Homily preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 7, 2011
Today’s Gospel story is a continuation of last week’s account of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a little bread and a couple of fish. The disciples had shared the work of feeding the hungry people – first by offering what they had, then by distributing it and then cleaning up the mess. When all the work was done, Jesus sent them away – to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds and resumed his own time of retreat.
Out on the lake – a lake that is still known for the wild storms that whip up unexpectedly – the disciples found themselves in the dark, their boat beginning to rock and list as a storm breaks. Now these twelve men were used to the sea; many had made their living as fishermen. This night, they had to work their oars, bail the hull, and battle the water they knew could take their lives – the very same water that provided their livelihood.
It is interesting to note that they are not described as fearful at this point in the story. They were not frightened until they saw something they didn’t recognize, something they didn’t expect, something they had never seen before. That’s when fear rose in their bellies and made its way to the back of their throats.
And then they heard a voice: “Take heart! It is I! Do not fear!”
Peter responds, “IF it is you, let me come to you on the water.”
“Come,” Jesus says.
Peter swings his legs over the gunwale and heads out – on top of the water – toward Jesus. But then the wind and the waves become too much to ignore – fear gets the better hand and down he goes. “Lord, save me!” he cries. With tender strength, Jesus reaches down to pull Peter from death and says in what I imagine a quiet voice, “Oh, Peter – why did you doubt?”
One would have expected a different question, given the verses that precede. Remember – it was fear that gripped Peter and the rest of the men when they saw Jesus. One may have rightly expected Jesus to ask, “Peter, why did you fear?” But Jesus didn’t chide Peter because he was afraid. That emotion – fear – wasn’t the issue. Jesus was concerned about doubt.
The Greek word used here, translated as doubt, is a word that is only used twice in the entire Bible – both times in Matthew’s gospel. It is a word that refers to doubt associated with the identity of Jesus. It is a more rational, logical doubt about the very person of Jesus. Jesus was really asking, “Why do you doubt who I am?” So the question arises: who does Jesus say he is?
Let’s go back in the story. We get our first clue when Jesus called out to his friends from the water. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The “It is I” part of this greeting is the same phrase that Yahweh used to identify himself in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I AM.” So then a better translation of Jesus’ greeting from the water would be: “Have courage. I am. Fear not.” That’s how Jesus identifies himself: “I AM.” This is the very same way Yahweh identified himself. It was Yahweh, the Creator, who brought order out of chaos in the Hebrew scriptures, just as Jesus brought order and calm to the chaos of the raging sea.
We see then, that Jesus is intimately identifying himself with the God of Israel in both his words and in his actions. Jesus did what God the Creator did and speaks with the Creator’s voice. And the disciples, Jesus’ very best friends? They doubt. They doubt his true identity.
But that’s not the end of the story. It continues: “When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.”
The combination of doubt and worship occurs pretty frequently in the scriptures and in the Church today. It seems pretty clear that doubt isn’t the preferred basis for our relationship with and worship of God, but it need not derail it either.
The worship of God is what this place is about – even in the presence of doubt. It is our own little boat – often buffeted and beaten by waves and wind that cause fear. There are those who would tell us the boat is too small. Others declare that the boat is too big – taking on too many people. When the storms break, there are those who would rather split the boat down the middle than pull up the anchor of tradition or habit, work the oars together and let the boat be a boat – a vehicle capable of going places – a means of moving toward the Kingdom of God even in the midst of rough and threatening seas.
Today, some of us, like Peter, may hear the voice of Jesus say, “Come.” We may need to throw OUR legs over the bow and take steps we never imagined possible – steps that involve risk. Others of us may need to ask Jesus to come back into the boat of our lives again – asking him to calm the chaos of fear, anxiety, confusion or doubt that keeps us from moving forward. In either case – whether we are hearing an invitation from God to come, or if we are extending that same invitation to God, let’s remember Jesus’ greeting: “Have courage. I am. Fear not.” Amen.