Walking on Water
Sermon preached by
If any of you have glanced at or read the Bible notes which I prepared for today, you will have noted that I have drawn attention to the similarities and differences between the three accounts which we have of Jesus walking on water - in today's lesson in Matthew as well as in Mark's and John's gospels.
What I did not comment upon was that part of the story which tells of Peter and Jesus which appears only in Matthew's account. And it is this that I propose we should think about together for a few moments.
Hands up all of you who are members of the St. Peter fan club.
You may have noticed that my hand did not move. Given what my first name is, you won't be surprised to which fan club I belong!
That does not, of course mean that I discount the importance of Peter. Far from it - not least because of what happens in this story.
Who was this man, Peter? He has three other names in the New Testament. When he first appears he is Simon and he was Simon to the end of the day. There appear to be two differing times when this name is used. The domestic ones - Simon's boat, his house, his mother, his fishing partners. And Jesus uses this name in the great and intimate moments of his relationship with him - when he bids Peter launch out into the deep recorded in Luke 5, in the great commendation at Caesarea Philippi, Matthew 16, in his warning at the Last Supper that Peter would betray him and later at the time in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was overpowered by sleep.
In the plethora of languages which could be found in New Testament times, Simon is actually the gentile form of Peter's original name which was in Hebrew - Simeon, - and which is used occasionally.
Simon became Peter because Jesus gave him the name. "Simon son of Jonah you shall be called Cephas, that is Peter the Rock."
William Barclay points out that Jonah means a dove and that Cephas and Peter both mean "a rock". Peter is Greek and Cephas is Aramaic. He suggests that what Jesus is saying to Peter is "Up until now you have been like a fluttering timorous dove; but if you will take me as Master, and if you will give your life to me, I will make you a rock". And however far fetched that may seem, Peter's life as recorded in the four gospels and in the Acts would seem to bear it out.
It is an open question as to how far national or regional characteristics actually exist - are all Scots mean or all English blessed with stiff upper lips? Or all northerners open and friendly and all southerners cold and reserved?
You will have your own views about such things, and if there is truth in the notion, then Peter would appear to have embodied the characteristics attributed to those who came from his native Galilee. Listen to what various writers said about them.
"They were ever fond of innovations, and by nature disposed to changes and delighted in seditions. They were ever ready to follow a leader and begin an insurrection".
"They were notoriously quick in temper and given to quarrelling, but that withal they were the most chivalrous of men".
"The Galileans have never been destitute of courage."
"They were ever more anxious for honour than for gain"
Peter certainly seems to fit that sort of bill.
So let us remind ourselves about what happened on that night. Jesus had sent his disciples on ahead of him. He needed some space and some quiet. They had in fact gone off into the countryside originally for that very reason, but had been followed by the crowds, which as you will recall from last week's lessons led to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.
And such was Jesus' authority that they went - did they, I wonder, ask themselves how he was going to rejoin them? Or did they assume that he would in due course walk round the Sea of Galilee to wherever they were heading - to some agreed rendezvous in Bethsaida.. And given that they were rowing not sailing, I guess it was not a huge distance which they had to travel.
The wind gets up, the waves get choppy and they are buffeted about by all that is happening. And then they see this figure walking on the water. In those circumstances what would you do? Say "Oh look, there's somebody walking on the water towards us. Isn't it jolly?"
Well I for one wouldn't. I think I would have been like them in being a bit afraid.
But they realise as the man spoke that it was Jesus. And Peter says to himself- "that's great. I want a piece of this action" He reminds me a bit of Corporal Jones from "Dad's Army" who always volunteered for everything. Then he says "Jesus, since it's you, tell me to come to you over the water". And Jesus says "Come on then". And out Peter gets from the boat - but it's not as easy as he thought. The waves are running high, and the wind is still strong. And suddenly its not fun any more.
It's all very well being brave before you start, but when you are actually in the midst of the challenges it becomes different. He gets scared, very scared, scared enough that he doesn't mind losing face in front of the others, and he cries out "Save me Lord". And Jesus does -and then gently rebukes him. "Why did you hesitate? How little faith you have".
I said at the beginning that I was not a member of the Peter fan club. But I do find that there is a lot to learn from Peter, and more especially from the way Jesus treats him. And what has happened here is all of a piece with the way he treats Peter throughout the gospels.
Peter actually asks Jesus to command him to come to him - and he wants to respond to that command. He is putting faith and obedience in action. Peter is like many since then who have stepped out boldly in the same way - trusting in God and doing what they believe He wants. And like Peter they too found that they were faced with challenges which seemed greater that they could cope with and were scared, and had to call out for help. Their faith also was too little. But they too found like Peter that God in Jesus does not reject someone who has failed but calls to Him for help. Just as he upheld Peter throughout their time together as Peter blundered about even going so far as to betray Him, so He will uphold us as we too blunder about.
The Peter of the Acts of the Apostles became a rather different sort of person - and I believe that part of the reason can be found in two places in the gospels and the epistles. Jesus singled Peter out after his resurrection - St. Mark has the angel saying to the women at the tomb "Go and give this message to his disciples and Peter" (16;7) and Paul writing to the Corinthians says that Jesus "appeared to Cephas and afterwards to the Twelve" (1:15;5).
One wonders what Jesus said to Peter - or perhaps more importantly what Peter said to Jesus. Whatever it was, I believe that that face to face encounter was almost the last part of the final earthly preparations which Jesus made to help Peter in his ministry and which reinforced the message which Jesus had given him before -that whatever the failures He was always with Peter and that he would always be there to support him.
Perhaps there is another key element which we ought to look at before we leave this passage. At the very beginning of the account we are told Jesus made his disciples go away and then he went off up the hillside to pray. Jesus needed time to be with God. It was being with God which charged his ministry with power. And that is always the case.
It was coming as it were face to face with God that Elijah regained his strength to go on with his task. Elijah was running scared - quite literally. But he was wise enough to go to a holy place. Mount Horeb.
One commentator has suggested that once there Elijah was a bit reluctant to engage with God. Though told to go out of the cave he remains within it through the wind, earthquake and fire and it is only the "sound of sheer silence" which gets him out of the cave. Mind you, I am not sure I would blame anybody stopping in a cave with all that display of natural pyrotechnics going on outside! We are not told whether God is in the low murmuring sound as the N E B has it - but wherever the question came from it was the same question which he had heard in the cave. It was not a new question. What was new in the situation was that Elijah had taken steps to meet God. And God gave Elijah a new task - and the implication of that task was the Elijah would not be alone. Despite his fear and running away, there was still work for him to do and still divine support in that work.
As we noticed with Peter, faith and action have to go hand in hand. And so it must be for us - despite all our many failures we are constantly recalled to action, and that recall comes to us out of our own encounters with God. In the words of the hymn we shall sing shortly, we have to be still in the presence of God - which does not mean necessarily a five day silent retreat but does mean that however we find our ways to encounter God and be still before him we need to use them. Therein lies for us as for Elijah and for Peter forgiveness, renewal and the strength to carry on with whatever God has called us to do. Amen.
John Stubbs, August 2002