The lectionary committee has us working our way through the Gospel according to Matthew in this church year. This allows us to cover the major stories and teachings in the life of Jesus, and with the exceptions of Lent and Advent, the stories tend to go in order, from beginning to end.
If we were to plan the stories, however, according to the secular calendar, today’s scripture reading might be a better fit for Halloween. In these few short verses, we have a dark and stormy night, the prospect of drowning at sea, seeing ghosts on the sea, being terrified by the wind, and almost drowning again. This is a scary story, and we often miss that because we are distracted by Jesus walking on the water and Peter taking a few steps.
I think there is something much more important going on in this story, something that doesn’t have anything to do at all with whether we are called to walk on water or not. And while it can be inspiring to use “walking on water” as a metaphor for taking risks and trusting God, in that moment for Peter and the disciples the storm was real, the possibility of drowning was real, and their fear was real. This was not a time for metaphorical thinking to apply for future discipleship moments.
So, let’s look at the story again. The disciples were afraid, and they were afraid on so many different levels. They were afraid of being overwhelmed by the crowds, who always seemed so needy. They were afraid of losing their lives, as the enmity of the religious leaders and the Romans towards them seemed to increase daily. They were afraid of wasting their lives, having left behind their fishing businesses in order to follow Jesus who was always on the move. They were afraid of the storm swirling around them on the sea, which threatened to swamp and drown them in the dark of night. That is a lot to be afraid of, all at the same time, when you are a small band of disciples confronted from every angle.
We understand their fears. After all, we know a little about fear ourselves. When I was growing up, as a society we were afraid of communists, and nuclear war, and fighting in Vietnam. As a kid, I was afraid of my father when he was drunk. I was afraid of the occasional gun shots in my neighborhood at night that might randomly send a bullet my way while I was in bed. I was afraid of being embarrassed by hand-me-down clothes that were too big and the brown bag lunches that were often too small. That is a lot to be afraid of, all at the same time, when you are just a kid.
Some of you may remember being afraid of the hardships of the depression, and more recently, the recession. As a society, we have been afraid of child abduction, and domestic violence, and illegal drug use, and gangs roaming the streets, and immigrants taking jobs, and factory shutting down, and the NSA snooping on our phones and emails. We have been afraid of cultural shifts and alternative lifestyles that seem to marginalize the mainline and promote the sideline. That is a lot to be afraid of, all at the same time, when we have long believed that God has blessed America.
John Wesley knew a little about being afraid. In late 1735, he was on a ship making its way from England to the New World, to serve as pastor to the British colonists in Savannah, Georgia. When the weather turned stormy, the ship found itself in serious trouble. Wesley was afraid the ship would sink, and that he would drown.
But while Wesley worried in his fear, he noticed that the group of German Moravians, who were on their way to preach to the native people of Georgia, was not afraid. In fact, throughout the storm, they calmly sang hymns together. When the trip ended, Wesley asked the Moravian leader about his serenity, and the Moravian responded with a question: Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ? Wesley said he did, but later reflected, “I fear they were vain words.” It wasn’t until a few years later, after returning to England, that John would have a heart-warming experience that took away his fear.
It was May 24, 1738 during the reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans that John came to believe that his sins were forgiven and that he was saved from the law of sin and death. He was no longer afraid of dying, and he was no longer afraid of God, because he now knew that God loved even him, just as he was, through the grace of Jesus Christ. And the more he loved God, the less he was afraid – of working with the poor, the rich, the sick, the imprisoned, the entitled, and the dispossessed.
What John Wesley experienced is reflected in the first letter of John, which would undergird much of the theology that Wesley applied to our calling to be Methodists. We read in the 4th chapter, verses 18 and 19, these words that should be familiar to all of us in the Wesleyan tradition:
18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. The disciples had witnessed Jesus perfectly love everyone they encountered. They had seen Jesus do miraculous things. They have had all their needs met. They have had their faith stretched and enlarged in ways they never could have imagined before they met Jesus. And yet, despite all this evidence and assurance, they were still afraid.
We can see their fear in our reading. They were afraid when Jesus sets them out in a boat – late at night, during a storm, on their own, without Jesus being with them. And they were afraid when, as the waves and winds threatened to take them under, they saw Jesus come walking across the water to be with them, thinking he was a ghost. They are afraid when they were without Jesus. They are afraid when they were with Jesus.
They are afraid because they do not know what they want. Or, to put a finer point on it, they are afraid because they want contradictory things at the same time. They want to be safe and dry, but they don’t want to walk all the way around the Sea of Galilee. They want to rest and sleep, but it was taking a lot of work to keep the boat moving against the wind and waves. They want Jesus to have the time he needs for himself, but they want Jesus to take care of all their problems for them. It is a lack of commitment to any choice or course of action which has led them to their fear.
We are familiar with that kind of fear. We are afraid we will make the wrong choice, or say the wrong thing, or take the wrong path in life. We live in fear of the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” judgments on our choices, so we either don’t choose or we treat the choices we make as conditional – whether it is the choice of our job, or our spouse, or our relationship with God. Even when we don’t really have a choice, or can’t make another choice, we are afraid of the choices we miss out on.
The disciples were afraid. They are afraid they don’t know if they are going to drown in the storm. They are afraid they don’t know for sure what they want in life. They are afraid they don’t know for sure what they want from Jesus. They are afraid they don’t know for sure what is the right and true and best choice they can make because there are so many choices out there for them to choose from.
Their fear is why the disciples run hot and cold in their relationship with Jesus. Sometimes, they gladly follow Jesus, and sometimes they push hard against Jesus. They are afraid that maybe Jesus isn’t the messiah, maybe Jesus won’t make the Romans go away, maybe Jesus is wrong about the scribes and Pharisees. And the fear of the disciples is perfectly exemplified by Peter who, in his fear, isn’t even sure if he wants to be in or out of the boat.
Peter knows that the boat is the best way to get across the Sea of Galilee. Peter also knows that being with Jesus is the best place to be. But when he sees Jesus standing on stormy waves, the bottom of the boat starts to feel pretty solid. He wants to be in the boat; he wants to be with Jesus.
Peter then makes a fearful, conditional choice – If it is you, Jesus, command me to walk on the water to you. We know this is a conditional choice, first because he says “if;” and second, because when he gets out of the boat and sees the waves still crashing all around him, he starts to sink and cries for Jesus to save him by putting him back in the boat.
Peter’s wavering between being in or out of the boat was not a unique problem, of course. People today still waver on whether they want to be in or out of the boat. In the primitive church, the sanctuary was called the nave, or the boat. The waverers today dress their arguments up in different ways to try and hide their fearful wavering: they want to be spiritual but not religious; they love Jesus but not the church; they are stepping out in faith instead of sitting in pews. And that fearful approach works for a lot of people – until it doesn’t. And then it is back to looking for a church that feels solid to them – until it doesn’t.
Between their fear of the storm and Jesus calming the storm, the disciples learned something that we need to remember if we don’t want to be afraid of making the commitment to follow Jesus, if we don’t want to run hot and cold as disciples of Jesus Christ.
When the wind blew them off course, the disciples learned that fearparalyzes. There was nothing they could do to regain control of their course, and there is nothing we can do to regain our lost lives after the Fall from grace. When Jesus got into the boat with them, they learned that faithempowers. Jesus was the only one who could bring them – and us – safely to the other side.
When the waves washed over them, they learned that fear discourages. They could only see the darkness all around them. And when we look at the darkness of sin and evil, we might crawl into our safe churches, afraid that we can’t make a difference. When Jesus called to Peter, they learned that faith encourages. In Jesus they could see the light, and they were able to focus on what they can do with the help of Jesus.
When they thought they were going to die, they learned that fear makes us useless. They had tried rowing, they had tried trimming the sales, but nothing they did was of any use. When Jesus calmed the storm, they learned that faith strengthens us for God’s usefulness. It wasn’t magic that got them to the other side, but the assurance that Jesus was with them in their efforts.
When they couldn’t find their way to shore, they learned that fear feeds hopelessness. What’s the point of rowing if the waves are going to drown you anyway? What’s the point of doing good when there is so much evil in the world? When Jesus got them to shore, they learned that faith is full of hope. We don’t have to know what the future holds, as long as we remember who holds the future!
Living in fear is no way to go through life, but it is an extremely powerful way to manipulate people’s lives. That is why so many try to make us afraid – of immigrants, of financial collapse, of foreign powers, of changes at church, of political parties, of whatever “they” want you to be afraid of so that you will do what “they” want you to do.
That is why it takes perfect love to cast out fear – that is why it takes Jesus Christ to cast out the fear of sin and death. And that is how fear will be cast out of our world even now – when we can perfectly love God and our neighbors, instead of fearing the wrath of God and the danger of strangers.
There is a storm brewing all around us, and many people – even in the church – are living in fear, and acting on that fear. But the good news is that we do not have to live in fear because we can receive the perfect love of Jesus Christ. This is the love that casts out our fears, and warms our hearts, and which enables us to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is time for us to remember and affirm that Jesus is here with us in the boat, and that we can withstand the storms of life when they are raging all around us. In truth, as the vessels of Christ’s grace, we can bring calm to the storm, as long as we commit to staying together in the boat!