1. The summer after my sixth-grade year in school, my church youth group went on a Servant Event trip to Western New York. Our purpose for the trip was to lead Vacation Bible School at an inner-city congregation in Buffalo. While we weren’t engaged in the activities related to that VBS, we stayed at a Lutheran summer camp in the area—Camp Pioneer, which is right on the shores of Lake Erie. As you can imagine, during our downtime at Camp, we did a lot of “camp things.” Most notable of which was that we gathered each evening around the campfire for devotions and singing. You know how camp songs tend to be—they have this way of getting stuck in your head. Well, there was one song in particular that has stuck with me since that trip. And I was reminded of that song because of our Gospel Reading for this morning. The chorus of this song is based on the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. I’d like to share this song with you, but don’t worry! I’m not going to sing and dance for you! The chorus goes like this: “Get out of the boat; walk on the water. Get out of the boat; take his hand. Get out of the boat; walk on the water. He’ll be with you in whatever you may do. He will help you stand on the blue waters of life, my friend; he will help you stand.” It’s a great camp song! It’s catchy, it’s fun to sing around the fire, but it also has a great message. It encourages trust and stepping out of your comfort zone knowing and believing that Jesus is there with you every step of the way. But there’s a problem with this song—this isn’t what this story is about! Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to think that this story is encouraging us to emulate Peter—but that’s completely missing the point! Let’s walk through this story one more time, and I’ll show you what I mean.
2. Matthew begins our text for today with the word, “Immediately.” It’s not a word he uses very often, but it’s a word which ties our story to the text which immediately precedes it—that is, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, which we heard last week. In that story, the disciples witness Jesus turning five loaves of bread and two small fish into more than enough food for 5,000 men, plus women and children. It’s an incredible miracle! But then, Matthew tells us, Immediately Jesus dismissed not just the crowds, but also the disciples. He was in desperate need of some quiet prayer time with his Father. So, he sends the disciples across the lake—he’ll meet them on the other side later. So, the disciples get into the boat. And on their way across, they encounter some not-ideal weather. The wind is against them and the waves are crashing all around them, making it slow going. But, let’s remember, many of the disciples, Peter chief amongst them, were experienced fishermen. They had been through this kind of thing before. You can almost imagine the scene: Peter’s probably taken charge (you know how Peter is). He’s barking out orders to the other disciples as they row against the wind, trying to keep a straight course for the other side. Tensions are high in the boat—it’s a stressful situation, but they’re doing just fine. Again, you can almost picture it, maybe one of the disciples sees movement out of the corner of his eye. Then he realizes there a figure, which looks like a person, walking on the water towards them! Maybe he taps the other disciples on the shoulder and points. Pretty soon, all of the disciples are absolutely terrified! Some of them cry out: “It’s a ghost!” Others yell in fear. Now, you and I aren’t on the boat, right? We know what’s really going on here. We can see that it’s Jesus walking on the water towards them. But we can also see that these three ways in which the disciples react: this inner terror, this cry, “It’s a ghost!”, this shouting in fear, we can see that these reactions reveal their doubt. They’ve just witnessed their Lord perform an incredible miracle, and now they can’t even recognize him. But what’s amazing about Jesus is, Jesus responds to his disciples’ doubt with his Word to strengthen their faith. Jesus responds to each of the disciples’ reactions. To their inner terror, Jesus says, “Take heart.” To their cry, “It’s a ghost!”, Jesus says, “It is I.” To their shouts of fear, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” And what’s amazing about Jesus’ words is that this is the same Word which brought the universe into being. It’s the same Word which healed the sick and raised the dead. Jesus’ Word accomplishes what he intends. So, when Jesus speaks to his disciples, it is enough to calm their fears, relieve their doubt, and restore their faith—it is enough…
3. …or, at least it should have been enough…but not for Peter. See, Peter responds in doubt once again. While Jesus said, “It is I”, Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” But once again, Jesus responds to his disciple’s doubt and bids him come. And then, probably the most amazing part of the story happens. Peter gets out of the boat and actually starts walking on the water! This is incredible! Peter is physically walking on the water! The scene that Matthew is painting for us is that Peter is walking on the water, just like Jesus is walking on the water! It’s incredible! You would think that this should have been enough to relieve Peter’s doubt! He’s just witnessed Jesus feed over 5,000 people from almost nothing. Peter has just witnessed Jesus walking on the water, and now, by Jesus’ power, he, too, is actually walking on the water! You would think that this would be enough to get rid of his doubt…but not for Peter. See, Peter still doubts. Rather than keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus, he lets his eyes wander to the waves crashing around him. He lets his eyes wander to the wind howling around him, and he begins to sink. But Jesus—maybe you’re sensing a pattern here—Jesus responds to his disciple’s doubt by stretching out his hand to save him. Matthew tells us that this episode ends with Jesus and Peter getting back into the boat and all of the disciples gather around and worship Jesus. But we know that this isn’t the end of the story. We know that the disciples are going to doubt again—Peter is going to doubt again. Remember that episode in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter doubts Jesus’ plan and cuts off the ear of that man? Remember during Jesus’ trial when Peter denies Jesus not once, not twice, but three times? Peter is going to doubt again. But, once again, Jesus is going to respond to his disciple’s doubt by stretching out his hand to save him—not from the water this time, but Jesus will stretch out both of his hands as he dies on the cross to take away Peter’s sin and doubt.
4. Peter isn’t the one we ought to emulate in this story. The reality is: Peter is you. Peter is me. We doubt. When God acts in our lives in ways we don’t expect—maybe it’s closing a door or taking us out of a job in favor of something else—we doubt, just like Peter. When Jesus calls to us in his Word, we listen one moment, but the next moment, we doubt. We might listen to Jesus’ Word read and preached in church, but we walk out the door and discover a couple of hours later that it’s hardly changed us—we doubt, just like Peter. When the storms of life rage around us, whether it’s a physical storm like a tropical storm or whether it’s a metaphorical storm like the pandemic raging around our world, we doubt. Rather than fixing our eyes on Jesus, we let our eyes wander to the horrible things going on around us—we doubt, just like Peter. But the good news for you today is that no matter how many times you doubt, Jesus always responds to his disciples’ doubt—he always responds to your doubt. That same hand which stretched out to save Peter, those same hands which stretched out to die on the cross for Peter’s sin & doubt—for your sin & doubt—those are the same out-stretched hands which come to you today from this altar to offer you the very body & blood of our Savior for your forgiveness and for the strengthening of your faith. And, my friends, when your story comes to an end, those same outstretched hands will be waiting to welcome you home into the arms of our Savior, as we gather around and worship Jesus for all eternity.
Thanks be to God that we have a Savior who always responds to our doubt with out-stretched hands! In the name of Jesus. Amen.