We are not meant to walk on water

Pentecost 11 – 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

Marian Free


In the name of God who dares us to believe and refuses to perform tricks to prove that God exists. Amen.

Recently Michael and I watched the movie “War Machine”. It features Brad Pitt as a gung-ho Four Star American General who is a veteran of the war in Iraq. He is sent to Afghanistan to bring an end the war or at least to find a way to bring the troops home. In order for him to do this the General, Glen McMahon, has been given wide-ranging powers. He is convinced that he, not those with years of experience in the country, knows just how to bring the Taliban to heel. He decides (against his explicit brief) that with more troops he can take Helmand Province, an area which in fact has little strategic or political value and which is a notoriously difficult area in which to carry out any sort of military operation. McMahon uses some underhand methods to gain public support for his plea for more troops and launches his offensive with disastrous consequences – for civilians, for his troops and for the war effort as a whole.

The movie is a good depiction of the sort of self-absorbed person who believes that they and only they are the solution to a problem and who will do anything to prove their invincibility. McMahon is so self-obsessed and so determined that he can do what is required that all objections and rational discussions are swept aside. The accepted wisdom is meaningless to him because he is sure that he knows better.

It is important to have people who challenge the accepted wisdom of their time. Without such people we would not have landed on the moon, explored the depths of the sea, discovered electricity and developed life-saving and life-changing surgery. We need people who see the world differently to provide leadership, to push-boundaries and to ensure that we do not stagnate. At the same time questioning the existing situation simply for the sake of seeking glory, in order to prove someone wrong or simply for the sake of it can expose the character of the contender, lead to harm to some if not many and may put a movement or discovery back years or decades.

Peter was many things – he was impetuous, thoughtless, he didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions and it took him a long time to accept that Jesus’ ministry was not about dramatic miracles and interventions, he wasn’t going to be particularly extraordinary and nor was he going to present as some sort of heavenly being. Today’s gospel is a good example of this aspect of Peter’s character. It demonstrates his overwhelming desire that Jesus be something special or that prove himself to be who he says he is. He couldn’t accept things as they were. He needed to push the boundaries to provide himself with some sort of evidence that Jesus really was who Peter hoped him to be.

Because Peter cannot simply accept things as they are, he puts God (in this case Jesus) to the test. In so doing, Peter reveals his lack of faith, need for absolute proof, and worst of all, his propensity to share the view of Jesus’ opponents that if Jesus is really the Christ, he should demonstrate it in such a way that it would be clear and easy for him to accept.

It is early morning – somewhere between 3:00am and 6:00am. The disciples have been on the lake all night. No wonder their tired, unsuspecting eyes believe that the figure walking towards is a phantom. When they cry out in fear Jesus tries to reassure them. He says: “Take courage, I AM, do not be afraid.” The expression: “Take courage” is one that Jesus has used twice before (9:2, 22) and “Do not be afraid” is an expression that is often on Jesus’ lips in Matthew’s gospel. “I AM” may simply mean “It is I”, but it is also the language used for God in the Old Testament. Eleven of the disciples appear to be satisfied with this response – the familiar language and the “I AM” statement assure them that this is no phantom, but Jesus coming towards them. Peter is not so easily satisfied. He cannot accept things at face value. He challenges Jesus to provide proof of his identity. “If it is you,” he says. “If it is you.” These are the words that Satan uses when he challenges Jesus in the wilderness (4:3,6). They are the words used by the High Priest at Jesus’ trial (26:63) and the words of those who mock Jesus at the crucifixion (27:40). “If it is you[1].” Even before Peter has even left the boat, he has put himself in the same league as Satan and Jesus’ earthly opponents all of whom demand: “Prove yourself, show us what you can do, demonstrate that you are not like the rest of us, and then maybe we’ll believe”.

Peter leaps out of the boat into the waves, not because he trusts Jesus but because he doesn’t trust Jesus. Peter sinks, not because he loses focus but because he didn’t believe it was Jesus in the first place. He puts himself at risk in the hope that Jesus will rescue him and that his doubts about Jesus will be put to rest.

The problem for Peter is that Jesus is not a conjuror. He doesn’t perform miracles to prove himself or to gain status and power. Satan couldn’t persuade Jesus to win over the world by doing astounding feats; Jesus will not perform miracles to win over the High Priest and he will not free himself from the cross just to attain temporary glory. Jesus will not put God to the test by doing something stupid like jumping from the top of the Temple and hoping that God will send angels to catch him.

We are not meant to walk on water, nor are we to take heedless, pointless risks in order to prove to ourselves, or to others, that God exists, or to test whether or not God will get us out of difficult and dangerous situations. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or to manipulate. We have simply to accept that God is, and no matter what happens around us, to hold fast believing that God will come to us over the waves and the winds that buffet us will cease.



[1] I am grateful to Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman for these insights. workingpreacher.org


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