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Text: Matthew 14:22-33
How much faith, exactly, is a little faith? Is a little faith too little? Or is it just little enough? A little faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus tells us earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, is enough to command a mountain to go from here to there. How much faith is there in this story of Jesus and Peter and the stormy sea? Half a seed, maybe. Or was it more like two seeds.
It was a dark and stormy night, so the story goes. About three in the morning, that time when people get the creeps, when their energy is lowest, when their thoughts turn dismal. Jesus has sent them out into a storm. He commanded—made them, our translation says—had made the disciples to get into the boat, but he had not gone with them, preferring some quiet time alone, at last, after healing and feeding many many people. Meanwhile, the disciples were being bashed about by an opposing wind and the waves were threatening. It would not have been so odd if they wondered at that moment about Jesus. That they might have some doubts at this dark moment about this whole venture.
When Jesus shows up, he says to them: Cheer up! Which seems a little inappropriate. They are not sure it is Jesus. First of all, it is dark. Second of all, there are big waves. And third of all, the person they see is walking on the sea. Unusual. It’s me! says Jesus. But they wonder, even so. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. But it seems they are.
Peter, Jesus’ friend and follower, is like the transparent man. Whatever is happening inside of him you can see on the outside of him, in his actions and speech. Peter is a man of passion and impulse. So when Peter calls out to Jesus: “If it is you, command me to come to you,” we know that Peter already knows it is Jesus. What kind of proof is that, to be called? It is not the sign I would ask for. This is a kind of goof between Peter and Jesus. Jesus plays along. Come, Peter, Jesus says.
Peter has put himself in a tough spot. You can imagine the other disciples laughing at him, at what he has done. He challenged Jesus, Jesus challenged him back. He has no choice. He steps from the boat into the waves. And amazingly does not sink.
Where exactly is the faith of Peter here? The little faith that Jesus talks about. Is it on the one hand something that Peter has to start with, even though it is little? Is it that faith that somehow, as if by magic, keeps him afloat. Or on the other hand does Peter become faithful when he does not sink, even though he expected to? Is Peter surprised into faith? Is a little faith given to Peter by his actions?
Is faith something we have to have before we can do as Jesus calls us to do? Or is faith something we get by doing what Jesus calls us to do? Which comes first: empowering faith or courageous—or even goofy—action?
If Peter already has some reserve of faith, then where does he show it? And if instead he gets faith from his actions, when does that happen? Is there some special ”faith moment“ when his faith and action meet? If so, where is it? Is it when Jesus calls out to him? Is it when he doesn’t sink? Or when he starts to sink? Or when Jesus saves him? Or even when Jesus calls him a person of little faith? Do we have faith moments, and if so do they come for us in miracles or do they come when miracles fail us? Or do they come when, in our hardest times, it seems to us that Jesus reaches out to us?
In this story the turning point—and maybe the faith moment—is when Peter first challenges Jesus to call to him, Peter, to walk over the water. A better word for faith—as you have heard me say many times already—a better word for faith is “trust.” When Peter first speaks to Jesus, he already trusts in Jesus. He challenges Jesus because he knows that Jesus is trustworthy. That no matter what Jesus does, Peter will be safe. Peter’s belief is not changed by anything in the story. Peter learns no new facts about God and God’s ways. Instead, Peter acts on the basis of his trust in Jesus, and that trust is confirmed and strengthened by what happens next. Peter does as Jesus commands. Peter gets into trouble. Jesus saves Peter.
Today we celebrate [a worshipper's] confirmation. The celebration is more formally known in the Lutheran church as the affirmation of baptism. There are two things about this.
First, it is not called the “completion of baptism” or the “finishing touches of baptism” or even “the commencement of life after baptism” (as if it were a graduation ceremony). In one sense, nothing will be accomplished today that wasn’t already happening.
And second, it is not called the “affirmation of strong beliefs” or “the affirmation of knowing all there is to know about Christianity.” Today is a reminder to J___ that she has been baptized into the community of Christ and that, as an adult, she has a chance to say, “Yes, that’s right. I’m good with that.”
So today is a time of recognition and gratitude and hope. And it is part of an ongoing and surprising life of faith.
Faith is not a thing of the moment. So in the story of Jesus and Peter there is not any special faith moment. Faith and trust develop over time. And rarely smoothly. So in the story Peter is not sure of Jesus, then believes Jesus, then has doubts about Jesus, then trusts Jesus again. That is how faith goes in real life. It like in that Dr. Suess book, On Beyond Zebra. There is no series of steps A to Z in the story of one’s faith. It goes way past Z. Or like in my favorite Suess, McElligott’s Pool. There are events in the future of our relationship with God that are beyond imagining.
Like ours, Peter’s life is a whole bunch of little faiths interspersed with a whole bunch of little doubts.
Why did you doubt, you of little faith. So Jesus asks Peter. What do you hear in Jesus’ voice? Do you hear complaint and judgment? Or do you hear, as I do, affection for Peter. And for his enthusiasm and his struggles and the seriousness with which he takes the questions of life and God.
Why did you doubt? asks Jesus. The word here means “have second thoughts.” But Jesus knows why. We all have second and third and on-beyond thoughts. That is the nature of a life with God.
Jesus knows that faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. They are in the same realm. In the realm of one’s relationship with God. In that realm we walk with humility, trusting not so much in our own convictions and conclusions as in God’s good wishes for us, And trusting God’s eagerness to call us as Jesus called Peter: Come!