Sinking Beneath the Waves

A Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. Matthew 14:22-33

Grace to you and peace from God our Heaven Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who walks across the face of the deep. Amen.

Preachers and the folks who write Bible study curriculum have gotten a lot of mileage out of this story, reading it in completely opposite ways.

Some have criticized Simon Peter for his doubt, spending page after page tsk-tsking Peter for his fear, for his lack of trust. Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” and authors, safe in their armchairs far away from the crashing waves, have taken this as an opportunity to rake poor Simon over the coals. He’s supposed to be the rock upon which the Church is built, but he sinks like a stone.

And there’s some truth to this: Peter has been travelling with Jesus a while now. He’s seen the Lord heal the sick, including his own mother-in-law. He’s watched Christ calm the storm and raise Jairus’ daughter from the sleep of death to the wakefulness of life. He’s just, literally hours before, seen Jesus feed thousands of people, and now Christ is standing in front of him, walking across the waves as though they were dry land. Peter even gets a few steps in himself. What possible reason could he have to doubt? And yet the waves and the wind frighten him, and down he goes.

Others have praised Peter’s actions. As the title of one book puts it, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. In this interpretation, Peter is the hero of his own story, boldly hopping into the waves to stroll across the face of the deep.

And yeah, Simon alone is willing to get out of the boat. Maybe witnessing all those miracles actually has stirred up some belief in him. And hey, he does get in a few steps. You go, Simon Peter! That’s more than any of us can say, more than Andrew or James or John can say.

That’s Simon Peter in a nutshell: enough faith to get out of the boat, but not enough faith to make it very far.

We’ll see this play out again in just a few chapters (over two weeks at the end of August) as Simon Peter makes his confession of faith in Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” but then immediately follows it up by rebuking his Lord for announcing that the Son of Man will suffer death. Simon will go from earning his nickname, Peter, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” to being called Satan and “a stumbling block” whose mind is set “not on divine things but on human things.”

But here’s the problem with both interpretations: not that they ignore the other side of the story but that they place Simon Peter at the center of it. That it’s Peter’s lack of faith or his courage to get out of the boat.

Because when Simon Peter begins to sink, he doesn’t try to swim back to the boat. It is not his brother Andrew or his friends in the boat he cries out to. It’s Jesus. And it is the Christ who reaches out and pulls him to safety.

Scripture isn’t the story of Peter. Or the Disciples. Or David or Moses or Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or of any other mere mortal.

It’s the story of the Lord our God, who is mighty to save.

In following the Lord, we will be sent out into dangerous places where the winds howl and the waves crash around us. And maybe we’ll manage to get a few steps in. But then, like Peter before us, we will begin to sink.

And then, like Peter, we will have only one option: to cry out, “Lord, save us.”

But we do so in the sure confidence that Christ is near at hand, ready to reach out and pulls us out of the watery deep, to deliver us from crashing waves and the terror of death.


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