Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.
The Sea of Galilee, where our Gospel account this morning is set, is a great freshwater lake or inland sea, oval in shape and surrounded by low-lying mountains, about a third the size of Hungary’s Balaton. Many of our Lord’s disciples were people who made their livelihood from the Sea and knew its waters well. And, Jesus himself, though of course not a fisherman, is often found near the Lake’s shores, first calling his disciples, and later teaching the people from its banks, sometimes even from a boat anchored or tethered securely just offshore.
So, it should come as no surprise to find the Sea of Galilee again figuring prominently in today’s narrative, the well-known story of Jesus Walking on Water. The account occurs by the way in three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and John, each with a slightly different twist. Luke omits it for reasons known only to him. As the passage begins and as evening falls and night comes, Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat by themselves to the other side of the Lake, literally forces them to leave, if you read the text carefully, and then spends the night by himself on a, presumably nearby, mountain in prayer.
Meanwhile, while Jesus remains in prayer, the disciples’ boat, now far from shore and navigating in darkness, is battered throughout the night by one of the storms the Lake is famous for. Yet as dawn breaks, our Lord makes his way across the waters on foot, inadvertently adding thereby to the fear and terror of the disciples, who immediately think him some sort of apparition or ghost. Peter, filled with both fear and bravado calls out to Jesus, demanding that our Lord call him forth across the waters. He steps out unto the waves but immediately falters for lack of trust; lack of faith. I do not know about you, but in spite of our Lord’s rebuke, “why did you doubt,” I still think I would give Peter high marks for effort.
Almost needless to say, this story of storm and intense human drama has fundamental and perhaps even archetypal implications in it about the human condition itself, a state which finds all of us in our own rickety raft suspended precariously between unknown and fearsome depths and the desire to be ourselves the masters of the wind and waves and world around us.
Just think of the story of the submersible tragically lost just weeks ago attempting to explore yet another shipwreck, that of the Titanic. The experts and pundits were quick to point out the flaws and faults of that little craft and its brash captain, much as they did a hundred years ago when the Titanic itself went down. Ditto by the way for the unseaworthy ship, full of migrants, sadly lost at very nearly the same time in the Mediterranean and at great loss of life.
Every ship at some level is a ship of fools, no matter how well constructed. All ships are constructs after all of human hybris and hope in nearly equal measure. Every high wind we encounter highlights the ambiguity of our existence. Faced with any problem or dilemma, it can be tempting to think that all we need is a bigger boat, one better equipped and more suited to withstand the storm and winds whistling around us. No need for fear or even trust. Human ingenuity and engineering to the rescue. Yet in spite of our bluster, when the storm comes and the winds blow, we still call out for the Lord to save us from that which we cannot control, and from our own folly as well.
Our Lord, please note, does not run to the disciples’ rescue; nor to ours. He walks. No mad dash; no sirens screaming. Indeed, the text of the account does not even suggest that Jesus is on a rescue mission. And the passage is finally less about the disciples and their anxieties and more about our Lord himself. He tells the disciples plainly, “it is I,” perhaps among the most important words he ever speaks in any of the Gospels, reminding us at some deeper level of God’s own majestic, I AM, spoken to Moses long before. “Take heart; it is I.” That in essence is what the Gospel message is about: Christ among us.
Now, none of the Scripture commentaries I consulted this past week note what for me seems an obvious bit of Christian symbolism and imagery embedded into this story. So I shall claim the insight as my own. Call it yet another Father Frank Theology Theory. And that of course is the image of Baptism that, it seems to me, runs through this vivid story of water, doubt, and ultimately faith. Surely the hesitant Peter, suddenly sinking beneath the waves, is at once here baptised into faith and redemption, as our Lord reaches out his hand and catches him. Together he and Jesus then climb aboard ship, and the winds cease.
No wonder the disciples “in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” A Baptismal Creed if ever there was one, if you ask me, echoing the words heard from above at Jesus’ own Baptism, "This is my Son, the Beloved.” Still, Baptism and the gift of faith it signifies and endows does not by any means guarantee a lifetime of smooth sailing ahead. Just ask Peter and the disciples.
And so, like them, we too at each new dawn will find ourselves calling out over and over again to the Lord. We too will be afraid and terrified of the world around us and the world within us. But like the disciples, we must not lose heart. It is only in giving up our own certainties and our very selves -- in opening our hearts to the Christ in others -- that we find our true depth.
“Take heart, it is I;” says Jesus, “do not be afraid.”