Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, August 13, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 11

Pentecost 13, 2023
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In my former life, I played at hundreds of youth gatherings and youthworker events.  And I’ve heard dozens of preachers use this gospel story to berate people into bad theology.  I have heard tons of speakers turn this story into one about Jesus condemning Peter, and ridiculing him for his lack of faith.  Over and over I've heard that the point of this gospel text is for us all to somehow get more faith than Peter, so that Jesus won’t embarrass us for our lack of faith.  That is not right.  That is turning this text on its head, and—no surprise—making it about ourselves rather than about Jesus.  Using this story to tell people they have to measure up, try harder, straighten up and fly right, get more faith.  And as I’ve said many times to you over the past few months, when we make the stories about Jesus into stories about ourselves, it always ends badly.

So I am here this morning to set the record straight.  Our take away from this text should not be, “If Peter had only had more faith he would not have sunk.”  Nor should our takeaway be, “Jesus is criticizing Peter for not having more faith than Peter has.”  Nor should you pay any attention to anyone who says or writes, “If you want to walk on water, get out of the boat.”

So let’s start here . . . the Bible didn’t drop out of the sky into our pew rack fully formed in its final state.  The original texts were mostly in Hebrew and Greek, which is why people in seminary have to take those languages . . . or used to have to take those languages.  If you want to know what the writers of the New Testament actually wrote, it is crucial to have at least some familiarity with Greek.  And this is a case where looking at the Greek gives you a completely different understanding of the text.  That happens sometimes.  

The key to getting this particular story right turns on one Greek word, which I promise only to say once.  And that word is: Ὀλιγόπιστε.  That’s the word that gets translated as “You of little faith.”  Or, in the King James, “Ye of little faith.”  And we’re so familiar with that phrase that we use it in everyday language.  Like when someone is doubting whether I could sink a basketball from half court, or what have you.  You do something surprising, or you take on some big challenge, and you might turn to your friend and say, “Ye of little faith, just watch!”  Which is just a stone’s throw from “Hold my beer.”  But that is misunderstanding this text, and what Jesus is saying here.

That little word, the one I promised only to say once, is an adjective, turned into a noun.  The word means “little faith,” and it’s one word.  Jesus is calling Peter, “Littlefaith,” like a nickname, or a term of endearment.  My little faith one.  It is not a judgment.  It is not a criticism.  It is a comfort.  It is reassuring.

And that is why I have been driven crazy for so long at hearing others turn this text upside down, making Jesus into a scolding demi-god, who walks on water and ridicules a mere human who cannot do the same.  Jesus does not mock his little faith ones.  He does not taunt us for not being Jesus!  And you know why he doesn’t?  Because faith itself is a gift from God.  Faith is granted to us by God’s grace, not because we deserve it.  And, besides, what kind of God criticizes people for not having enough of what only God can give?  It makes no sense.

We must be careful not to turn faith into a competition, where the good people get a bunch of faith and the bad people don’t get any.  We’re already living in a system that views morality in this way:  Good people get more good stuff as a reward, and bad people go to jail because they’re bad.  That’s the way of the world; that is not the way of God.  Faith is a gift; we cannot get more of it by trying harder.

Jesus says, “My little faith one, why did you doubt?”  Aha, you may be saying!  See?  Jesus is judging Peter for his doubt, which is what caused him to fall into the sea!  Maybe.  But, actually, no; I don’t think so.  Because notice what comes right before that.  As Peter begins to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!”  And Jesus does.  What Peter is doubting is not his ability to walk on water.  I mean he was just doing that, for crying out loud!  That little faith one was totally walking on the water.  Amazing!  But when he begins to sink, he panics.  He screams out because he does not trust Jesus to save him.  That is Peter’s doubt.  Peter panics because he doubts Jesus’ willingness or ability to save him.

And so, obviously, Jesus yells at him, right?  No.  Of course not.  I mean, would you yell at your beloved Little Faith one?  Imagine you’re teaching a beloved child to ride a bike.  She goes a little bit and starts to fall sideways, panics, and screams out to you, and you catch her before she falls and gets hurt.  You might say to her, “My little biker, why did you doubt that I would catch you?”  What you would not say is, “You of little bike riding ability, why did you fall?”  You see how different that is?  My little faith one, why did you doubt?  It is caring, and reassuring.  And, maybe more importantly, it is not Jesus saying, “You got this,” and watching you fall, with his arms folded, shaking his head.  Not even close.  Rather, it is Jesus saying, “I got you,” and lifting you up.  When you fall, I’ve got you.

Jesus does not call us to have the faith to walk on water.  Or pick up snakes.  Or cast out demons.  What Jesus calls us to do is trust him.  Trust him to save us when we are sinking below the waves.  Trust him to save us when we all eventually sink below the earth.  Jesus will reach down for each one of us and pull us up to the resurrected new life.  Do not doubt it, my friends.

But of course, we do doubt it.  And that’s the best part, actually.  Because doubts don’t stop Jesus from saving Peter, do they?  Jesus still reaches down and pulls him up.  Peter’s fear and doubt do not stand in the way of God’s salvation.  Just as your fears and doubts cannot stop Jesus from saving you when you need him most.  Jesus will lift up you and me, his little faith ones, and welcome us with open arms.

And I also want to note, Jesus was coming to the disciples.  He was on his way.  When people say, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat,” you should turn to them and say, “No thanks.”  Why on earth would you get out of the boat when Jesus is on his way to you?  Peter’s challenge to Jesus, saying “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” is ridiculous!  And it also sounds a lot like, “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread,” doesn’t it?  “Lord, if it is you, command the other disciples to hold my beer.”  Peter, little faith guy, just stay in the boat, okay?  Jesus is coming.

Now I can almost guarantee you that at some point in your life, someone is going to use this story about Jesus and Peter as a way to say, if you would only have enough faith, you could walk on water.  Which implies that if you can’t, you are somehow a failure.  Or cursed.  One without enough faith.  But don’t believe it, because that is not the point of this story, as I hope I’ve made clear by now.

We are the little faith ones of Jesus.  And it is the power of Jesus calling to us that allows us to do miraculous things, like feed the hungry, or comfort those who mourn, or teach a child about Jesus.  Jesus calls to us, like he called to Peter.  And the things we do together as the people of God are no less miraculous than Peter walking on the water.  

Sure, we too have our doubts, our anxieties, our fears.  We will have moments when we think we are beyond redemption, beyond forgiveness, beyond help.  And in those moments, Jesus reaches down to us and says, “Little faith one, why did you doubt?”

And this morning, Jesus reaches down in a different way, as he does every time we gather together in this place.  And in the bread and wine, he offers the assurance that he is with us, in body and blood, given for you.  As we gather at this Altar to celebrate the eternal feast with the saints of every time and place, we bring our doubts, and our fears, and our concerns for the future.  And to each one of us, Jesus says:
My Little Faith One, do not doubt.  I have redeemed you and you are mine.  Stay in the boat.  I am coming to meet you, right where you are.


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