Pentecost 10A 1 Kings 19:9-18 Matthew 14:22-23
Have you ever had one of those days when it seems like everyone is working against you and everything is going wrong? You pour the cereal for breakfast and the milk is out of date. The shopping cart at the grocery store has some wheels going your direction and one with a mind of its own. Yet another person has cut over in front of you in traffic. You cannot get anyone understand your perspective on this or that really important thing, even though your point is painfully and obviously correct! Everyone else has things their way, but nothing seems to go your way. You feel like whining, “Why is this happening? Why is everyone against me?”
Times like this can make us feel like we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. We often think when things are going our way, we must be doing something right. We may say something like “everything just fell into place” or “once I decided to go to this school, take this job, marry that person, leave that town, everything started going right for me.” The world is helping us along so I must be doing a good thing! Well, maybe. But meeting with a lot of resistance does not mean we’re NOT doing the right thing. If a good number of the musicians, painters, sculptors, political leaders, religious thinkers, scientists, poets and writers had assumed that resistance was futile and people disliking what they did or even outright opposing them meant they should give up, the world would likely be a sadder, less beautiful place than it is.
Most of all, we need not assume that God is against us when life gets tough.
Elijah was one of those people whom others consistently opposed. Of course, he’d set himself up against those who worshiped deities other than Yahweh. God called Elijah to speak to the people of God and call them back to worshiping him. After a big showdown between Elijah and many prophets of Ba’al (a showdown where Elijah was clearly shown to be the prophet of the true and living God), he was hunted by Queen Jezebel who, no doubt, intended to kill him. He ran like lightning into the wilderness and that is where we find him today in our Old Testament lesson; in a cave inside the mountain of God.
“Elijah, what are you doing here?” God asks. And Elijah begins a great lament. I have been zealous for you, I have done all these things, despite the fact that everyone else has turned from you, and I alone am left and they are out to get me!
God tells Elijah to go outside of the cave and wait because he is going to pass by and some very impressive things start to happen. There is a great wind so strong it could split mountains, an earthquake and a fire. But God is not in any of those things. Finally, there is silence. Elijah steps to the entrance of the cave and God asks him again-what are you doing here? And Elijah repeats his lament again. Everyone is against me!
God does not tell the prophet: well, if it’s hard you can just quit. Or: I guess that means that you’re not doing the right thing. Or: try to be a little nicer next time. Smile! People like it when you smile! Or: hmmm, maybe I got it wrong.
Nope. Instead, God gives him more to do. First, God confirms who God is by all of that wind and shaking earth and fire. Even though all those things are impressive, frightening, maybe even terrifying, and all most assuredly under God’s control, that is not where God resides. God resides not in the frightening, massive forces that are aligned against Elijah. God is in the stillness with him. Second, God affirms Elijah by giving him more to do, all of which is a continuation of his original call.
Jesus also frequently found himself in a position where it seemed everyone was against him. C.S. Lewis writes that Jesus was definitely not a “picture of …. [a] balanced, [well] adjusted, happily married, employed, popular citizen. You can’t really be very well adjusted [if the world] says you have a devil and ends by nailing you up naked to a stake of wood.”(The Four Loves, pg 54) Though we often assume Christianity to be the ‘norm’, Jesus was not the ‘norm’ for his time. I’m not certain that we are meant to be the ‘norm’. Regardless, we can be certain that Jesus and his disciples met with great resistance.
The gospel text for today finds the disciples in a boat battered by waves and struggling in the wind. Even these forces of nature are against them! Much has happened since they first met Jesus on the shore that day when he called them to follow him. They have witnessed Jesus’ healing people, casting out demons, cryptic parables, arguments with Pharisees who most certainly did not like Jesus or his followers, and miracles like the multiplying of small portions of fish and bread to feed thousands. The tensions between their rabbi, Jesus, and those Pharisees are growing and while Jesus is popular with some people, he is becoming increasingly unpopular with others. These opposing forces are not going to lessen but rather increase dramatically in the days to come. Now, in their boat battered by wind and waves pressing against them and far from shore, the rocky ride might have felt just like the rest of their lives.
Lately, it seems like we are experiencing a lot of winds and earthquakes and fire. Rolling seas loom on all sides. From violent protests and threats of nuclear war, to the battles we fight within our own personal lives, our world feels full of fear, enemies, storms, and all kinds of things pressing against us, threatening harm. We might really relate to the disciples’ situation. We are all in this boat together, we are far from shore, and we could use some help right about now.
The disciples see some kind of apparition or ghost walking towards them on the water! They are, understandably, terrified! They are all crying out in fear! But this apparition speaks to them and tells them, “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!”
Peter answers this apparition and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Ah, brave and faithful Peter! “Lord, if it is you.” There is something different about Peter’s calling to Jesus as he is walking on the waves, something other than Peter’s great faithfulness. It is almost a challenge. Peter is almost, well, perhaps he actually is, challenging Jesus to prove himself. Understandable really, when you see a ghost on the water in the middle of a life threatening tempest. If it is you, do this so I will know.
If you are who you say you are, prove it. This is what Satan says to Jesus in the wilderness and it is what those who taunt him say as he hangs on the cross. It is the Pharisees who demand proof from Jesus, as does the High Priest at his trial before his crucifixion. If you are who you say you are, prove it.
As far as I can find, there is no place in the gospels before the resurrection where Jesus ever complies with this challenge, no place where he does anything to give a response to answer the demands of anyone who calls for proof… except for here. It may not be great faith but doubt that motivates Peter’s words. Fear, anxiety and doubt. If you are indeed Jesus, I’ll do anything for you, even walk on these tumultuous waves, but I am scared and I need to know it’s really you.
This story about the disciples, and specifically Peter’s words and actions, is like our own stories of life’s stormy seas. It is less about Peter’s great faith in Jesus, about our faith in Christ, and more about Peter’s doubt and Jesus’ faith in Peter; Jesus’ faith in us! Jesus’ presence with us in the heart of the storm.
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus simply says, “Come.” With one word, he does for Peter what he has not and will not do for Satan or the Pharisees or the High Priest or even for those who will crowd around his cross as he dies.
Come. And he does. Peter steps out of the boat and begins walking on the water in the storm toward Jesus.
It might be tempting to say that Peter began to sink because he took his eyes off Jesus. The truth is, we don’t know anything about where Peter is looking until he notices the strong wind. Scripture does not tell us where Peter is looking, only that he gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water to Jesus. Do you get that? He’s in the middle of this great big storm, the watery world around him tipping and rolling, and he’s WALKING ON THE WATER! Talk about doing something amazing when it seems like everything is against you! Following Jesus’ call no matter what, he just gets out of the boat and walks on the stormy sea.
But then, like Elijah, like we all sometimes do when things get rough, Peter realizes a powerful force is working against him and believes that he cannot stand against it. He wasn’t supposed to be doing this. He wasn’t supposed to be walking on water. He was frightened. He was beginning to sink.
“Save me Lord!” he cries out. And immediately, Jesus reaches out to catch him. It is important to note that Jesus does not say: oh, that’s ok; you’re not supposed to walk on water. Or: why did you get out of the boat in the first place? Or: you should have brought your personal flotation device. Or: shame on you for asking for proof of who I was! I should let you drown! No, instead, he tells Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Maybe Jesus meant: why did you doubt and therefore sink? But it is also quite likely that Jesus meant: I called you onto the water, so why would you ever think I wouldn’t save you? There is no indication that he is even angry with Peter. Jesus and Peter get back into the boat with the rest of the disciples and the disciples worship Jesus, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.”
These stories about Peter and Elijah tell us something about what it means to be called and sent by God. This is important for all of us because God calls each of us for some purpose in this world. These scenes from the lives of these two faithful men show us that following God is sometimes hard, scary and sometimes we fail. But God never fails us.
Elijah and Peter will both fail at different times in their ministries. They will succeed, too. Some days will be hard for them, some will be easier. Mistakes, doubts, confusion, the doubts of others, and the forces aligned against them; none of these things mean that the path they were on, the path following God, was the wrong path. And they never walked it alone.
There are times when it seems like everyone is against us, as though things in life are pushing us further and further away from shore. Times when our decision to do whatever we believe God is calling us to do is met with obstacle after obstacle. There are times we are desperately afraid. There are times when we sink, run away and hide in a cave, lament our situation and even doubt and want proof that God is indeed who God claims to be.
But these stories also show us something far more important about God. Often, God has more faith in us than we have in God! God believes that whatever we have been called and sent to do we are capable of doing with God’s help. When we are in the middle of life’s storms, tossed about on the wind and waves of life, wondering if this is really what God had in mind for us or for our lives, it is hard to believe or even understand God’s presence with us. But God IS with us, even when it looks bad and, most especially, when we doubt.
When we sink, when we are exhausted, Jesus lifts us up, gives us the stillness that only comes from God, and gets right back in the boat with us.