September 20, 2020
“Walk This Way”
What makes a king out of a slave?
What makes the flag on the mast to wave?
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in ape-ricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got?
The Cowardly Lion sang these words on the silver screen years ago in The Wizard of Oz. As that collection of unlikely companions made their way along the Yellow brick road, we realize that the Lion is no scaredy-cat at all…he acts plenty brave. By the time they get to Emerald City, the lion doesn’t need the Wizard to give him anything. He just needs the Wizard to show him what he’s already got.
I think Peter has something of that Lion in him. Three of the four Gospels tell a story about Jesus walking on the water, but Matthew alone tells us of Peter’s own aquatic ambulation. Listen:
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Have you ever noticed how many Bible stories are about God exercising control over water? God has to get water out of the way to begin creation. God parts the Red Sea down the middle so Moses and the Hebrews might make their way to freedom. The book of Job says it most plainly when it describes God as the one who tramples the waves of the sea.
So for Christ to come skipping across the sea is Matthew’s way of claiming that same authority for Jesus.
There’s a little Greek phrase that underscores all of this. When the disciples see Jesus walking on the water they scream “It’s a ghost!” To which Jesus replies in our translation “Take heart – it is I.”
The Greek text is a bit more direct. Jesus says “it is ‘I am.’”
“I am” – Yahweh – was the ancient name for God revealed to Moses. Matthew claims for Jesus the very same identity as the one who subdued the waters at creation; the one who, for the sake of freedom tossed the waters of the Red Sea aside.
That’s what makes Matthew’s contribution to this story all the more remarkable. Because it’s not just Jesus who walks on the sea, but Peter as well.
As we prepared for worship this week, our organist Joey asked me if I had any ideas for hymns this week and I said “How do you feel about playing some Run DMC on that organ because “Walk This Way” would work awfully well.
Peter has gone man-overboard. But he’s not sinking. One step in front of the other – he makes his way across the water, just like Jesus.
It’s only when he begins to trust his Fear more than his Friend that he begins to sink.
Jesus reaches out and catches him and once the two are safe and sound back in the boat Jesus says to him “you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
This is one of those moments where tone really matters. Is Jesus scolding Peter for his lack of faith – YOU OF LITTLE FAITH –
that’s one sermon. Not a very uplifting one.
OR – is it more like an understanding chuckle, “Peter…You of little faith” – an acknowledgement that walking unafraid on the very substance of fear is really hard stuff.
Beat up on Peter all you want for sinking.
I prefer to focus on the fact that he was brave enough to try. In spite of his fear and uncertainty – he took a risk.
If I understand the text, I think Matthew is encouraging us to take risks as we follow Christ – to believe that we can walk, even if imperfectly, in the Jesus way.
And understand, we can’t walk this way because we’re so great or talented or even faithful…no, but rather because Christ promises to meet us out there on the waves whenever we take that risk.
This week we finally confirmed the confirmation class from last Spring. Like many things, once COVID came, this just didn’t happen. But we gathered this past Wednesday in the front yard of the Church to officially welcome these young people as full members in the Church of Jesus Christ.
In a few moments you’ll hear more about this from Kim and see some pictures but there’s something about experiencing young people confirm their faith that makes me ask “What is faith really?” If you had to boil it down to one thing, what would it be?
Is it having the right theology? The proper beliefs? A sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the Triune God? I don’t think so.
A few years ago I heard preacher and activist Tony Campolo tell a rather sensationalized version of the story of Charles Blondin, the great acrobat and tight rope walker. Blondin became famous in 1859 when he walked a tight rope all the way across Niagara Falls:
Before ten thousand screaming people he inched his way from the Canadian side of the falls to the United States side. When he got there the crowd began shouting his name: “Blondin! Blondin! Blondin! Blondin!”
Finally he raised his arms, quieted the crowd, and shouted to them, “I am Blondin! Do you believe in me?” The crowd shouted back, “We believe! We believe! We believe!”
Again he quieted the crowd, and once more he shouted, “I’m going back across the tightrope, but this time I’m going to carry someone on my back. Do you believe I can do that?”
The crowd yelled, “We believe! We believe!”
He quieted them one more time, and then he said, “Who will be that person?”
Finally, a man named Harry Colcord stepped forward and climbed on his shoulders, and for the next three-and-a-half-hours, Blondin inched his way back across the tightrope to the Canadian side of the falls with Colcord riding on his shoulders.
Ten thousand people stood there that day chanting, “We believe, we believe!” but only one person believed enough to risk his life in the hands of the one he believes in.
Campolo went on to make his point:
It’s easy to get people to say the Westminster confession. It’s easy to get people to memorize the catechism – to mouth back all the right doctrinal statements, and you think you have a Christian because you have somebody who is theologically sound and orthodox.
But No – you haven’t got a Christian until you have somebody who is willing to risk everything for Christ and the Kingdom.
I’m with Campolo on this one…and I may not live that out as purely as I wish – but I’m with Campolo. It isn’t the dogma or the doctrine that makes us a Christian. Our certainty will never save us.
The measure of a Christian is how much are we willing to risk?
When Peter stepped out of the boat, he risked it all.
Sink or swim, Succeed or fail, he was all in. That is the essence of faith.
So – what do we need?
It’s what makes a king out of a slave.
It’s what makes the flag on the mast to wave.
And here’s the good news – that courage is not what we need – it’s what we’ve already got.
One foot in front of the other, everyone.
Let’s walk his way.