Year A, Pentecost 9
One of my favorite movie scenes is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana was a rather adventurous archaeologist who often found himself on epic adventures where he always seemed to be pursuing a treasure. In this scene, he was running from some bad guys and trying to save his father. He came to this huge cavern. He had to get to the other side, but there was no bridge, not even a rickety rope bridge. It was too far to jump, but he knew that there had to be a way. He realized with the help of a book that was providing him clues– that it would literally require a leap of faith. The bridge would only appear if he took the first step. It was a bit of a catch 22. He could only see it if he believed in it. But he would have to believe in it without seeing it.
I cannot tell you how often that scene pops into my head when I am thinking of the Christian journey. We are rarely tested in such a vivid way, but believing in God is a huge leap of faith. We are asked to believe in a God who we cannot see, cannot touch, and cannot hear. He had a son who lived 2000 years ago and was killed only to come back from the dead. We have stories that were recorded, but that is it. How could any rational person be expected to believe such a thing? We are supposed to live our whole lives based on this truth of which we have absolutely no proof.
Sometimes I think that had I lived when Jesus lived and been one of his disciples, I would not have doubted. I mean who in their right mind could witness the feeding of the 5000 and not realize that this Jesus person was someone pretty special? He cured people. He spoke with eloquence and power. He calmed storms. And this was all before he sacrificed himself and was then resurrected. I occasionally find myself judging the disciples for their lack of belief.
Just a few chapters before our Gospel reading for today, Jesus was in a boat with his disciples when they were hit by a violent storm. They were terrified of course. Jesus slept right through it because he was apparently a very sound sleeper. They woke him and he rose and calmed the storm. After that, they were amazed and wondered what kind of man could command the wind and the seas. In that story, it seemed pretty obvious. They asked him to calm the storm and he did. But today’s story is different. I can empathize with the disciples fear and doubt.
This happens right after the feeding of the 5000. Jesus needed some alone time and told the disciples to get in the boat and go ahead of him to the other side. The Greek is pretty clear that Jesus actually forced them into the boat. It was not a helpful suggestion; it was a command. Suddenly there was a storm that battered the boat all night. The text says that they did not see the person walking across the water until early morning, which means that Jesus waited until they had suffered through many hours of terror until he came to them. What was he thinking walking on water through a storm? Would it not have made more sense had he first calmed the storm and then appeared to them? Of course they did not recognize him. It was raining and not even light out yet.
One can hardly blame the disciples for having a hard time recognizing him. He knew this and he tried to assuage their fears when he said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” What is interesting is that while he tried to ease their fears with his words, he never actually calmed the storm…perhaps because that was not what they were afraid of. Peter decided to test Jesus, which is never a good idea. He said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Notice that Peter did not say, “If it is you, give me the power to walk on water.” No, he said, “Command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus provided that command with one word: “Come.”
Peter got out and started walking. Now for Indiana Jones, it was that first step that proved the hardest. But Peter did not seem to struggle with the first step. It fact, he did a pretty god job until he noticed the strong wind that had not ceased since the storm began. It was then, after he had taken those first few steps that he started to doubt. Then he started to sink.
I think that is a lot more true to life than the scene in Indiana Jones. It’s always hard to take the first step and Peter should be commended and admired for the courage that must have required. Yet it often seems, in real life, it is after a couple steps when things get really difficult. It’s when you take that first step and you think, well, God should really reward me for this first step. And you pat yourself on the back and look around to see who is admiring your courage, and that is when you realize that the wind has not died down. The storm is still raging around you. Wasn’t it supposed to be easier once you signed on to this faith thing…once you took the first step? Why is the storm raging on? Why has life not gotten smoother?
It is tempting in those moments to turn around and head for the safety of the boat. It will still be a little scary in the boat, but at least you have something solid beneath you and there are other people close by. At least that boat is familiar territory.
But to Peter’s credit, he never turned around. When he started sinking he called out to God, “Lord, save me.” When he cried out, Jesus immediately reached out and caught him. He then said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” That always seemed a little harsh to me. However, whenever Jesus used that phrase, “you of little faith” he was talking to a believer who was struggling. It wasn’t a reprimand as much as it was a “Come on, you knew I would come through.” Peter did know this. That was why he called out.
I admire Peter for taking that first step. It must have been terrifying. There was a part of him that must have believed or he would have never stepped off the boat. But what I admire more is what he did when he started to sink. He didn’t turn around and head back for safety and certainty. No, he called out to Jesus. He asked to be saved….even though the winds were still strong and the storm was still raging.
There will be so many times where we will want to turn around because things have gotten too scary. We took that initial risk. We went to church. We read the Bible. We did all the things that the pastor recommended but life raged on. It is those times where we have to call on God, not because we expect that the winds will cease as soon as he hears us, but because we know that he will catch us. There might be a bit of a fall before he catches us, but Jesus will catch us. Perhaps it’s not the leap that requires the faith as much as it is the fall that comes later.