“When Swimming Lessons Aren’t Enough”
Rev. Mark M. Vickers
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Matthew 14:22-33New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
I was six years old, scarred to death as I entered the large glass doors of the downtown YMCA. The smell of heat, sweat, and the clammy feeling that seemed to engulf the walls, which of course were that sandy brown and green surgical tile! Even at age 6 I began to think, this must be like a prison. My mother, who in her 85 years of life, still hates water, led me by the hand down the hallway to the foggy glass doors, with the letters POOL in large capital letters blazoned one the glass. I did not know what was on the other side!
Yet with the fear, trembling, and a somewhat adventurous spirit I walked through the glass doors. I was greeted by several, what seemed to be like “old people,” that I later discovered were 17 and 18 years old. Greeting me with a smile and a promise “everything was going to be okay.” The reason this memory is so vivid to me is because of Brian Ronk. Brian, my neighbor, was there with us as well (it was a mother’s neighborhood plot) and was screaming at the top of his lungs!! “No, No !!” Hence, this illustration is all too graphic and real.
I endured many summers of swimming lessons as a child, got certified as a lifeguard, and ended up teaching swimming lessons for a couple of summers at camp. My swimming lessons paid off.
HOWEVER, even being trained as a swimmer and a lifeguard, there is no guarantee that will be enough. Sometimes water presents for us an issue we cannot deal with no matter how well we are trained or how much we practice. You know, life is like that as well. Sometimes, no matter how much we engage in the Christian faith, we can’t go it alone.
In our text this morning Peter is confronted with what I see as one of the most “real life” occurrences we see in the gospels. I know, I know, preacher “when was the last time you saw anybody walk on water?” Never, but I have seen and experienced many life situations when our faith is so strong that we could do anything! We have a faith in Jesus to keep us going no matter what! But when we doubt, when we, as Peter did, “take our eyes off of Jesus” so to speak, we falter. We begin to sink.
In 1987, I decided I was going to do my first triathalon. Yes, my first and my last! But I trained and trained and trained. I rode countless miles on my bike, ran countless miles on my feet, and swam like a fish. But what was really out of “my comfort zone” was swimming in “open water.” I trained on the Outer Banks, Virginia Beach and countless lakes. I felt pretty good about it on my flight to Indiana where the Ironman qualifier was to be held. It was near my home town, and I knew the lake in which we were swimming really well, having fished there as a boy. All was well and good until I stepped out of the car and looked over the lake, wow that was big! But it was too late to back out, to late to take my bike and go 800 miles home to NC. I had to do it! All well and good the race was without incident except I never took my eyes off the buoys that marked the swim course. I needed guidance, I needed to keep my eyes on the course. I didn’t sink!
But why do we sink? Why do we falter not only when our faith is shaken but when we fail to lay claim to Jesus as the Son of God?
We would all be well and good if Matthew would have just left this as the only story of this text, but it’s not. You see, the idea of keeping our eyes on Jesus, as the old hymn reminds us, is only part of the story.
It’s interesting that when Peter got back in the boat the disciples did not congratulate him for a “job well done.” What we hear is a proclamation that is found in some very significant spots in Matthew, “you are the Son of God!” Maybe the focus is not on Peter or the disciples, maybe, just maybe, it’s on Jesus! Quite often we tend to sway this passage to the point that “we must keep our eyes on Jesus,” we must keep the notion that this text is ABOUT JESUS, not the disciples. Sure, the disciples play an important role, but the fact of the text is that the disciples were scarred when they saw “the ghost” come their way, but Peter had a deep desire to keep that focus on Jesus.
Who walked on the water first? Jesus. Peter only comes after Jesus beckons him to come. It was not an initial “jump in the water” by Peter, but a summons by Jesus! This allows us to move beyond just the “faith issue” and focus on the sovereignty of Jesus as the Son of God.
Therefore, we have multiple messages in this text; keep our faith and keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus and proclaim and lay claim to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God.
Yet I believe it is the importance of this text to realize that this is the first time the disciples claim Jesus as the Son of God! For in the “calming of the storm narrative” in Matthew 8:23-27, once the storm is calmed the disciples only ask “who is this man,” here, in another ship and water related story the claim is made that Jesus is truly the Son of God!
When I learned to swim, I had mastered a skill. But over time, the skill has required work, practice, and more practice. But I have never forgot that the water was king! Similarly in life, our faith is a journey that requires us to practice, practice, to the best of our ability, yet realize that we can’t do it alone. In the Christian faith we must live according to what The Son of God has instructed us to do, even when our faith begins to shrink in the midst of a violent and disruptive world.
We must take note that in the gospel of Matthew, which we will hear a lot from over the course of the next several weeks, runs the divine theme “Don’t be afraid” with the overtones of Jesus uttering “I am, take heart.”
So when the water is rough, as it has been over the last several weeks, remember what our divine master has told us in the midst of the storm, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you always.”
AMEN & AMEN