O "little faith" Ones--Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately, following the miracle we heard about last Sunday, where Jesus displays his great life-giving compassion and power feeding 5000 plus men, women and children, Jesus does what he was not willing to do before---He separates from those following him. He first sends the disciples back across the lake while he dismisses the great crowd. Once everyone has left his presence, he retreats to a mountainside to pray, alone.
The movement of Jesus and his disciples, first away from one another, then back together, result in an important understanding Matthew makes known to us in this story.
Contrary to many modern popular interpretations, this is not a story about what a great example Peter is in boldly hearing the invitation of Jesus to walk on the water and how we too might do the impossible if only we have enough faith. As Dr. Jeffery Gibbs points out while commenting on this text, Jesus does not congratulate Peter for his effort. Jesus does not give Peter a participation trophy for giving that “walking on water” thing a try.
Rather, what is occurring here is that Jesus is revealing to us his great power, his identity as the Son of God, and his grace toward those who even have “little faith.” This is a lesson about who Jesus is, about faith in him, and about the constant temptation to doubt his power, presence, identity, and grace.
To teach these truths, Jesus sends everyone away, separating so that he may come near again. There is fear involved here and I think it is important to note, that as fishermen, the disciples would have been very familiar with the boat, the lake, and the varying weather issues that would occur while out on the water. The fear that Matthew mentions then is not a result of the weather or the conditions they are experiencing. There is something more extraordinary that occurs that brings terror to the disciples.
Though Jesus has done many miraculous things before their eyes, including feeding so many with so little the day before, when he approaches them walking on the water they are filled to the brim with fear. He as drawn near by doing something only God can do, as is recorded in the Old Testament, he “tramples upon the waters.” “It is a ghost” they shout! Matthew doesn’t make any comments about what Jesus looked like or why they shout this; he simply notes that “they saw him.” So, we can discern that he was recognizable in some way but his walking across the sea was something on another level for his disciples. As Jesus reunites with his beloved disciples, they in the boat and he on the water, his glory and power on full display, they are terrified. And rightly so.
This is consistent with the Old Testament and with much of the narrative of the Gospels. When God makes himself fully known, it is not a small thing, but a terror-filled experience that, without his mercy, often leads to death or at least the fear of death. The words that Jesus speaks, “do not be afraid,” are in fact a common refrain in these situations. As the disciples are wrapped with fear, Jesus brings comfort and reassurance. Speaking from the water, he tells his disciples to “take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” It is I. Do not be afraid.
The creator and redeemer of all the cosmos has drawn near. What happens next? What should happen?
At this point Matthew zeros in on Peter, and for good reason. But to make the necessary points, Peter must decrease so that Jesus, the Son of God, can be fully seen.
Here Peter makes several decisions that we can interpret to be led by doubt and fear, rather than faith and courage. First, following Jesus’ declaration that “it is I” Peter states, “if it is you…” I interpret that as, “it may or may not be you, prove it by…” Then, once he receives the invitation to come out on the water with Jesus, he sees the wind and begins to sink. The troubles of his current situation seem to hinder his faith and cause him to doubt.
As he begins to sink, maybe to his credit, he cries out to Jesus— “Lord, save me!” A situation much like this has already occurred in Matthew’s gospel. Earlier in chapter eight the disciples are crossing the sea with Jesus when a great storm rises. The boat is being swamped by waves and Jesus is sleeping! In their distress they wake Jesus and say, “save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Jesus’ reply is close to this one found in chapter 14, but not an exact parallel. Just before he calms the storm there in chapter eight, he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
In both instances Jesus has command over creation. In both instances the disciples cry out to Jesus, their Lord, to save them. In both instances Jesus does have mercy and saves despite their little faith. However, there is one major difference between the story in chapter eight and this story in chapter 14. At the conclusion of the first narrative Matthew records that the disciples are questioning among themselves, “what sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Now, as Jesus stands among them in the boat having walked across the water, allowed Peter to do the same, graciously saved the doubting Peter from sinking into the sea even though he has “little faith,” and calmed the wind, the disciples do the only thing they could possibly do having finally discovered who Jesus really is. They worship and confess. They prostrate themselves before Jesus and confess that he is truly the Son of God.
Now we see, just as the disciple saw. This man truly is the Son of God. More than a rabbi, more than a prophet, more than a priest, more than a king. God in the flesh. Immanuel—God with us.
This eyewitness account from Matthew reveals to us the answers to many of our deepest questions, giving relief to many of our greatest fears and doubts. Will Jesus hear us when we call on him in times of trouble? Will he be near when I need him most? When I doubt, will he still care for me? When my faith struggles to be even the size of a mustard seed, will he save, when I cry “Lord, save me?” Will he have mercy?
The answer is yes!
The promises he has made, he will keep. For when we are faithless, he will remain faithful. He has taken upon himself our sins, this suffering servant. He as borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows, he was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. He is the Lord of Life. The Lord who gives life. He has created all things. In his flesh he has redeemed all things. By him there is forgiveness and salvation. Even for those of “little faith.” This is Jesus is the Mighty One who has come to save.