by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
August 10, 2008
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
“O man of little faith why did you doubt?” — Matthew 14:31
In this story Matthew continues his account of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God by showing us another facet of faith. He has told us that faith can be as small as a mustard seed; is he contradicting himself here where he accuses Peter of having too little faith? Clearly not because there are two ideas of faith in play, and so we should not be comparing apples and oranges.
The faith of the mustard seed is authentic faith that follows through, and a smidgen of that kind of faith is all you need. The faith of Peter on the water is authentic faith that does not follow through but turns to doubt. It is worth our while to spend some time today contemplating the nature of faith in the latter circumstances.
There is a kind of “faith” in corners of our current culture that is a form of “positive thinking.” I date myself when I tell you that my idea of positive thinking comes from Norman Vincent Peale and his book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” This is a kind of self-deception and self-hypnosis that came into its own in this country with the amazing phenomenon of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science at the end of the 19th century and passed into the discourses of salesmanship and athletic coaching in the 20th. Today and still, after many years, the most famous of its religious practitioners is Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California.
Positive thinking interprets our story as follows: as long as Peter believed that he could walk on the water he walked; just as soon as he began to doubt his ability he began to drown. Therefore, believe in yourself and your own power to achieve your goals and you will succeed. There is some truth in this and one catastrophic falsehood. The truth is that there are self-defeating patterns of thought and action that cause us to sabotage ourselves and it is good to get rid of them. The falsehood is that Peter walked on the water because of his own mental hygiene rather than because he was obeying Jesus. He began to drown when he lost confidence not in himself but in Jesus.
So many presentations of the Gospel substitute faith for Jesus. Faith as positive thinking, faith as heroic affirmation of things we know to be impossible or untrue, faith as the highest human achievement, faith as a necessary condition of grace (when grace is the ground of the possibility of faith), these are just some of the ways we displace the incarnate God from our lives and substitute human action for divine. In the universal embarrassment of talk about Jesus, even atheists can speak of faith as at least a licit category while Jesus is a scandal and an offence. The NT tells us that the demons have faith and shudder (James 2:19). So we Christians too easily give over our only treasure, the life-giving name, Jesus, and peddle nostrums of faith and reason that are powerless to heal or help us and mostly fill the airwaves with sad defeat. Some of even end up with Schuller where we have turned the light that is in us into darkness (Matthew 6:22-23) and in a fatal act of idolatry made our own mental force the world-redeeming savior.
Faith in our story is obedience to Jesus, and steadfast confidence in him despite the waves that threaten to overwhelm us. Here is faith in the darkness of the storm at three o’clock in the morning: a Dutch Christian Etty Hillsum writes from a Holocaust camp:
“And the English radio has reported that 700000 Jews perished last year alone in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive, we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I do not think life is meaningless. And God is not accountable to us for all the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him! I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know everything and am no longer appalled at the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. Yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.”
Peter walked on water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus; he began to drown when he shifted his gaze to the waves of chaos around him. Etty Hillsum in a manner of speaking, also walked on water, but she kept her eyes on Jesus and was enabled to see the beautiful and the meaningful in the midst of the chaos and because Jesus Is the creating Lord of the chaos she knew she was on the winning side in the midst of loss, and a ray of light in the midst of darkness.
Peter looked too intently at the chaos and allowed it to cow him; he began to fear and fear began to cast out love and he began to drown in chaos. The lesson of this story is clear; I do not need to spell it out any more.
Let me conclude with this; F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “in the dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” That is about the time of our story (the sixth watch). Jesus comes to us walking on top of our chaos and invites us to follow him there. We get out of our refuge, the boat where we have been hiding from the storm and we follow him. We keep following him in utter confidence that he is the Lord of all chaos, so why not mine? We look to him, and then we see not the threats so much as the promises, and above all we rejoice in the promise that he will never leave us nor betray us. On this word we can rely.
Finally: Did Jesus really, actually walk on the waves?
What kind of a question is that? Who do you think he is: Just a metaphor of our wildest dreams or the real presence of the Creator God? Let’s have done with ungrateful unbelieving quibbles and worship the incarnate God in gratitude and wonder.