Sunday, August 7, 2011
Walking on the Water
*I preached this sermon this morning at Salem Mennonite Church, Salem, Oregon. It was recently published at Preaching.com: http://www.preaching.com/resources/preaching-online/11657155/
In the gospel story Jesus and Peter walked on the water. What is this bizarre story all about, anyhow? Modern enlightened readers may have some difficulty with the credibility of stories of people walking on the water. This couldn’t be true. Although incredible, stories of people walking on water are not all that rare. Not long ago I watched the illusionist Chris Angel on Mind Freak walk across a Las Vegas swimming pool. It just meant that he could place clear plexiglass under the surface and fool people into thinking he was like Jesus. More recently the British illusionist Dynamo walked across the River Thames. I even read that Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, and some of his disciples could walk on water…. well, with hidden planks under the water.
There are stories about the Buddha walking on water. Even one of his disciples, Sariputta, walked on water, but his heart gave way and he began to sink beneath the troubled waters. But rousing his faith, he kept on going and reached the shore. Hmmm. Seems like I’ve heard a story similar to this one somewhere before! Then, the Buddha taught the people about casting off all shackles and crossing the river of worldliness and attaining deliverance from death. The Buddha told the people exactly what walking on the water meant. So, what does this story of Jesus and Peter walking on water mean?
Is the story of Jesus walking on the water about him having super powers? There aren’t two many people that I know who can walk on water, in spite of what Randy Travis says about his beloved grandpa in his song He walked on water. Is Matthew telling this story to prove that Jesus had super powers, like the super heroes in Marvel comics? Stan Lee, who created many of the Marvel comic super heroes, has a new show called Superhumans. Lee commissions Daniel Browning Smith, a contortionist, to travel the world to look for humans with superhuman abilities. He has interviewed and tested people like Rajmohan Nair from India who can receive 30 times the electricity in his body than the normal human or Darren Taylor, “Professor Splash,” who survived a 36 foot belly flop into 1 foot of water creating a world record!
Is Matthew just telling us that Jesus is “The Amazing Rabbi River Rambler” and deserves a spot on the next episode of Superhumans? In Matthew, surrounding the story of Jesus walking on water, he feeds 5000, then 4000 with a few loaves and fishes, heals the sick, a man with a withered hand, and two blind men. These are all miracle stories. They point to Jesus as someone with extraordinary, supernatural, superhuman abilities. Jesus is more than human. But, there seems to be more to this story of Jesus walking on the water than to point out that he is more than human, someone with super powers.
Maybe this story is about Jesus being the master of the wind and waves. More than someone with superpowers, Jesus is portrayed as the “Son of God” and “Master of the sea.” There is a story similar to the one of Jesus walking on the water earlier in Matthew’s gospel. Another storm arises on the sea of Galilee, a frequent occurrence, and the waves swamp the boat. Jesus is not walking on the water, but sleeping like a baby in the tossed boat. The disciples wake Jesus and cry out that they are perishing. Jesus comments about their little faith and rebukes the wind and the sea. They are amazed and wonder what kind of human can make the wind and sea obey him.
Both that story and this one about Jesus walking on the water have similar elements. First, in both stories a storm arises on the sea. Second, the disciple’s boat is tossed by the waves. Third, the disciples are afraid. Fourth, Jesus comments about his disciples’ lack of faith. Fifth, Jesus exhibits power over the sea by calming it or walking over it. And finally, the disciples comment about the extraordinary nature of Jesus, as more than a mere man or the Son of God.
These two stories both seem to point to Jesus as one who is master of the sea, Lord of the wind and waves. The sea was more than a place for the disciples to fish. It was believed to be a place of evil and chaos. And it takes a god to control or overpower it. This is the case in Babylonian and Canaanite mythology, as well as in the Bible, where the sea is like a monster that must be defeated. It is Yahweh who conquers Leviathan and the sea. The Psalmist proclaims:
But God has been my king from ancient times,
performing acts of deliverance on the earth.
You destroyed the sea by your strength;
you shattered the heads of the sea monster in the water.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan. (Psalm 74:12-14)
And in another Psalm we read:
O Lord, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule over the proud sea.
When its waves surge, you calm them.
You crushed Rahab and killed it;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
Job reinforces this same belief about the chaos of the monster Rahab and the sea with Yahweh having power over them:
By his power he stills the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab the great sea monster to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent (Job 26:12-13)
So, it would appear from ancient beliefs about the evil and chaos of the sea and Jesus actions that these two gospel stories are pointing to Jesus as more than a mere human. Jesus is, like Yahweh, the Lord of the wind and waves, sovereign of the sea, master of evil and chaos.
But then again, could Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on the water also be about Peter’s lack of faith? This story is found in different forms in Matthew, Mark, and John. Unique to Matthew is the part about Peter asking Jesus to command him to walk toward him on the water. Matthew wants to say something particular by adding this part of the story.
This is one of those almost stereotypical depictions of Peter, the impetuous, impulsive disciple. Remember how Peter rebuked Jesus for saying he would be crucified, said he would never deny Jesus but does, blurted out something about building altars at the transfiguration, went overboard about washing his whole body at a foot washing, grabbed a sword at Jesus’ arrest and cut off a slave’s ear. So, asking Jesus to step out on the water is par for the course. Peter is just being Peter.
Well, here he is again not putting his foot in his mouth this time, but upon the surface of the sea. I wonder why he wants to step out on the churning waters. Does he think the water is shallow enough to wade over to greet Jesus? Is he just not thinking about the fact that humans don’t normally walk on water? Is this simply childish curiosity? If Jesus can do it, then why can’t I? Does Peter think he can become the master over the chaos, evil and storms of his own life?
Whatever the reason, Peter fearlessly puts his “little piggy” into the gurgling water. One uneasy step, then another. He is being held up by some power that transcends his normal life. The waves splash against his legs soaking his robe. Yet, he pays no mind to the wind and waves. His eyes are fixed upon Jesus.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
But, then there’s this little problem. Peter notices the strong wind. Fear creeps in, chaos stirs up his soul, Leviathan digs a sharp claw in his flesh. And Peter begins to sink. The chaotic sea, the evil ocean, rides up to his ankles, then his calves, his knees, his thighs, his waist. Waves crash against his chest. He can taste the foam. Peter turns his eyes upon Jesus and cries out, “Lord, save me!” Have you ever cried out like that?
I wonder if this is just another demonstration of the dire consequences of Peter’s impulsive nature? Or does Peter really represent anyone who has had their faith tested or has taken their eyes off Jesus or who is sinking in the sea of sin and sadness and needs to be saved? I wonder.
You want to know what I think? I think this story is about Jesus, Lord of the wind and waves, who saves us through the storms and chaos of life. There’s a savior standing there on the waves.
I would like to take us back to the moment when Peter started to walk toward Jesus on the water and starts sinking down beneath the waves. I want to freeze frame that instant and create our own classic painting like so many I’ve seen depicting this gospel story.
Paint this picture on the canvas of your mind. An angry storm is raging on the Sea of Galilee. Dark clouds shroud the sea like a cape. Streaks of falling rain watercolor the gray sky. The waves rise like mountains and scoop out deep valleys. Strong winds blow the foam off the top of the waves. A small wooden boat filled with disciples careens on the rollercoaster sea. Jesus calmly walks across the surface of the sea, his robe and hair flowing in the wind. His strong arm reaches out to a shadowy figure sunk waist deep in the froth and foam. But, it’s not Peter. I would recognize Peter anywhere. So, who is this sinking soul? Could it be one of us?
I see in our painting someone who has struggled through this economic recession trying to keep their head above water. Dark shadows encircle their eyes. Maybe they lost their job or are barely making ends meet. They’re finding it hard to keep their faith in God or life or anyone as a sea of bills pour in.
In our painting someone’s boat has been rocking and they want to get out of it. They experienced a sinking feeling as the doctor came into the exam room and told them their health was not on solid ground. Waves of mortality crashed against the rocks of their soul.
In another corner of our painting a new follower of Jesus has stepped out of their boat of safety and security wanting to walk closer to Jesus. It looks like they got involved in a community service ministry and found themselves up to their neck in the problems of other people. How can I solve the troubles of these people, let alone my own? Feeling like they were going to drown they cried out for help.
Then an unseen hand reaches out and pulls us up out of a sea of troubles, a storm in our lives, a watery grave. And we’re saved. And we want to shout, “Thank you, Jesus!” Get the picture?
Christ has the power to reach out a hand to anyone afraid, venturing out of the boat, caught in the storms of life, sinking beneath the waves. Christ is master of the sea, Lord of the wind and waves!
I remember Eddie Mesa, a water-walker known as “the Elvis Presley of the Philippines.” He was a handsome singer, a star of the Philippine cinema, a lover of “wine, women and song.” To those around him it looked like he was walking on water, but his life was sinking. He ended up leaving his wife. Then, he came to the States in 1977 where one evening he just happened to stumble upon the Lost and Found Coffeehouse. Maybe he was trying to find himself. This was a Christian coffeehouse my wife Iris and I started to minister to street people in San Francisco.
At the Lost and Found Eddie met some Filipino friends of ours, the Laigo Brothers, who frequently played Christian music at our coffee house. They knew who Eddie was and talked to him in the dim light. My good friend Bobby, who died just this year, shared Christ with Eddie. After that evening in the city by the bay Eddie Mesa’s life was never the same. What was once lost was now found. A hand reached out to him down under the waves and once again I know that Jesus saves.
Upon his return to the Philippines he turned down a number of films he thought inconsistent with his newfound faith. Eddie started adding gospel music to his singing repertoire and ended up becoming an full time evangelist for Christ. Christ reached out to Eddie sinking in the sea. Christ, master of the wind and waves, has the power to save.
There in the city by the bay, among a band of his disciples, Christ reached out a hand to Eddie sinking beneath the wicked waves of fame and unfaithfulness. There amid a sea of people dipping and drowning, Christ reached out a hand to Eddie Mesa and lifted him up out of the chaos that consumed his life. Truly this is the Son of God.
What reminded me of the story of Eddie Mesa was a song we used to play in the flickering candlelight at the Lost and Found. It is a song by Christian Rock group Daniel Amos based on the story of Jesus walking on the water. In their song Walking on the Water the story of Peter becomes our story. Whatever chaos or storm you may have or are now facing in your life, turn your eyes upon Jesus, put yourself there in Peter’s sandals:
A storm at sea, and there sits me in a boat
And there's the Savior standing on the waves
The wind is tossing and turning the ship
But I decide to get out of it
And what do I see?
Could it be... I'm standing on the water?
Now, Jesus smiles and bids me come near
But I say, "Lord, there's a storm out there... I may fall"
He says, "Son, don't take your eyes off me
Look straight ahead and you'll arrive safely”
Then I saw me
Would you believe?... Walking on the water!
Now, things get rough and I look to the right
I'd seen Jesus so plainly, now I've lost sight
I start sinking down
And a hand reaches out to me down under the waves
Once again I know that Jesus saves
It's then I find
Oh, there am I... walking on the water
Walking on the water
What a pleasant surprise!
Walking on the water
Tryin' to keep my eyes on the One I'm confiding in
One I'm abiding in... walking on the water