Lectionary Readings – ( Proper 14 )
In the movie Jaws, there’s a scene where Martin Brody, the sheriff in town is sitting on the back of the boat, throwing out chum into the water, hoping that they’ll be able to attract the shark that they are hunting. He’s absent-mindedly talking to the ship’s captain and the pilot as he’s doing this, and not thinking much of what’s going on.
Then he sees movement out of the corner of his eye, and turns around in time to see a giant shark’s head popping above the water and he jumps up, his eyes wide, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Then he slowly walks backwards into the cockpit of the boat, never taking his eyes off the water. As soon as he’s inside the room, he turns slightly to the captain and says:
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
As it turns out, Rob Scheider, the actor who portrayed the sheriff in this movie, had ad libbed that line, and every one of the cast and crew absolutely loved it. The phrase took on a life of its own, and soon they were using it whenever they were filming and something went wrong or when the unexpected and inexplicable happened, or when what they were facing seemed like an insurmountable task.
If ever there were people who might have wished they had a bigger boat, I would assume it was the disciples, who had been stuck in a boat in a raging storm for most of the night. The Gospel reading today tells us that it was the fourth watch, or between 3 and 6 am, so they had been in their boat for at least nine hours with the wind howling, the waves crashing around them, and the storm just raging on.
If they had had a bigger boat, it would have meant more displacement, and therefore more stability, and their boat would not have been thrown around by the wind so much. If they had had a bigger boat, then it would have meant higher bulkheads, and the waves may not have crashed over the sides and required them to bail as much water to keep themselves afloat.
If they had had a bigger boat, they would have felt safer, more comfortable, more protected. If they had had a bigger boat, they may not have been afraid at all.
And then, in the midst of this raging chaos, the huddled congregation of disciples sees a figure walking to them on the water, and they become scared, as it looks to them that it must be a ghost. But Jesus calls out to them and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
I can only imagine what is going through the disciples’ minds at this point. Here they are, in a boat, in the raging storm, looking across the water at Jesus who is telling them not to be afraid.
These disciples had been in a boat with Jesus before, maybe another boat, maybe even a bigger boat, and that time, they too were in a storm. The wind was howling and the waves were crashing all around them, and Jesus… well, Jesus was taking a nap in the front of the boat. The disciples wake him up, and Jesus gets up, commands the storm to be calm, and the wind dies down, the rain stops, and the water becomes as peaceful as a mirror.
They’ve seen this movie before, and so some of them are thinking, “Great! Jesus is here, he’ll calm the storm and all will be well.”
But Jesus doesn’t calm the storm.
He’s just standing there, telling them not to be afraid, in the midst of all this raging chaos.
His presence alone provides them with hope, and hope is its own form of comfort, but at this point, it is still just hope, hope that comes from knowing that he is somewhere close.
It seems Peter has been paying attention to what has been happening to them in the past few weeks and months that they have been spending time with Jesus.
They were in a similar situation to this, in a boat where Jesus calmed the storm, and they were sent out on their own to preach the good news to the lost tribes of Israel, where they themselves cast out demons and cured the sick, and they had only just recently helped Jesus to feed a crowd of people with nothing more than five loaves and two fish, and the disciples had learned the valuable lesson that miracles weren’t just things that happen to them, but things that happen through them.
Maybe Jesus was just standing there for a reason, just standing there and not calming the storm. Maybe there was a reason for this delay in God’s blessing and peace.
So Peter calls out and says, “Lord, if that is really you, if I’m not just talking to some vague notion of a memory of you, if I am not hallucinating after a hard night of being on a boat in the middle of a storm, if it is, in fact, you, then command me to come to you on the water.”
And Jesus simply says, “Come.”
And Peter steps out of the boat.
And then Peter experiences something profound. He takes a step, and he does not sink, and then he takes another step, and again, his foot does not sink, and he continues to move toward Jesus because Jesus has commanded him to get out of the boat. And then another step, and yet another…
But then it happens.
The Gospel says, “He noticed the strong wind.”
And all of a sudden Peter has this moment of revelation, where he says, “What am I doing? Why am I out of the boat? People can’t walk on water! How did I get here? This defies the laws of physics. Look at the wind, the crashing waves. I’m not as light as a feather…” And his feet begin to sink into the water, and then more of him starts to go down, and then the greater part of him is under water, and he cries out to Jesus, “Lord, Save Me.”
Jesus reaches out and pulls Peter up out of the water and says, “You of little faith, why do you doubt?”
Do you think that all the disciples in the boat were saying the same thing?
“Yeah, Peter, why did you doubt? C’mon, don’t you have any faith, Peter? I mean really, dude. Loser!”
No. The disciples in the boat are now looking at two people standing on the water. Jesus, their master, and Peter, their friend. Both are standing on the water, while the other disciples are still in the boat that is being rocked and thrown around by the waves.
Think on that for a moment. Peter had focused on all the chaos going on around him for a while, and lost sight of Jesus. This is why he started to sink into the sea. But now he is standing there, on the water, next to Jesus, looking back at a boatful of disciples.
And this whole time, the storm hasn’t stopped raging. The wind and the waves have been crashing down on that little boatful of disciples the entire time that Peter has been walking on water, sinking in water, and now, even standing on water next to Jesus.
In fact, the storm was still raging as the boatful of disciples stared at Peter and Jesus standing on the water.
Let me ask you, who do you think felt safer at that moment?
The disciples in the boat, or Peter, standing on the water, next to Jesus?
You see, even after having seen Peter walking on the water, sinking in the water, and finally seeing Peter stand on the water there with Jesus, they, the other disciples, are still in a boat in the raging storm, and probably still wishing that their little boat was three sizes bigger that day.
The storm continues to rage, and their boat continues to be tossed around — and the storm only stops after Jesus and Peter climb into the boat.
We like to focus on the miracle of walking on water here. It was a miracle. We can’t deny that. We also like to focus on Peter’s doubt, since Jesus himself called Peter out for that moment of fear and doubt when he “noticed the wind.”
But I think that the important part of the message today is that Peter called out to Jesus and said, “If it is you, Command me to come to you on the water.”
Peter didn’t say, “Command me to come to you so that I can walk on water.” It seems like Peter fully expected the water walking would happen, and that Peter’s real concern was to do as Jesus commanded, and to be with Jesus:
“Command me to come to you on the water.”
Peter was unconcerned about the miracle, and more concerned with doing what Jesus commanded, and with being near him, because he knew the safest place in any chaos is right beside Jesus.
This is why Peter, once he had confirmed it was really Jesus, stepped out of the boat and onto the water. He didn’t start doing jumping jacks, or running around frolicking on top of the waves. He didn’t turn around and look at the disciples in the boat and say, “Hey guys, check me out!” It was not about Peter doing a miracle. Instead, Peter made his way toward Jesus, because with Jesus is where he wanted to be, and doing as Jesus commanded, is what he wanted to be doing.
The obvious question that jumps out at us is are we the disciples in the boat, or are we Peter?
Do we want to be the disciples in the boat, or do we want to be like Peter?
And I’m not talking about walking on water, but I’m talking about the desire to be close to Jesus, even if it means that we may have to do something that takes us out of the relative safety of our own little boat in the storm, out of our own little comfort zone.
You see, there is a long history of using the imagery of boats to draw allusions to the church, and as we know, the church, and every other human organization, suffers from the malady of being made up of people just like me. And I would often rather remain happily in my comfort zone, instead of asking what God might want me to do – especially when it might involve something uncomfortable.
And so, I can look at those uncomfortable things, say, “You know what, I think I need a bigger boat. If I had a bigger boat, this wind and these waves might not upset me so much. If I had a bigger boat I could deal with this storm myself. If I had a bigger boat, I might not even be tempted to step into the water to be near Jesus. That’s a crazy idea anyway.”
The fact that this miracle was something as profound as walking on water often makes us think that asking God to command us to do something means that we will have to do something huge, something enormous, something so outside the normal that we shy away not only from doing it, but also from asking it.
God might not be commanding me to leave my home and country and travel halfway across the world to live in a remote village in the middle of nowhere. God might simply be asking me to talk to my neighbor and invite them to church, a task I find uncomfortable. God might simply be asking me to get up early every morning and pray for that same neighbor, a task that reduces my sleep by 30 minutes, and which might make me cranky. God might simply be asking me to give of my time, my energy, my expertise or money – even if I feel like I don’t have much of any of them right now. God may be asking these things of me as just a token of my willingness to partner with His work in this world.
It may be just a minor change that affects my own comfort, but as we already know, God can multiply the little we have into an abundance. And my little sacrifice can have huge ramifications in God’s work in this world.
Only you can know what your own comfort zone – your boat – might be, and only you can know what the corresponding step outside that boat would look like.
But the important thing is, are you willing to say, “If it is you,Lord, command me to come to you.”?
Now, I’m not telling you that you have to make this request of God.
Please, don’t feel like I’m rocking the boat and trying to pressure you into doing something you are not comfortable with.
Because, you see, at the end of the day, just like at the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus will get into the boat with you. You may never have stepped out of the boat, but that doesn’t mean that you will miss out on the blessings or peace of God.
You will never miss out on the love and peace of God by staying in the boat.
But you might miss out on the excitement of standing on the water next to Jesus, you might miss out on the excitement of starting to drown but being rescued by your Savior, you might miss out on the excitement of learning new things and growing in your faith by taking a risk to step a little closer to Jesus.
I, personally, prefer to do as Peter did, and ask, “Lord, if this is you, command me to come to you.”
And then to get out of the boat.[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on August 9, 2020.]
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.