with the bleeding woman and child raised from the dead, and with the crowds at the feeding of the 5000. If you want to go further back in our "getting to know Jesus" series, in Lent we were with the Samaritan Woman at the well, the religious leader Nicodemus, and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead - which was preached by Pastor Lisa Larges).