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Out on the Water

A sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 by the Revd Debie Thomas

As you heard in the reading, today’s gospel story is about fear. I don’t know about you, but this story hits me with particular force because I grew up with a version of Christianity that left no room for fear.  I grew up with a Christianity of Brave Fronts and polished surfaces, a Christianity that forbade any open acknowledgement of anxiety.  If you’re not familiar with this brand of religion, here are some of its key platitudes:

“Fear Not” appears in the Bible more often than any other imperative.  It’s a commandment. This means that when we fear, we sin.

“Perfect love casts out fear.” If you’re afraid, then you’re not rooted in God’s love.

You can’t be fearful and faithful at the same time.  Fear is a clear sign that you lack faith.

I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not; I grew up hearing these “devout” responses to fear all the time, and I tried for many years to live into them, but of course, I couldn’t.  Instead of inspiring courage, these supposed truths about fear coated me in guilt, shame, and even despair.

In Matthew’s story of the disciples’ sea crossing, Jesus’s friends contend with deep, atavistic fear.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of suffering.  Fear of death.  Fear of oblivion.  The setting is the Sea of Galilee, a body of water surrounded by hills, and prone to sudden, violent windstorms.  It’s nighttime.  The disciples are in a boat, crossing the sea on their own, as per Jesus’s instructions.  As the night wears on, the wind and waves intensify, and the disciples, still far from land, struggle against the turbulent water.  Meanwhile, Jesus, having spent the previous day teaching and feeding the multitudes, is up in the hills, seeking renewal in solitude and prayer.

Sometime before dawn, Jesus descends from the hills, and approaches the boat.  When the disciples see him walking on the water towards them, they’re terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they cry.  

“Immediately,” Matthew’s Gospel tells us, Jesus identifies himself in an effort to reassure his disciples:  “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  As far as we know, eleven of the disciples, frozen in fear, say nothing.  But Peter — impetuous, reckless, over-the-top Peter — proposes a bizarre test to prove the would-be ghost’s identity: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus says, “Come,” and out of the boat Peter goes.  

For a few luminous seconds Peter walks on the water towards Jesus.  But then, just as quickly, he realizes what he’s doing.  He notices the vicious wind, the rising waves, the dark water — and fear overwhelms him.  He begins to drown.  “Lord, save me!” he cries.  “Immediately,” Jesus catches Peter, and delivers him to safety. 

“You of little faith,” Jesus says to the breathless, sopping Peter, once the worst of the danger is over.  “Why did you doubt?”  We never hear Peter’s answer, if he manages to offer one.  But as soon as he and Jesus climb into the boat, the wind dies down, the sea grows still and calm, and the disciples recognize Jesus for who and what he is.  “Truly,” they say in awe, “you are the Son of God.”

On the face of it, this story might appear to reinforce a “Fear Not!” version of Christianity.  I’ve certainly heard many sermons that declare as much: “See?  When Peter exercises bold, fearless faith in Jesus, he does the impossible.  But as soon as Peter gives in to fear, he nearly drowns.”

I don’t like this reading.  In fact, I think it’s rather dangerous.  Nowhere in the Gospels are we called to prove our faith (or test God’s character) by taking pointless risks that threaten our lives.  Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus teach us that bad things happen to us because we’re too anxious and cowardly to earn God’s protective care.  Whether we’re talking about respecting the power of the sea during a vicious storm, or heeding expert medical advice during a global pandemic, the same caution applies.  Recklessness is not faith.  Foolishness is not courage.   

But then, what is the story teaching us? What are we supposed to take away from this astonishing encounter between Jesus and his friends?

Well, notice carefully the timeline of events as Matthew’s Gospel relates them.  When the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, they’re terrified.  They don’t recognize him; they think they’re seeing a ghost or a demon.  Naturally, they cry out in fear.  At that instant (“immediately”) Jesus offers them comfort and reassurance.  He makes every effort to prove to them exactly who he is. “Take courage!  It is I!  Don’t be afraid.”

We don’t know if the silent eleven take Jesus at his word.  But we know for sure that Peter does not.  Instead of taking his master at his word, Peter sets Jesus an identity test.  “Lord, if it’s you…”  

Do you hear the echoes of another famous identity test in Peter’s words?  The identity test Jesus faces in the wilderness, forty days after his baptism?  “If you are the Son of God… turn these stones into bread. Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Bow down and worship me. Don’t just say you are the messiah. Prove it.” 

These are the tempter’s words. They are words that wed Jesus’s identity to spectacle, to drama, to supernatural proof.

What’s at play here is not the morality or immorality of human fear.  What’s at play is how we respond to God’s presence when we’re afraid.  What we say and think and feel and do when the divine comes to us in guises we don’t recognize.  

The disciples are not wrong to be afraid.  Of course they’re afraid!  They’re afraid because they aren’t keen on drowning.  They’re afraid because gigantic waves in the middle of the night are scary.  They’re afraid because they lack the tools with which to process what they’re seeing; human beings did not evolve to walk on water.  

Needless to say, there are so many ways to drown in this turbulent world we live in. So many ways to find ourselves in over our heads, facing the battering winds and the terrifying waves. Fear comes when we face lethal viruses and failing economies, social isolation and political brokenness.  Fear comes when troubled marriages, sick children, unfriendly neighbors, grinding jobs, and financial uncertainty threaten our lives.  Fear comes when our own bodies betrays us into anxiety, panic, and depression. 

The issue is not fear; the issue is where fear leads.  Notice the first place that Peter’s fear leads him.  It leads him straight to suspicion and distrust.  Everything he has experienced of Jesus thus far, all of their beautiful history together, all of the solid reasons that Peter has to trust that Jesus will never lie to him, all of this somehow flies out the window. Instead of taking Jesus’s self-disclosure at face value, Peter loses faith and demands proof.  “If it’s you, enable me to do the impossible.  If it’s you, make magic happen so that I will be dazzled out of all of my doubts.  If it’s you, reorder reality and prove to me that you’re God.”

Needless to say, Peter’s actions in this story cut right through me; I recognize them so well.  Like Peter, I fail to recognize Jesus when the going gets rough.  When I face fearsome circumstances, my go-to position is not always trust; often it’s suspicion.  I forget that my relationship with God is multifaceted and complex, and I reduce it to something crassly transactional: “Prove yourself to me.  I’ll do A, but you had better do B, God. Otherwise I won’t believe in you”

Interestingly, Peter’s test fails.  Despite his initial boldness, he is not able to prove who Jesus is by walking on water.  Why?  Because Jesus doesn’t calm the sea for Peter’s convenience.  Even though Peter steps out of the boat, his circumstances remain wild and turbulent and dangerous.  If Peter thinks he can manipulate Jesus into making faith easy, he learns otherwise fast.  

To truly trust Jesus is to hold two pictures of God’s kingdom in creative tension.  Yes, sometimes Jesus demonstrates his power in miraculous ways.  At other times, we need to trust that his quiet, abiding presence in our wild, untamed lives is sufficient for the circumstances we face.  Sometimes, Jesus’ power is paradoxical; it comes to us in what looks like vulnerability, like weakness, like strangeness.  The wildness of the sea is no proof of God’s absence.

Once Peter is safe in the boat, Jesus asks him the question he can’t answer: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  I wonder if Jesus asks this question, not because Peter gives way to panic and nearly drowns, but because his doubt compels him to make a foolish request in the first place.  I wonder if Jesus’s question means something like this: “Peter, as soon as you saw me, I told you exactly who I was.  You heard my voice.  I spoke words of assurance and comfort to you.  Why didn’t you believe me?”

Maybe, when Jesus asks us why we doubt, what he’s really asking is: why do you doubt me?  Why do you not trust that I’ll be honest with you?  Why do you doubt that I am with you, for you, in you, and around you?  After all this time, why do you still feel a need to test me?

In my mind, the power of this story doesn’t lie in Peter’s faith, doubt, courage, or fear. Peter’s trajectory — fascinating though it is — is not the point of the reading.  Jesus’s trajectory is the point, because unlike Peter’s, it never changes.  It is constant, focused, and relentless.  From the very beginning of the story, Jesus moves towards his disciples.  He moves towards them when they’re struggling at sea.  He moves towards them when they decide he’s a menacing ghost.  He moves towards them when they’re terrified by his approach.  He moves towards them when they’re reckless enough to set him a dare.  He moves towards them when they begin to drown.  He moves towards them when they ask for help.  He moves towards them when they’re shivering and sorry for their foolishness.  He moves towards them when they realize who he is and what he is.  He moves towards them when they worship him.  

In other words, Jesus never stops moving towards the ones he loves.  He never stops crossing the menacing water to come to where we are.  Neither our fearfulness nor our faithlessness ever alters his steady approach.  Because we are the ones he’s bound for.  Ours is the boat he climbs into, and our flailing bodies are the ones he pulls out of the water.  It is for us that he calls out across the terrifying waves, again and again and again: “Take courage.  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”


  1. What an amazing word. What you will not know that some glitch in the system, half way through, took the sermon back to the start and I thought we must need to hear this!! After my fathers death I thought the minister should visit me – when he did come there were no words of comfort to even reference to his death and later I thought -“What was I fussing about?” But on the following Sunday I had to read that story in church and as I read it through I realised it was not “What the minister had said or not said – it was fact that “he came’ and in the joy of that moment I wrote the following poem – this is only the first verse but also since then there are times when I say “They have to know I came”

    In the midst of the storm,
    You came to me.
    When waves threatened to drown,
    You came to me.
    When the darkness was deepest,
    the wind the most contrary,
    and all was against me,
    You came to me.

  2. Thank you for this word. What you do not know that half way through the sermon due to a glitch in the system it returned to the tart and I thought we must really need to hear this word. I have re- listened to it and also read it Hopefully the message will sink deep into my soul. Many years ago I leant from this story how important was the act of simply “coming” into the situations is

  3. Vincent Michael Hodge

    Reverend Debie Thomas – thank you for giving us the right perspective with which to understand the Gospel text. Your insights have brought us closer to the Lord in front of and behind the text and in the text!!!. I took a lot out of your reference to the “if” question that peter put Jesus and its relationship to the questions of Satan in the Wilderness Temptation accounts earlier in the Gospel. Both Peter and Satan seem to be saying – ‘if you are who you say you are then……”. Both satan and petetr are not people who would be convinced by jesus works of power and authority. Satan nevr got to see them as jesus knew they were wasted on satanic faith and Peter , more than once, had a mixture of divine inspiration and complete failure to grasp the moment.
    This Gospel txt is repeated in other ways all through Matthew. May I therefore add some more thoughts that build directly on the lead that Debie has given us. Matthew also takes the word ‘worship” and uses it in several key places beyond this sea drama. The Magi come to worship the infant Jesus and when they told this to Herod, he and the entire city of Jerusalem with him were “troubled” ( “etarachthesen” in greek). This is the same word used of the disciple in the boat in our Gospel text). When Jesus enters Jerusalem to great acclaim on the ass, the whole city is again “stirred” ( this time the greek word describes an effect akin to an earthquake). And finally the last verses of Matthew describe the mountain in Galilee . Jesus is again worshipped, though some doubted!. So the Gospel today has those repeat images of Matthew – troubled/stirred; worship/ acclaim; faith/doubt.
    It seesm that all through Matthew, healings are worked with great authority. But Jesus has only one lasting demonstration of power that matters – his endurance with faith in God at the Passion – the total surrender of all power and authroity – even then after the resurrection there are still some who doubt while others worship. It seems that for Mark as for Matthew – the present, then or now, is alwasys about doubt and faith. Only that drama occurs against the background of love through suffering, not power and authority over nature.
    Thanks again Debie.

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