I found myself in a dilemma this week writing the sermon. My dilemma came from a couple of different angles but primarily it arose out of a question of faith and of preaching to a group of people that I do not know that well.
In the passage that we heard from Matthew’s gospel concerning Jesus’ appearance walking on the water the issue of Peter’s faith is raised. Jesus declares that he has little faith. As I read and reflected and discussed this issue of little faith the question arose when Jesus declares that Peter has little faith is he admonishing Peter or is he affirming Peter or is he simple pointing out a simple reality.
It comes back to how he says it:
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (angry tone)
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (caring tone)
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (neutral tone)
Now which ever you decide on the fact of the matter is that Peter is exposed as having little faith.
This is where my problem kicks in – I think people in general, but especially farmers are people who have great faith. How much faith does it take to sit on the property for year after to year waiting for the rains, buying fodder for the animals and holding off planting the crops until the rains come? And then when the rains finally come and the crop is looking good the mice turn up. What faith will it take to harvest a barely average yield and then plant again? In my mind this is an act of faith, not little faith, but strong faith, strong conviction.
So what does it mean to only have little faith?
How do we view Peter and the disciples in their predicament?
So as I mulled over the passage more and more I refocussed myself away from Peter and onto Jesus and what the passage tells us about him. From very early in the church Jesus ability to walk on water was understood in two ways. First, it demonstrates that he is divine. And second, that in walking on the water he demonstrates his command over the threatening depths that lie below. I just want to unpack those ideas a little more.
Before Jesus ever walked on water, other figures in the ancient world walked on water. For example, the Egyptian god Horus walked on water and Orion the son of Poseidon also had the ability to walk on water. In addition to this in both the Psalms and the book of Job we hear that the God of the Israelites walks on the water. I have sometimes wondered whether Jesus did these things because of the mythology associated or whether the gospel writers added these stories in to make the point that Jesus was the Son of God. Either way the focus of the miracle is to declare Jesus divinity.
So, Jesus is divine, what of the second point. In the mind of Israelites the sea was seen as a threat, and was associated with images of the deep and of chaos and of death. In Jesus walking on the water he demonstrates not simply a command over nature but over the chaos that opposes God.
In this case the story is essential about the disciples declaration concerning Jesus at the end “Truly you are the Son of God” which is then accompanied by the disciples worshipping him. In this response we might then conclude that the disciples, Peter included, have moved from a place of doubt to position of clarity in faith.
Yet if this were the case then you would expect that from this point onwards the disciples would get it as the followed Jesus, that they would be clear about who Jesus was and their commitment to him. This, however, as we know is not the case. Despite their declaration the disciples still struggle to follow Jesus with integrity – the question, the squabble, they doubt, they desert. Have they really moved to a place of great clarity in faith or not?
So we return to where I began what do we with Jesus notion of Peter’s little faith and how do we understand our own faith and relationship with Jesus, regardless of the culture of faithfulness associated with living on the land.
To gain some insights into this involves exploring a little more closely what actually occurs in the story as Matthew tells it.
We hear the disciples are in a boat, it is in the early in the morning and there is a storm buffeting the boat – interestingly we are not told whether or not the disciples are afraid as they had been when Jesus was asleep with them in the boat. It is into this scene – in the darkness of the early morning, in the midst of a howling gale, and a rocky sea that Jesus comes walking across the water to them – this we are told terrifies the disciples.
This raises all sorts of questions for me about how comfortable we really are in Jesus presence and why it might terrify us but I do not want to get side-tracked into that issue – I want us to concentrate on what occurs in the story.
Jesus tells the disciples that it is him and not to be afraid but the disciples doubt. It is at this point that Peter decides to test Jesus identity. If it is really you command me to come to you on the water.
The more I thought about this request the more troubled it made me as I considered the scene of Jesus temptation – “You shall not put God to the test!” But Peter’s testing of Jesus involves Peter taking the risk, not Jesus.
This creates a conundrum as Jesus says ‘come’ and Peter steps out on to the water. Now it is Peter who is at risk and as we know distracted by the wind he begins to sink. Peter has set out to test Jesus but what is exposed is that Peter has little faith and that he doubts.
What does he doubt? Given that the question revolves around Jesus identity I would have to say that Peter doubts Jesus identity. Paradoxically this doubt of Peter concerning Jesus is set over against Peter’s absolute trust in Jesus as he calls out, from within what has as his little faith, “Lord, save me!”
So as we think about the story Peter’s little faith causes him to doubt and question Jesus identity. Yet it is also Peter’s little faith that gives him the strength to step out onto the water but despite this he still fears and begins to doubt. Just when everything is going pear shaped and Peter sinks it is Peter’s little faith that prompts him to cry out for Jesus to save him.
Does Jesus fail Peter’s identity test? No, in fact the whole boatload of disciples shifts in their perception of Jesus as they worship him and declare him to be the Son of God, at least for the moment. But as we know this is not the end game – in the story to come in Matthew’s gospel we still have the complexity of the confusing behaviour of the disciples.
To return to my initial line of questioning is Peter’s little faith a good or bad thing, or is it just what it is. Whatever we might think what we do discover is that Jesus’ love and concern for Peter and the rest of the disciples survives their doubt of his identity. We find that Jesus love and concern is such that he will stretch and save those who are full of doubt and only have little faith. And that in his love and concern Jesus will continue to walk alongside the disciples as they follow him.
Maybe this is the lesson that we are meant to hear most clearly that Jesus love for us reaches out to us in the midst of our own doubts and fears; in the midst our little faith. This is certainly a message of hope especially to those of us who may get distracted by the wind or the buffeting of the waves.
To have little faith or great faith is not the issue so much as is the idea that Jesus has love and concern for us regardless of the strength of our faith. So as we cling to each other in the boat we call the church let us find some solace and comfort in the calm that Jesus offers, let us not fear Jesus presence but rather celebrate it and let us worship God together.