That’s quite a story we just heard, Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in the storm. For Jesus’ followers after his resurrection, hearing this story back in the day, it would have reminded them of ancient Jewish tradition about God reining in the uncontrollable forces of the natural world. The psalms frequently tell of God subduing the primordial chaos, defeating sea monsters and setting the oceans’ boundaries. When the great flood came, the people saw it as God’s fearsome judgment, using the power of nature against them. And when the people were delivered from oppression in Egypt, God used the Red Sea as a path of liberation for them but a path of destruction for the Egyptian army. As we’ve come to remember more vividly than we’d like in the past month or so at St. Andrew's, water is certainly life-giving, but it’s also a serious threat – a force we’re still trying to manage and tame. So when Jesus comes to us walking over the water, it’s not simply an amazing feat but a sign of his divine mastery over the destructive power of chaos.
To get a sense of the disciples’ mindset entering into this story, it’s always good to go back and see what happened just before it. Today’s story follows another astonishing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000 – a miracle not just of divine provision but of overwhelming abundance, showing that what God gives us, through Jesus Christ, is astonishingly more than we can ask or imagine. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us not just the bounty of our daily bread but the promise of eternal life, which we experience at this altar each week as bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given. I think it’s also significant that this feeding miracle isn’t Jesus’ work alone. He carries it out with the participation of his friends. When the crowds are hungry and his friends come to him looking for help, Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). And thousands are fed through the partnership of God’s abundance and human hands.
But then, as we’re still reveling in the wonder of that miracle, the scene shifts and the mood darkens. Jesus sends his followers out on the Sea of Galilee, telling them to cross over to the other side while he goes off to pray. And suddenly, they’re face to face with the chaos that’s always lurking in creation, as the storm batters their small boat, a storm serious enough to frighten professional fisherman. As if that’s not enough, the disciples then see something even scarier – what they think is a ghost coming toward them, a symbol of the power of death itself heading their way. Jesus sees and hears their fear, and he assures them that he’s no ghost. “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27). If you hear it in Greek, what he says is even more assuring: The same phrase given here as “It is I” can also be translated as “I am” – as in, the great I AM, echoing the voice of God to Moses from the burning bush. This is no ghost. This is the same One who subdues the sea monsters and sets the boundaries of the wild waters. This is the One who tramples down the power of the storm.
So then the scene shifts to Peter. He’s just as scared as any of the other disciples, but what counts is how Peter responds – with totally unselfconscious faith. Maybe he’s still in awe from Jesus feeding thousands of people from five loaves and two fish. But for whatever reason, Peter’s response to Jesus reveals deeper faith than he probably even realizes: “Lord, if it is you,” he says, “command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). The question for Peter isn’t whether a person might actually be able to walk on the water; the question for Peter is simply whether he’s seeing whom he thinks he’s seeing. Because for Peter, if that’s really Jesus out there, there’s no question whether he can walk on the water and overcome the storm. Why not, having just fed thousands of hungry people from five loaves and two fish? Why not, having cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and healed withered limbs, and restored sight to the blind, and brought the dead to life?
Peter sees no reason why he couldn’t be a partner in God’s work to overcome chaos and still the storm – right up until he thinks about it too much. He notices the wind and the water, and he gets scared again both by the strength of the storm and by the weakness of his own capacity. So he begins to sink. But that very human moment shouldn’t diminish the power of the example of Peter’s faith. As long as he taps into the depth of his trust, Peter is able to join Jesus in defeating the powers of chaos simply by naming a power that’s greater than they are.
We’ve seen something of the power of chaos this weekend, in the news from Charlottesville, Virginia. A crowd of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered there, ostensibly to protest the removal of statue honoring Robert E. Lee but really there to advocate for taking “their country” back. The protest was met with counter-protest, and the two sides fought each other with clubs and sticks, bottles and chemicals. All of that would have been horrifying enough, but then a man drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 more. In all, three people are dead and 35 injured from this weekend’s chaos.
I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that Jesus stands against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Klan – despite the appalling fact that probably most of those protesters would claim to honor and serve Jesus as their Lord and Savior, too. But if Jesus isn’t standing with the Klan, where is he in this storm? And how does he call us to follow him?
I see Jesus out there on the waters of the chaos, standing tall in the storm and inviting us to step out on the water to join him in stilling it. Our Lord seems to have this odd preference for finding partners in working miracles, just as he did when he fed the crowds, just as he did in inviting Peter to join him on the water. So what does it look like for us to take our place next to our risen Lord and Savior and work with him to counter violence, racism, and hate?
For us, in our particular context, maybe it’s a matter of naming truths that we might well have thought were self-evident – the truth that God loves all people, no exceptions; the truth that following Jesus allows no place for discrimination; and the truth that we are called to help bring God’s kingdom to life in the world God shares with us. Now, that may seem like advocating for the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow or that we should brush our teeth before we go to bed. And we might be tempted – especially those of us of a certain age – to look back a few decades and argue that we once enjoyed a social consensus that rejected hate and consigned neo-Nazis and the Klan to the lunatic fringe; and we might lament what’s become of our world today. But you know, not so many years ago, we had Klansmen and white supremacists in the halls of power, calling on Jesus just as we do. So, sometimes it is a holy act simply to proclaim God’s truth, because God’s truth is probably not as self-evident as we nice Episcopalians would like to think. Sometimes, it is a holy act simply to say that Jesus calls us to practice love, not hate; to practice reconciliation, not conflict; to practice engagement, not vilification of “the Jews” or “the blacks” or “the Muslims.” Sometimes it is a holy act simply to say that we stand with Jesus Christ, whose power brings people together and unites us as one, just as he and the Father are one. Sometimes it is a holy act to say out loud that we stand with Jesus on the water despite the storm, confident of his power to make the demons flee. It’s a holy act because words change things when influential people speak them with courage. Words change hearts, and changed hearts change the world.
That may be a stretch for us nice Episcopalians. It may put us uncomfortably close to linking faith with politics, though I would argue vigorously that if racism and supremacy are part of your politics, faith should stand against it. But it’s our call as followers of Jesus not to let even obviously holy truths lie silent when they’re under assault. When we’re at the grocery store, or the coffee shop, or the club, it’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against hate. It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against racism. It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against anyone’s efforts to consign others to second-class status. It’s even right to say out loud that Jesus judges such things as contrary to God’s purposes and therefore as sinful.
We may think all that’s self-evident. But we are in a time when such truths need our voices. For when we proclaim them, we take our place next to Jesus out there on the water, proving his power and stilling the storm.