Matthew 14:22-36

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Gennessaret. The disciples were starting to get the idea that maybe a bunch of fishermen shouldn’t be taking seafaring advice from a carpenter, when there he was! Jesus had stayed behind to pray after he fed the 5,000 people last week, and the disciples were going on ahead of him. Suddenly, there he came, walking across the water.

Now, there are two things I’m not going to do in this sermon, and this is the first one: I’m not going to try and figure out how Jesus pulled this off. Guessing at just how a human being could appear to walk on water is like reading this:

Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual

Now, I’m enough of a geek not only to own this book but to have read it, and some still-geekier people have thought of some pretty clever ways to make a spaceship do impossible things. But it’s usually more satisfying to just put the book down and watch the TV show, isn’t it? Just let the story be what it is. Well, I think this story about Jesus is like that. Let’s not worry, for now, about how this could happen. Let’s just see what Matthew has loaded into this story.

First, the disciples, Jesus’ followers, are on their way. That’s us, generally speaking. And we’re in a boat. That’s the church (you’ve seen the way our roof beams look like the ribs of a boat, right?). And it’s slow going. We’re not just adrift on the sea, we’re rowing into the wind and we can’t see the shore anymore. It’s been the experience of the church, ever since this first generation of Jesus’ friends got on this boat, that we can’t row with integrity for very long before the waters get choppy.

We’ve been sent across rough waters before, haven’t we? We’ve invested our time and energy in caring for parents, spouses, children, and then gone through the crippling fear of illness or disorienting grief of losing them from this world. We’ve devoted ourselves to study and training for life-giving careers that turned out to be more difficult and consuming than we could have bargained for. As the church, we’ve answered the Spirit’s call to serve others, but our community is changing in ways that challenge us simply to maintain this building and the institution it houses. How many times have we been halfway along the road of faithfulness when it suddenly seems like we may not make it?

And have you noticed, that’s when God tends to show up most clearly? Of course, that can seem like trouble all by itself. If Jesus on the water looked anything like he does on our bulletin covers this morning, I can see why the disciples thought he might be a ghost. And then he goes on to say, “It is I.” He uses that “I Am” phrase to identify himself, the one that reminds everyone that this really is God’s presence. Whether we find courage in it or not, God is present.

Peter, of course, has something like courage. If you ever need someone to jump out of a boat in the middle of the lake, Peter’s your guy. This isn’t the only time in the Gospels that he does something this bold. Jumping out of the boat, with or without looking, is who Peter is. He’s the church as its most radically, impulsively faithful.

But here’s the other thing I’m not doing in this sermon: I’m not going to praise Peter for his jump. Yes, we would do well to emulate Peter’s boldness, but I think he misses the mark here (I owe this interpretation to Mark Vitalis Hoffman). The trouble is, Jesus was already on his way to the boat, and the boat was already on the way to Gennessaret. Jesus is present with the church, and the church is doing what it should, and Peter’s problem is that he jumped overboard.

Like I said, Peter is the church at our least self-conscious. He sees Jesus and jumps right in, which is great, right? But Jesus is not there on the water to give individual wave-walking lessons. God didn’t come among us in human flesh so we could have our own private spiritual experiences. Christ wants to sustain us on the way of service, but Peter gets caught up in the special effects and ends up sinking.

I think the reason for that is in Peter’s word ‘if.’ “Lord, if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you.” Doesn’t it come off as kind of a dare? Jesus is willing to accept the challenge, which is remarkable in itself, but still: “If it’s really you, do something really cool right now.” If God were really by my side in service, wouldn’t I feel somehow more special than the rest of these people in this church? Is it possible that there’s a kind of faithlessness present in our need to keep our spiritual experiences to ourselves? That’s what Jesus calls Peter: “You of little faith.”

I thought about stopping our “God Sightings” after Vacation Bible School ended, since there’s no more Nazareth to use our sheep pasture. But as I reflected on it, isn’t this part of who we are as the church? Aren’t we specifically called and invited to keep our eyes open for the presence of God in the world? Wouldn’t it be a remarkable thing to practice the awareness of God’s presence? Presence in remarkable, spectacular, special-effects kinds of moments, and presence in the quietly beautiful things that fill us with awe and joy in the created world. There’s even a kind of presence revealed when we let ourselves be aware of the places God seems most absent.

And that’s the good news of this story, whatever else we may find or not find in it. Christ is present with the church in mission, whether we see it or not, whether we understand it or miss the proverbial boat entirely, whether we respond in ways we can be proud of or ways we wish we could take back.

When we set off on new ventures, Christ is with us. When our boat is seemingly lost at sea, Christ is with us. When we fail to grasp it or when we plunge in over our heads, Christ is with us. When we worship the Holy One, Christ is with us. And when we become instruments of healing, vessels of feeding and blessing, and voices of the Good News, Christ is with us. Now and always, amen.