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19th sunday in ordinary time

Matthew 14:22-33

The Steps of Faith


On one of his visits to the Holy Land, Mark Twain was accompanied by his wife. They were in Capernaum, the town where Jesus began his public ministry and spent much of his time. It is located on the Sea of Galilee. One moonlit night they were walking along the Sea of Galilee and decided to take a romantic boat ride. Twain asked a man sitting in a boat how much he would charge to take them out on the water. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes and a large white Texan hat. Assuming him to be a wealthy American the owner of the boat told the author, "$25,00." Mark Twain thanked him and walked away. After a few steps Twain said to his wife, "Now I know why Jesus walked!"1 Mark Twain discovered a rather humorous explanation to the miracle of Jesus walking on water. I hope that this morning we glean a different understanding of the miracle.


The story comes after the dramatic feeding of the five thousand. The people have eaten and the extra loves of bread and fish have been collected and counted. The gospel of Matthew records that Jesus "immediately made the disciples" get into the boat. Matthew carefully selects two words to convey the tone of Jesus' mood, 'immediate' and 'made'. Both words are seldom used in this gospel. Immediate is a term you expect in the gospel of Mark. The nephew of Peter is a man in a hurry. Mark has the story rush from one event to another but Matthew is an accountant. He is slow and deliberate. He is never in a hurry. He describes a Savior who is seldom rushed or pressed to respond even to a crisis. But today is different. Jesus senses an urgency to the hour. He cannot delay. The disciples must be separated from the crowd. The decision was not made by a committee. Jesus did not give the disciples time to discuss the matter. Jesus did not ask for input from the twelve. Using his persuasive powers, he forces the disciples to get into the boat and set out onto the lake.

If we only had Matthew's account of the story, we would be left to wonder why Jesus acted with such haste. The tax collector does not explain Jesus' behavior. The apostle John records that a rumor was circulating in the crowd to make him king. Jesus did not want to jeopardize his mission by a political uprising so he sent his lieutenants off, dismissed his all-too-eager voluntary would-be recruits and sought the safety of solitude on the mountain. Once again Jesus demonstrates the importance of tending the inner life.

He is still recovering from the news of his cousin's execution. He is tired from ministering to the crowd, healing the sick and teaching. Now he must resist once again the temptation for power and authority. Matthew does not record Satan by name but we cannot help wondering if the tempter is not working among the crowd. When our Savior was alone in the dessert, Matthew records, Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor. For a moment, the crowd offered our Lord the temptation of being King. Jesus understands that the only way to resist this temptation is to walk away. By doing so, Jesus shows us that the first step of faith requires the resistance to temptation.

Until the summer began I had been working on the nautilus machines at the Y about three times a week. They have done a marvelous job helping me to rebuild my strength. They have also served for me as a symbol of faith development My faith like muscles grows over time only as it is exercised. Also, my faith like my body must be protected from certain things. If I abuse my body, through the lack of sleep or a poor diet, I will nullify the time I spend on the nautilus, so also it is with our faith. We must also separate ourselves from attitudes and behavior that we know will seriously harm our spiritual life. Jesus showed us that this requires a conscious decision to separate ourselves sometimes from the people we love the most. Temptation can come through many different sources. Satan is quite creative and uses any available opportunity. The cause, the request, the activity may appear quite innocent, or well meaning. We may have the right to respond to it but in reality we are merely giving in to the temptation. Faith is demonstrated by resisting temptation


Early in church history preachers have used the boat to represent the church that is sent out on the unpredictable sea. Our journey to the other side "is no lazy summer sail"2 The journey may begin on a calm sea but the winds of resistance will soon come up to stymie the progress of any watercraft. It serves to remind us that whenever we begin a new venture or project, we will be met by resistance and opposition. Only those who are willing to toil long and hard hours will reach their destiny.

During the summer of 1785, a frivolous young man decided to take a Contentiental tour with a few good friends. He had spent the past four years serving in Parliament and enjoying the social scene of London "where unchecked passions and desires ran their course."3 Relying on the prosperity of his parents and his innate oratory abilities, this young man was enjoying a blossoming political career. But he began the tour with a growing restlessness. A conviction was stirring in his soul. He had a growing distaste for the corruption and the indecency of politics. He spent most of this travels studying the NT with a friend. After the tour was over he continued to struggled with his new convictions. Should he stay in politics or should he pursue another career. Two years later on a foggy Sunday morning in 1787, the young politician asked himself, had God saved him only to rescue his soul from hell, or had God called him for a higher purpose? William Wilberforce then sat down and wrote in his journal, "Almighty God has set before me two great objectives. The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners."

For the next twenty years Wilberforce worked long and hard to accomplish those two great objectives. For many years, he had nothing to show for his work, except the scorn and ridicule of his fellow members of Parliament. Then a small victory came, in 1807 Parliament outlawed the slave trade in the British Isles. Slaves could still be owned by the gentry but they could no longer be bought and sold. Wilberforce continued to labor. They head wind blew hard against him and like the disciples, there were times when he wanted to give up but he continued for another 26 years. Then on July 26, 1833, with Wilberforce near death, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passed its second reading in the House of Commons sounding the final deathblow for slavery. Before lapsing into a coma Wilberforce whispered, "Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England was willing to give twenty million sterling for the abolition of slavery."4

Former Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, "Whatever you do, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out."5 William Wilberforce committed himself to such course. He pulled the oars against the wind for 56 years, at times standing as the lone voice against the social evil. He gave his entire life so that others might know the joy of freedom. Eventually it also cost him his fortune. Wilberforce spent his entire inheritance in the struggle. He died in poverty but he died on the other shore.

In an age of quick fix and modern convenience, this is not an attractive message. We want instant results. We would prefer to see ourselves with Peter on the edge of the gunwale ready to step out. We do not want to do the grunt work that is tedious and boring. We want a faith of action, a faith of the spectacular, a faith of the miraculous. I wonder one reason why we seldom see miracles in our lives or the ministry of the church is because we are seldom willing to row long enough for God to act. Matthew tells us that Jesus did not go to the disciples until it was early in the morning. He waited the whole night. Most scholars assume that Jesus sat on a hill overlooking the lake. With a full moon in the night sky, he would have been to see a small boat on the lake struggling against the wind. It may seem that we are out on the lake alone but God is waiting and watching. He is expecting us to be persistent until he comes. The second step of faith requires laboring against the wind.


As the dawn approaches, Jesus goes out to the disciples walking on the water. With a loud resonating voice so he could be heard over the wind, Jesus speaks to the men with God-like overtones. His words echo those that Moses heard in the desert. "It is I" or literally, "I am." The reaction of the disciples is not unusual given the circumstances. They were tired from the lack of sleep and a night of hard labor. They had not eaten for several hours. They were quite a distance from shore. With the strong wind, they had not expected to see anyone else on the water even in a boat much less walking on the water. They were understandably mystified and frighten at the sight of a man standing on the water. They mistook him for a ghost but he quickly reassured them with the most frequent command in the Bible, "Fear not!"

How much like the disciples, are we? We labor for what seems like an eternity but when God finally comes to us, we fail to recognize him. He may not walk on water but his appearances are no less startling and mystifying. Circumstances fall into place, a person comes by for a visit or offers to help us during a time of crisis. The third step of step is seeing God when he comes.


Peter responds to the words of our Lord by asking permission to come to Jesus. I have often wondered about Peter's reasons for asking to walk on the water. Was he testing Jesus? Did he want to verify if this was really his Lord? Was he trying to prove the miracle to himself? Was he driven by his ego, to be the only disciple who would walk on the water?

Each week I meet with a group of ministers to discuss the lectionary passages and prepare for the sermon. We explored several possible reasons for Peter's request. At the end of our discussion, we admitted that Peter was a lot like us. He probably had many different reasons for walking on the water. Some were probably quite noble and some were quite ego centered but the point of the story is neither why did Peter ask nor that he asked. The point of the story is that Peter took the step of faith. The four step of faith requires a step of faith.

At some point in our lives, we have to leave behind the safety and security of the boat. We have to step into the realm of the unknown. We must be willing to trust our life to our Lord's care. That is a difficult step. We spend our lives building a security net around us. We work hard to insulate ourselves from the danger of failure, the threat of the unknown and the terror of uncertainty. We get pretty comfortable in our boats. They are not fancy but we have everything we need. Then God asks us to step out of our boat. To go and talk to a friend about their faith; to volunteer for a committee that requires us to do something we have never done before; to serve as a deacon or elder. We do not feel prepared. We are not good public speakers. We do not have any teaching gifts. We do not know what to say to someone who is dying. What water is God expecting you to walk on?

Peter may not have leaped over the gunwale but he took a certain step nonetheless and in that step, he captured of the essence of faith. It is more than that the pronouncement of theological doctrine in a creed or confession. Faith is belief expressed in action. It is trust declared in danger. It is courage revealed in the presence of the unknown. Peter, for one brief moment, expressed his belief, declared his trust and revealed his courage and he walked on the water. The fourth step of faith requires a step of faith.


After a few steps, Peter catches the wind in his face. Steindl-Rast writes, " is one thing to experience that faith in a flash of enthusiasm, and quite a different thing to keep our courage seaworthy amidst the ups and downs of daily living."6 Peter's faith is now mixed with fear and "wondering whether Jesus or the raging wind will finally prevail, he begins to sink beneath the waters." Even in his faltering faith, Peter teaches us a valuable lesson-Jesus continues to save. He pulls Peter to safety and the two join the others in the boat. The disciples are startled by the events and in that moment they "discover that they are not at the mercy of the angry sea; they are in the mercy of their compassionate Savior."7 Matthew tells us, "those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'"


Peter learned a difficult and pain lesson of faith. Faith requires risk and risk exposes us. It strips us of all the artificial camouflage behind which we try to hide. We are forced to stand with Peter and the other disciples to hear Jesus words, "You of little faith, why did your doubt?"

And so like the disciples we must learn to move from doubt to faith by

    Resisting the temptations of the world

      Laboring against the wind

        Seeing God when he comes

          Taking the step of faith

1Glendon E. Harris, Pulpit Resource,  "Hard to Believe," Vol. 18, No. 3, p. 24.

2Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, (Louisville: John Knox Westminster Press, 1997), p. 166

3Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 99.

4Colson, op cit., 95-108.

5Glendon Harris, Pulpit Resource, "Keep It Alive," Vol. 5, No. 4, p. 10

6David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), p. 96

7Long, 1997, p. 166

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