Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: "Taking the Second Step", Matthew 14 (August 10, 2014)


Today, we get to talk about Peter. St. Peter, if you’re so inclined. We all know him as somewhat of a Christian heavy-weight, right? One of Jesus’ closest friends, the leader of the early Church, and the first-ever pope, many people consider Peter to be one of the most important figures in Christian history.

The writer of Matthew, in particular, seems to be quite enamored with this disciple. He regales us with story after story about Peter, depicting him as a sort of Robin to Jesus’ Batman. Interestingly, though, these stories don’t always show Peter in the most positive light. We find ourselves again and again slapping our foreheads in disbelief at Peter’s ignorance, arrogance, or just plain cluelessness. In addition to today’s gospel reading, he seems to completely miss the point of the Transfiguration, he scolds Jesus for daring to proclaim his own death, he dozes off during Jesus’ darkest hour, and he famously denies Jesus three times just before the crucifixion. Pretty rotten behavior for a sidekick.

Personally, though, I can understand the gospel writer’s portrayal. In Matthew, Peter kind of reminds me of Charlie Brown: eager to please but always getting it wrong, the guy you root for again and again no matter how many times he falls down, the one your heart just goes out to. And relatable. My goodness, does Matthew make Peter relatable! In this gospel, Peter isn’t depicted as the future leader of a brand new faith; he’s one of us, just trying to use our limited human knowledge and experience to figure out what the heck Jesus is trying to teach us. Just another guy on a journey, like us.

Because that’s part of what the gospels are about, you know. Yes, they tell us the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, but they also tell us about the people all around him who were struggling to make sense of this incredible man, this incredible thing that God was doing. And every question they asked, every mistake they made, every miracle they witnessed, was just another part of their journey to better understand and follow Christ.

Today’s gospel lesson illustrates this point particularly beautifully. The story about Jesus walking on water appears in three of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, and John—but only Matthew recounts Peter’s part in the adventure. In this gospel, the story goes further than just another miraculous demonstration of Jesus’ power. It gives us a glimpse of how one man personally responds to this miracle—not just in word, but in action.

After a harrowing night in rough seas, Peter sees his friend and master walking toward him across the water, and he excitedly jumps at the chance to join him. He calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” In Matthew, this is the first time that Peter is discussed independently of all the other disciples. Perhaps this is the moment that he sets himself apart as the one who is to guide the church through its earliest days. At any rate, Jesus does as Peter asks, and Peter takes a step on to the troubled waters. Scripture makes a point to tell us that this first step is successful. He makes progress towards his rabbi. However, when he feels the strong wind and remembers the situation at hand, he panics. He doubts. By his second step, his foot plunges below the surface of the water: Peter is sinking.

Now, before we begin to shake our heads once again at Peter the theological dunce, let’s take a minute to really appreciate the situation here. Picture the person in your life who you trust more than anyone in the entire world, either from the past or present. The person that you would follow to the ends of the earth if he or she asked you to go. Now imagine a life-threatening situation—maybe you’re hiding somewhere with a gunfight occurring inches away from you. All of a sudden, this person comes walking toward you in the midst of the blazing guns. You’re astounded that they’re relaxed and, more importantly, completely unharmed. In a moment of excitement and wonder, you cry out, “I want to do that!” Your loved one offers a hand and says, “Come to me.” Somehow overcoming your sense of self-preservation and fear, you take a bold step into the fray. It’s like walking in between raindrops; not a thing touches you. But then, as you take your second step, a bullet whizzes by your ear, and all of your confidence is gone. No matter how much you trust this person, the panic begins to set in. Bullets begin to graze your clothing, and you cry out for your loved one to save you.

So can we really blame Peter? I mean, he had been there when Jesus had calmed the sea before in Matthew 8, so maybe Peter assumed that the sea would be calm when he stepped onto it. Maybe his doubt only set in when he realized that it wasn’t happening this time. Why wasn’t Jesus making this easy for him?

Here’s my theory. This was not just another opportunity for Jesus to flex his miracle muscles. It wasn’t just another chance to show off and prove his divinity. I think that this situation, with Peter walking on the water towards Jesus, was a training station at apostle boot camp. See, following Christ was not going to be easy. Jesus had just explained this to the twelve back in chapter ten during their first commission. Not only would the disciples encounter people who act violently in response to their message, but they would also struggle with their own conviction and commitment. Fortunately for the disciples, Jesus doesn’t seem to have been a “trial by fire” sort of guy. During his time on earth, he carefully prepared his followers for the difficult journey ahead of them.

So, Jesus took this opportunity on the Sea of Galilee to test Peter. He knew that Peter was eager to follow him in faith and love, but he also knew that Peter wasn’t ready. This becomes clear to us, as well, as the story plays out. Peter’s first step wasn’t a problem: he already had the fervent desire to follow Jesus, and so he eagerly stepped out of the boat without any trouble at all. Besides, this was more than any of the other disciples had managed. But it was taking that second step towards his teacher that caused Peter to falter and his faith to waver. The failed second step showed that Peter still had work to do.

Peter’s brief stint with water walking represents the much longer journey that the disciples were called to during and after Jesus time on earth, and that we’re called to today. It’s important to remember that this journey isn’t just one of thoughts or ideas, but of actions. For us, as for Peter, the first step is often easy—we usually have a pretty good idea of what it looks like, what it entails, and what the results will be. It can manifest in many different ways: choosing to be baptized, committing to follow Jesus, joining a church, or just trying to find out more about this thing called Christianity. But it always is some sort of initial movement towards Christ. By virtue of being here, all of us have already taken that first step. Congratulations, we’ve made it out of the boat!

But one step does not a Christian make. See, we’re all invited by Christ to embark on a tumultuous journey that will lead us closer and closer to God each and every day. But the thing that breaks Jesus’ heart is that some people only ever make it as far as that first step. They cautiously step out of the boat onto the water, think, “Well, this is lovely; I think I’ll just stay right here, thank you,” and never bother to make any more progress. This can look different for different people. Some are baptized and then never darken a church door again. One step. Some people claim the title “Christian” but never bother to study scripture or learn about their faith. One step. But I think that one of the most common “first step” habits is coming to church for worship.

Before you get the wrong idea, of course I think it’s absolutely wonderful when people come to church every Sunday. As a pastor, this is one of the most exciting things that can happen for me. After all, you can’t undertake a journey unless you’re prepared for it, and worship is spectacular preparation. You can’t get to a second step unless there is a good solid first step preceding it. What I object to is when steady attendance is the sum total of a person’s faith. A favorite quote of mine says that “Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.” I have no idea what brilliant theologian coined that phrase, but I cling to it as an important reminder about my Christian identity. When we fall into the trap of believing that it is our church-going that makes us Christian, we rarely bother looking for that second step.

So the first step, whatever that might look like for you, is only the beginning, but I think we all know that even when we try to take the second, we don’t always make it. When we make the effort to follow Peter a little further over the water towards Christ, we encounter difficulty—the same kind of difficulty that Jesus anticipated for the disciples—and we falter. The strong winds surrounding us seem louder than God’s call, and our feet begin to fall beneath the water’s surface. If that second step for you looks like telling a friend about Christ, talking about God at home during the week, or undertaking a spiritual discipline, your strong winds might be cultural pressure, feeling like such actions won’t make a difference, or deciding to pursue an earthly pleasure instead. The second step is where stuff starts to get real, where the choice to follow Christ shifts from a life event to a life change.

But as you sit here, perhaps considering the second step opportunities that you may have passed up on in your own life, I don’t want you to make the mistake of thinking that failed second steps make you a bad Christian, or that you’ve disappointed God, or that you’re weak. Absolutely not! What these missed opportunities mean is that the journey is hard. And while this may be a disappointing realization for some, remember that God knows this and anticipates our struggle. When Peter faltered at his second step and called out to Jesus, Jesus was already there to lift him out of the water. In his response to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt,” many of us hear judgment and scolding. But might we be projecting our own shame onto the words we hear? After all, the most effective form of teaching is often not a bestowing of facts, but an invitation to inquiry. Might Jesus have been challenging Peter—and us—to consider what it is that stands in the way of that second step?

So how did Peter end up doing on the rest of his journey? Well, he needed Jesus to carry him back to the boat that day. And he continued to miss the point in Jesus’ teachings, and he fell asleep on the job, and he denied knowing his own master when the going got tough. But he didn’t give up. He kept trying to take that second step, and eventually—although it would be difficult to say at exactly which point it happened—he made it, and he took a third step, and a fourth. He found out, although he may not have realized it at first, that there will always be another chance to take that second step. That is what discipleship is. Not taking the same first step over and over again, thinking, “Well, this is nice; let’s do it again same time next week.” It’s not bad and it’s not wrong. It just isn’t enough.

So I ask you: what good is faith if we don’t take that second step? Of course, the journey is fraught with opportunities for failure and self-doubt, but this is a path to which Jesus himself has invited us. He will not abandon us when we falter, but will catch us and continue to urge us onward. So why not keep moving forward? Remember that in spite of all his doubts and mistakes and shortcomings, it was Peter’s perseverance and determination to follow Christ that earned him his new name: from Simon to Petros, “Rock”. Peter, the man who struggled to take that second step, became the rock upon which Christ built his church. If he can do it, why can’t we? Amen.

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