Last week we saw in the Gospel reading that Jesus Christ fed 5,000 men, plus women and children, in a desolate place in the wilderness of Galilee – the Lord God came in the flesh to stand upon the earth that He had created to provide for His people through His creation. This Yahweh – “He who is and who causes to be” – fed His people in the wilderness of Sinai with the manna from heaven, fed His people in the desolate place of Galilee with the bread from Jesus, and continues to feed His people – you – still today with the true bread from heaven, which is Jesus Christ, in the Sacrament of the Altar. This Lord God, this Yahweh – the One who is – is Lord over Creation and He has come in the flesh to be with you.
And this week, we again see Jesus exercising His Lordship over creation, for He is the one who is and who causes to be; He is the same God who has always been, and will always be with His people. But, in the Gospel this week, we see something that appears strange at first. For after Jesus miraculously feeds the crowd, he sends the twelve disciples off in a boat across the Sea of Galilee towards the other side of the lake, but he stays behind on the mountain to pray. So now, God is on the mountain top, just as He was on the mountain top at Mount Sinai.
But, the disciples are in the boat, crossing over the sea, being tossed and turned by the waves and the wind. And they are separated all night, God on the mountain and the disciples on the boat – Jesus praying in peace, and the disciples being tossed by the wind and waves. But, at the fourth watch of the night, which was the last part of night just before the sun was to rise, Jesus went down from the mountain and walked across the waters of the sea towards the boat containing his disciples.
These twelve disciples were the core of Jesus’ followers – they were his outreach committee. They hadn’t volunteered for this; Jesus had called them as his disciples, Jesus was the one who collected them as his own. And so despite their various, conflicting backgrounds, they were one with each other through Jesus Christ, because he was the one who unified them – it is always God who creates unity among His people. So, in this group of twelve there was Simon the Zealot on the one hand, a man who was associated with those who hated the Romans and wanted to get rid of them; and on the other hand you had Matthew, a tax collector, collecting taxes from the Jews on behalf of the Romans. But, in Christ, they were one in the Church.
And so, Christ puts them together in the boat. The disciples who were gathered together by Christ himself are placed together in this boat. The boat, in a sense then, is the Church. For if you were on the shore of Galilee at this time and wanted to know where the Church was, you’d look in the boat. For that was where Christ put his disciples who were united in the promise of salvation fulfilled in him – Christ put them in the boat, and so they were all in it together because of him and despite their differences.
But, this boat was not yet the true Church, because it lacked Christ. Christ was still on the shore; the Lord over creation was up on the mountain top in the peace of prayer. But, the boat was tossed by the wind and waves on the sea. The Church without Christ could not find its way to the other shore. It was alone in the darkness drifting on the sea, battered by the storms. And we see the same thing today when the Church abandons Christ; it drifts and is carried along by human whims and reason and forgets the fact that it is to be centered around God’s promises fulfilled in Christ, for Christ is Lord over the Church and over creation.
So, the disciples are in the boat, but then what happens? God comes down from the mountain to be with His people. He crosses over the water towards the boat. And the disciples see him and think he’s a ghost and they are very afraid. They didn’t expect this to happen. But, Jesus tells them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Remember in the book of Exodus where God tells Moses that His name is “I am” (Exodus 3). The Hebrew word “Yahweh” is a reflection of God’s name where the Israelites call Him “He who is” or “He who causes to be.” Well, here, in the original Greek in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t just say “it is I;” he says, “I am.” He’s essentially telling the disciples to “take heart” because he – Jesus – is the “I am,” or “He who is and causes to be.” Jesus is Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty. Jesus is Lord over creation, able to use and control creation to do his will. The disciples were afraid when they saw what they thought was a ghost, but they would more properly be afraid now that they realize they are encountering the Almighty Lord God. For here he is, a few feet away from the boat, standing on the surface of the waves, with the disciples watching him and probably wondering what will happen next.
What will happen next? With God so close, what will the disciples do? What should we do?
Well, in the text, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus had told them that he is “I am,” and Peter’s response is to seek confirmation that Jesus is the “I am,” the Lord. So, Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Jesus. But, then the fact that he was on the water with the wind buffeting him must have gotten the better of him, and he feared and began to sink. And he cried out to the Lord, “save me.” And immediately, Jesus took hold of Peter and said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And he brought Peter into the boat and the wind stopped, and the disciples worshipped him as the Lord, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” They now knew who it was that they were following – for they are with the Lord God and he is with them in the boat, bringing his peace with him.
There’s a book that came out a few years ago called “If You Want to Walk on Water: You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.” This book is actually about the Gospel reading we are looking at today. The focus of the book is on Peter getting out of the boat and walking to Jesus, and the book urges us to follow in Peter’s path in our “spiritual walk” towards God.
I looked up the book description on Amazon.com to see what it said, and I found it very interesting. Amazon’s summary says:
“You’re One Step Away from the Adventure of Your Life. Deep within you lies the same faith and longing that sent Peter walking across the wind-swept Sea of Galilee toward Jesus. In what ways is the Lord telling you, as he did Peter, ‘Come’? John Ortberg [the author of the book] invites you to consider the incredible potential that awaits you outside your comfort zone. Out on the risky waters of faith, Jesus is waiting to meet you in ways that will change you forever, deepening your character and your trust in God. The experience is terrifying. It’s thrilling beyond belief. It’s everything you’d expect of someone worthy to be called Lord. The choice is yours to know him as only a water-walker can, aligning yourself with God’s purpose for your life in the process. There’s just one requirement: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.”
So, this book invites you to be like Peter. It says basically, “You need to get out of the boat like Peter, because Peter is an example of faith for going out on the water.” And this is a common understanding of our cultural Christianity: You’ve got to get out of the boat if you want to walk on water. We are invited to follow in Peter’s footsteps as he is the only one of the disciples who has the apparent faith to get out of the comfort of the boat to go to Jesus on, as the summary says, “the risky waters of faith.”
However, let’s look at this premise a little closer: If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. First, was Jesus really “waiting to meet” the disciples out on the water? Was he really calling them out of the boat? If you look at the text, Jesus is heading towards the boat; it’s Peter who takes the initiative to ask to come out of the boat. And he does so to get proof that Jesus is the Lord. Jesus simply allows Peter to do what he wishes, which is to get out of the boat. Is that where God intends for us to be: outside of the boat of the Church, alone, separated from other believers?
A long time ago, when God destroyed the world through the waters of the flood, Noah and his family were carried along in the ark across the waters of the flood. God had promised to save Noah and his family through the ark. The ark, the boat, was the instrument of God’s salvation, and He not only saved the Church through it, but He also saved His creation as well, for after the flood the people and animals on the ark repopulated the earth which had been destroyed by the waters. If you wanted to know where the Church was in the days of the flood, you’d look in the boat.
For this boat, the ark, was where God promised to save His people. What would have happened if Noah had gotten out of the boat in an effort to test his faith by finding another way to God? What if Noah had gotten out of the boat to try to walk on the water? Well, the answer is provided by what happened to Peter. Peter got out of the boat where the disciples were, in order to try to approach God through his own efforts. Peter took the initiative. Peter left the other disciples to walk out on his own, and he sank. And what did Jesus do? Did he tell Peter to try harder? Did he exhort him to have greater faith and tell him that his sinking was simply an exhilarating experience? No, Jesus remarked at the weakness of Peter’s faith, because Peter had doubted that it was the Lord he saw, and immediately took Peter’s hand and brought him back into the boat. And Jesus then entered into the boat and the winds stopped; God had brought peace to his people.
When the boat contained just the disciples, it was buffeted by the storms, because it was the “Church without.” It lacked the center-point of our faith, which is Jesus Christ, God incarnate. But, now, Jesus enters into the boat, so it is no longer the “Church without,” but is now the “Church with,” the Church of Christ.
You see, our proper place is in the boat, in the Church which God gathers around Christ. God isn’t calling us out of the boat to journey on a separate, individual spiritual path to Him. No, He’s in the boat with us. This boat is the ark of the Church. Just as God saved Noah and his family – eight people who composed the entire Church on earth at that time – through the ark, so too does God save His people even today in the ark of the Church. Peter himself actually made the same point in his first epistle, when referring to Noah and the ark, he said, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…” because it is your ticket onboard the ark of the Church due to Christ’s death and resurrection which is done unto you in your Baptism.
And so if you want to know where God’s people are, look in the boat. For the Church is where God’s people are, and God enters into the midst of His people through Word and Sacrament. God isn’t calling us out of the boat, but is bringing us into it; He is bringing us into the boat in the weakness of our faith because it’s the boat that saves us and keeps us from drowning, because this is where God has promised to be. God is found in the humble hull of the Church, not in “mountain-top” experiences.
My brother-in-law, Amy’s sister’s husband, is a charter boat captain in Florida. He used to travel back and forth to the Bahamas quite a bit to compete in fishing tournaments. He told me a story about one time when he and his first mate were returning to Florida from the Bahamas. On their way back to Florida they got caught in a really bad storm. As they were entering the inlet in Florida they began to get wracked by the storm. The wave crests were so high and the troughs so deep that their boat was beginning to bottom out on the floor of the inlet. They thought that the the boat was going to go under and so they prepared to abandon ship. I can’t even begin to imagine how they must have felt as they put on their life jackets and duct-taped flares to their bodies in anticipation of having to leave the ship and take their chances in the rough water.
Despite all odds, though, the boat didn’t sink. My brother-in-law and his first mate thought that the boat was going to be swamped by the sea, but it wasn’t. They were about to abandon the ship, but stayed on-board instead and made it to shore safely. In hind-sight it was easy for them to look back at the adventure and laugh, knowing now that they arrived safely on the shore. But, at the time, things seemed very much in doubt.
It’s often a very similar thing with us in the ark of the Church. We reside in the ark, this boat that we call the Church. And as we travel through this sea of life that spans the twin shores called Jesus’ ascension and His return, we are buffeted by many storms. The Church faces persecution, ridicule, heresies, false teachings, and many other things that toss it too and fro. At times, we think that the boat is beginning to bottom out and is about to sink, and we’re tempted to flee the boat to go to something else. Maybe that something else is a spiritual quest that we think is more fulfilling or more exciting or even apparently safer than what we see in the Church. We are tempted to get out of the boat. Like Peter, we often want to leave the boat to go on a personal, individual journey to God. We are tempted to get out of the boat and away from those whom God has brought into it.
But, if we leave the boat, we will drown. We will not survive outside of the Church, because we cannot come to God through our own power. Like Peter, our own works and efforts will fail us and we will sink. God, though, in His mercy comes to us through Christ. He gets into the boat with us. God came down to us to be with us, and He is with us even today in the Church. And we may stray and leave the boat at times, but God carries us back into the boat and provides a calm in the midst of the winds and waves that surround the Church. For God is guiding the ark of the Church from the shore of Christ’s ascension to the far shore of his return. The Church owns this present time, because Christ has won the victory for us – the world is his, because he truly is Lord over creation.
And when God brings us to the far shore when Christ returns, we will look back at all the time that the Church floated on the waters of life and chuckle, knowing that at the time things seemed very much in doubt, but in hindsight, our victory was always assured, because God Himself was always with us. So, just as the disciples in the text today reached the other shore with God in the boat with them at the break of dawn, so too will we awaken when the Last Day comes and we reach the far shore of Christ’s return as he restores all things; and we will behold the glory of the Lord face-to-face as He shines upon us.
And just as Noah and his family stepped off of the ark onto a new world, on that Last Day that is coming the Church Militant and the Church at Rest will disembark from the boat and step onto the shores of God’s restored creation as the Church Triumphant, having been carried safely across the waters of time by God Himself. And we have God’s sure promise that He will see His Church safely across the waters, because He is in the boat with us.
(Image: Jesus saves Peter from sinking, from The story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, by Unknown – The story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59586843)