The setting for our New Testament reading today involves people in a boat, people out of the boat, and the sea. This is a rich story offering readers from ancient to modern times several important teachings. Today, I would like us to explore the response by the disciples to the appearance of Jesus walking on the water next to them. And in our exploration, see just one of the messages this passage offers to us. For in our exploration, we will find eleven disciples who faithfully stayed in the boat. And one disciple who in faith ventured out of the boat. If you were in that same boat, would you stay or would you step out?
Before you answer that question, let’s take a look at the passage from God’s Word, the Gospel of Matthew that describes the situation. Please turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 22.
Today’s words come from a man named Matthew. Jesus called Matthew to leave his work as a tax collector and follow Jesus. Most, if not all the other eleven disciples, were fishermen. The 12 disciples of Jesus had just watched Jesus pray over five loaves of bread and two small fish and then offered it as meal for 5,000 people. Everyone ate until they were full. For perspective, for 5,000 people to eat and be satisfied would need about 1½ trailer trucks full of food. And even at that, when everyone finished eating the food offered by Jesus and there was still 12 baskets of leftover piece of bread and fish. It was a stunning miracle that no doubt left the people and disciples taken back and just in wonder. Who was this person who could pray over a few ounces of bread and fish and God would multiply it into tons of food? Certainly, there would be a desire to ask Jesus questions about this miracle and to celebrate in it. Yet when we come to our passage from Matthew, we read in verse 22, “Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he [Jesus] dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” As soon as they finished the meal, Jesus set out to get people on the move. He sent the disciples in the boat to set a course for the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They were moving across the water alone with their thoughts about the what had happened and what it meant to their lives. Jesus sent the crowd to walk home to think about Jesus’ teachings and the meal presented to them. Jesus himself was on the move up the mountain to pray to God. It was a big day. Jesus showed his disciples something about himself. He was not simply a man able to heal people; he was a man who through faith changed the lives of thousands of people.
Faith is a funny thing though. Faith for it to have meaning in our life must tested otherwise it may not be faith at all. Jesus disciple’, Paul, said, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Faith requires action and movement forward, walking of you will, even when we cannot see the complete path or the finish line. James, Jesus’ half-brother, said, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Faith to be faith must combine with movement, risk, and trust. Jesus healed many people but in each case, the person asked for Jesus to help them believing that he could do so. In the asking, these people received healing. The Bible records many times Jesus saying to these people seeking to be healed, “Your faith has healed you.”
Stepping away from miraculous healings for a moment, in a small way, we benefit today from the faith of other people from the past. Those who first formed this church and built this building all those years ago could not foresee who would sit here now or the missions this church would be called to serve. However, in exercising their faith, the founders responded to God’s call and gave their time, treasure, talent, and tears to plant this church. Faith needs action.
As we continue in the today’s passage, we see that Jesus was on the mountain and the disciples were in the boat. This was the first time the disciples were separate from Jesus. The disciples were going it alone. Let’s see how it was going for them. “When evening came, he [Jesus] was there [on the mountain] alone, 24 but by this time the boat [with the disciples], battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” The disciples, experienced fishermen found themselves on the sea at night with the wind working against them. They seem to be as far from their starting point as they are from the landing point. It is a physically challenging time.
Matthew, onboard the boat, said, “And early in the morning [other text suggests it may have been between 3:00 am and 6:00 am] he [Jesus] came walking toward them [the disciples] on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.” The disciples were tired. It had been a long night against the winds and waves. Now someone saw Jesus walking on the water and concluded it is a ghost, a spirit sent against them. Fear overcame one disciple and then many. Fear is contagious and fear replaces our sense of faith.
Matthew continued, “27 But immediately Jesus [sensed their fear] spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’” Jesus was saying, “Do not replace your faith with fear; I am with you.” Now came the response from the boat, “Peter answered him [Jesus], ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” We are now seeing action and movement by one of the disciples. Peter, an experienced fisherman and boat owner, stepped out of comfort of his setting to walk by faith in response to Jesus. Each step Peter took the closer he came to Jesus. Peter had been prepared in faith to act, he had purpose, and his perspective on the scene was simple; follow Jesus’ call and trust. This was a marvelous scene of faith overcoming fear. The other eleven disciples stayed in the boat, perhaps frozen by a mixture of fear and anticipation.
Matthew, from his position in the boat, wrote, “30 But when he [Peter] noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith [You, the only one who showed a little faith], why did you doubt?’” Peter was doing so well. He stepped out of the boat, walked on the water, making his way toward Jesus, then Peter looked away. Peter’s perspective changed; following Jesus’ call was no longer his perspective. Peter switched his perspective to the wind and waves. Peter’s purpose no longer was to reach Jesus but was to avoid the winds and waves. Peter’s faith was replaced by fear and he began to sink in the water.
Jesus rescued Peter and together they got boat. The test of faith; a faith shown by action was over. “32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him [Jesus], saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
I like this scene of people in a boat moving along a sea and the conflict presented when one is invited to leave. It is a great story of faith in action and the setting on the sea brings me back home to my childhood living along the ocean. When I read this passage, I was reminded of a time in high school when my friend, John, and I acted on the sea without preparation, without purpose, and without perspective. One sunny day, John and I took his father’s brand-new $22,000 boat for what started out as a cruise around the harbor of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Before too long, John was piloting the boat out of the harbor and into Cape Cod Bay. We were heading south going parallel to the sand dunes and beach when John turned and headed directly for the beach. He asked me to go to the bow of the boat and when the water got very shallow John turned off the boat’s engine and told me to jump out of the boat to soften the landing on the beach. Not being prepared to follow John’s direction, unsure of our purpose, and focused at first on not getting my pants and sneakers wet I hesitated for just a few moments. When stopped hesitating and I jumped in the water, it was too late. We had come to rest on the sand of the beach. Normally, that would not have been a problem except we neglected to realize the wind was pushing our boat onto the beach and the tide was going out away from the beach. This meant we could not move the boat and the water was disappearing from under the boat. Soon we were separated from the sea and surrounded by sand. This was before the days of cell phones. So I walked the three miles to my house to let everyone know we were alright and to call John’s father to tell him we had beached his brand-new boat. I found someone to drive John’s father back to the boat where he and John waited some 12 hours for the tide to come back and lift the boat from the sand. Whatever mission John and I were on that day failed because we acted without preparation, without purpose, and without a proper perspective. Faith without action is dead. Action without preparation, purpose, and perspective is not faith either; it is reckless.
So, as I thought about this scene from Scripture and my childhood memories, I came to the conclusion that there are only two spiritual boats that people will find themselves in today. The first boat is a popular one and is very crowded. The first boat is for those who are on a spiritual journey going somewhere, anywhere, or nowhere. People in this boat seek the wisdom, pleasures, and comforts of this world. They are spiritually unprepared for anything. They are not sure of their purpose, and their perspective, the focus of their efforts, is unclear. The pilot of this boat has a history of running the boat onto the sand. The people in this boat are nice enough and occasionally willing to act to the benefit of others; just sometimes they act too late to do any good or to keep the boat from hitting the beach. The people on this boat either do not believe in faith or are unsure what faith means. I would suggest to you that if you find yourself in this boat, it is time to move and join the passengers in the second boat.
The second boat is for people on a spiritual journey with Jesus Christ. They are on a journey toward God Himself. There is enough room on this boat for everyone. It is not always easy sailing on this boat. Sometimes the winds and waves make sailing difficult. But Jesus has a message for those in this boat. He says, “Take heart and do not fear.” Jesus also invites those in this boat to become more like Him. Through our faith, Jesus has prepared those in this second boat for great things. He says to each passenger, “Come. Step out of the comfort of that boat and walk beside me, even in the storm. Step out of the security offered by others and put your faith into practice. Keep your eyes focused on me.” To step out involves movement, risk, and trust and the reward of becoming more like Christ.
For those who are in the second boat, we need to remember that we are no better than the people in the first boat. We are just better off. We have accepted Jesus as the Son of God and that means we have a purpose and a destination for our lives. It does mean though that we are called to act in that faith and when called, to act and get out of the comfort of the boat. It means that we have to risk our time, talent, treasure, and tears for other people. I believe that everyone here today is being called to move, to act and to minister in Jesus’ name. The range of actions is varied and requires us to seek the benefit of others. Three years ago, I felt Jesus call me to begin counseling those who are experiencing the loss of loved ones. This meant I had to step out of the comfort of the boat and follow Jesus into the storm of other people’s lives. I know that is not the last call I will hear. Some here today have felt similar calls to step out of the boat and minister in Jesus name in public and private ways. Perhaps today, Jesus is calling you to do something outside the comfort of the boat. Maybe, He is calling you to speak to a family member about changing boats and joining you in ship of faith. That can be a fearful thing to do; but know that Jesus is with you. Maybe, Jesus is calling you to help someone on the street where you live overcome a difficulty in their life. Please don’t fear. Don’t resist his call. Move as Jesus is moving you. Maybe, Jesus is moving you to pick up the phone and call people in the congregation to encourage them in their faith. It may only be that you can call one person per week and spend 10 minutes with them. I can assure you if Jesus is moving you in this way, you will be an enormous blessing to others. You and I have a purpose and destination. Whatever Jesus is placing on you to do; do it. Act in faith.
This week, let’s listen to what Jesus is saying to each of us, “Take heart, it is I. Do not fear. Now come, step out of the boat and follow me.” Amen and Amen.