Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Peter on water

Matthew 14:22-33

And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

What kinds of images come to mind when you hear this story?

The image I recall every time I hear it comes from a t-shirt a friend of mine wore in college.  I don’t know why I remember it so well; but it’s there, the memory of this t-shirt, etched on the screen of my mind, in vivid detail.

From a distance the t-shirt’s design looks like something from OP or Roxy or Quicksilver or some other surfwear company.  On it is a beautifully breaking wave, peeling left; and at first glance there’s what seems to be an ordinary surfer riding the face of the wave.  But as you look more closely you see that the surfer is wearing not a swimsuit but a robe with a cincture—not unlike mine—and he’s bearded, with long hair.  After this double take you notice, too, that the surfer in fact has no surfboard, but is barefoot surfing down the face of this beautiful, Pipeline-like wave.

Now curiosity gets the better of you and you decide to read the words on the t-shirt.  On the top, above the image, it says, “Simon Peter’s School of Surf.”  And on the bottom, below the image: “Who needs a board when your eyes are on the Lord?  Matthew 14:29.”

So that’s the image that always comes to my mind when I hear this story—without fail!  And it’s not a bad image.  For as long as Peter’s eyes are on the Lord Jesus, he’s able to walk on the water.  It’s only after he notices his predicament—that there are wind and waves all around him—that he becomes frightened and takes his eyes off Jesus.  And once his eyes are off Jesus, he begins to sink.

We are like Peter: we become frightened; we take our eyes off Jesus; and we begin to sink.

We’ll come back to this image in a little while. But first, let’s look at the other main characters in this story.  Other than Peter there are two, as I see it: the disciples, who make up a kind of collective main character; and Jesus.

As for the disciples, we read that Jesus makes them get into the boat and go on ahead of him.  In other words, Jesus gives his disciples a mission.

This particular mission does not appear to be difficult.  It is simply to row across a lake.  It’s a rather large lake, granted; but no doubt these fishermen have rowed across this lake many times before.  This is a mission for which the disciples are qualified.

But this particular mission becomes difficult.  A strong headwind confronts the disciples; and with it, worrisome waves.  The disciples have to row hard, no doubt rotating responsibilities at the oars whenever one of them becomes too weary to continue.  Mission requires community.

Even so—even with Jesus’s commissioning their mission in the first place; even though the disciples are qualified for this mission; and even working in community—they become frightened.  They see Jesus walking to them in the middle of the night—Jesus comes to them in an unexpected way—and they say, “It’s a ghost!”  In their fear they default to a belief in the paranormal rather than the supernatural—even though they just witnessed Jesus perform an amazing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000.

How often do we do the same!  Jesus commissions us as his disciples to go forth and make more disciples, of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  That is our mission.  And it’s a mission for which we are qualified, especially as a community of disciples—especially as a church.

But we get to work on this mission and things don’t go as we expect.  We begin to question Jesus’s commission.  What if San Antonio doesn’t want to hear our message of good news?  What if our theme of radical hospitality ends up attracting the wrong sorts of people?  What if the church gets vandalized?  Or robbed?  What if . . . ?

Yet the story is not over.  The disciples are frightened, yes.  They fear when Jesus draws near to them in an unexpected way.  But they quickly recognize Jesus as God.  “Take heart,” Jesus says, “it is I; do not be afraid.”  And, collectively, they worship him and confess, “Truly you are the son of God.”

As for the character Jesus, he sends the disciples ahead and finally has that alone time he has been craving. Remember?  He had crossed the lake with his disciples to a deserted place where he hoped to spend some time in prayer.  But a large crowd followed him; so he healed them, spoke to them, and fed them.  Now the crowd has dispersed, he sends his disciples on a mission to go back across the lake, and he stays behind to pray.

Talk about a beautiful image!  A storm is brewing.  The disciples are becoming more and more worried out on the lake.  There is a sense of urgency—the “tyranny of the urgent”!  Yet even this urgency does not trump Jesus’s discipline of prayer.

Then there’s the image of Jesus walking on the water, going out to the disciples, showing them that he is master of all; and that despite their fear they have no reason whatever to fear.

But the real clincher for me comes in Jesus’s words: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

There is real power in words.  In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, it was through words.  “And God said, let there be light,” and so on.  Words.  Jesus himself is called the Word of God; through him the Father is revealed.

So, words are powerful.  And here Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I”; or even more simply, “it is I.”

What’s so important about these words, it is I?  Another way to say them is, I am.  In fact, if you were to read the Greek translation of the story where Moses stands in front of the burning bush and asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?” these exact words appear.  It is I.  I am.

Thus, when Jesus approaches the disciples who are terrified and thinking they’re seeing a ghost, Jesus is really saying, “Take heart.  I am God.  Do not fear.”

Take heart, St. Luke’s.  As we go about our mission to make disciples and baptize; and as we begin to fear that maybe our mission is too difficult for us and we start asking all those “what if” questions, remember: Take heart.  Jesus is God.  Do not be afraid.

Now to come back to Peter.

You gotta love him!  He hears these words, “Take heart, it is I,” and he goes from one extreme to another, from abject fear to joy-filled belief.  It’s like his faith meter suddenly pegs out—like that time when he says, “Lord, I’ll never wash your feet”; but in the next breath says, “Well, not just your feet, then, but your whole body!”  There’s something endearing about his impulsiveness, right?

At that moment when Jesus says, “It is I,” Peter is suddenly entirely fixated upon Jesus.  All of a sudden it doesn’t matter that there is a storm raging all around him; or that other disciples are wearying themselves at the oars; or that walking on water is technically impossible.  Never mind all that!  My Lord is here and speaking to me!

That’s endearing.  We all want that kind of faith and focus.

But in the next moment Peter falters.  The fixation is gone and reality begins to set in.  There is in fact a storm raging all around him, the other disciples are in fact struggling, and—I know Jesus is walking on the water, but he’s God!  He just said so.  What am I doing out here?

“Lord, save me!”

We’ve all been there!  Like Peter, we live in community with others.  In our community of disciples known as St. Luke’s, we share a common focus.  We gather around one altar.  We share a common mission.  But we are also individuals.  We each have our own individual experiences with Christ—highs, lows, and middles.  Our individual faith meters go up and down continuously.  Like Peter, we experience high times of joyous belief; but also low times of questioning and distraction.  We begin to sink.

But our Lord is not so focused on the mission that he neglects the individual.  At just this point, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus, the Word of God, God himself, reaches out his strong hand, lifts Peter up, and walks him into the boat.  And when they get into the boat, the wind ceases; and the disciples worship him.

Take heart.  Jesus is God.  He is accomplishing his mission.  But also, this same Jesus—who calms the wind and the waves and the disciples’ fears—cares for each one of you as individuals.

When you fear, he is right there, immediately; and he says to you, “Take heart, I am God.  Do not be afraid.”

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