Fear, Faith, and Foolishness

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [after feeding the multitude] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,  24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.  27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

28  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

How often has this happened to you?  You’re waiting in line to check out at the grocery store and you notice that the line just to your left only has one person in it!  So you push that cart like it’s NASCAR and you’re Bubba Wallace, and BOOM! before that lady who was just in front of you in the previous line has even noticed the opening, you’re offloading your Fig Newtons and frozen Chicken Piccata onto the conveyor belt.  You’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself  until you notice that the new line you’re in is… not… moving…  because the checker and the one customer ahead of you are apparently old friends who haven’t seen each other since the turn of the century, and they have decided that right here and right now at the checkout counter is the perfect place and time to catch up on the past two decades while your ice cream is getting squishy and you fidget behind them.  Oh, also the customer is writing a check…which the cashier has to stamp and initial and slide under the tray in the cash drawer as the customer enters all the details in the check register.  While… you… wait. Did I mention the ice cream?

And when it’s finally your turn with the cashier, as you glance up from entering your PIN number to pay for your seven items, you notice that the customer who was behind you in that first line you were in is already on her way out the door.

‘One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life,’ says the oldChinese proverb.  

We are not a very patient people, by and large, and Covid-19 has been trying our patience mightily.  Here are a few tidbits from a survey conducted by Wakefield Research for Fifth/Third Bank that show just how impatient we are.  Bear in mind that all of this data comes from before the pandemic:

  • 96% of Americans will knowingly consume extremely hot food or drink that burns their mouth; 63% do so frequently.   
  • More than half of those surveyed hang up the phone after being on hold one minute or less.
  • 71% frequently exceed the speed limit to get to their destination faster.
  • Americans will binge-watch an average of seven TV episodes in a single sitting  –again, that was before the pandemic.  I wonder what it is now.
  • Nearly a third of respondents ages 18-24 wait less than one second before bypassing a slow walker.
  • 72% of us will push an elevator button that is already lit hoping it will come faster.  By the way, it doesn’t.

It’s not just Americans.  A survey by OnePoll of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom found that a large percentage became impatient after waiting…

  • 16 seconds for a webpage to load
  • 25 seconds for a traffic signal to change from red to green
  • 20 seconds for ink to dry on a greeting card
  • 22 seconds for a movie to start streaming
  • 18 seconds looking for a pen
  • 28 seconds for a kettle to boil
  • 30 seconds in a line; 
  • 13 minutes to pick up luggage after a flight
  • 90 minutes for a response to a work e mail

50% admitted they would probably move to another queue if the one they are in appears to be moving more slowly.  45 % confessed to losing their temper when having to wait an ‘excessive’ amount of time.  “Excessive” was not defined.

So what, you might be wondering, does all this have to do with Peter’s attempt to walk on water?  Hang on, I’m getting there.

Impatience and anxiety go hand-in-hand.  Anxiety can cause impatience and impatience can often cause or increase anxiety.  

Anxiety is about control.  

Control is about a lack of trust.

People deal with anxiety in different ways, but since anxiety is essentially a kind of elongated state of diffused fear, our responses to anxiety tend to be diffused or displaced versions of fight, flight or freeze. 

I think this is an important element in this story of Peter momentarily walking on water, and that too often we overlook it.

Most often when preachers come to this story they focus on Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”  There is a whole “no fear” theology that has sprung up around this and other “be not afraid” sayings in the Bible.  There are books and websites that will tell you that in various forms there are 365 “no fear” sayings in the Bible, one for each day of the year, and that this is one of the central messages from God to us.  I, myself, have preached that a time or two.

Well, that idea has its merits.  It’s easy to let our fears and anxieties get the better of us and stop us from doing what God has called us to do, or even just what we need to do to live a basic self-actualized life.  Fear can stop us from acting in faith…or acting at all, for that matter.

Some say that fear is the opposite of faith, and sometimes that’s absolutely true.  I would point out, though, that indifference can also be the opposite of faith.  I would also point out that there’s a difference between being fearless and being impulsive, reckless, or just plain stupid.

So, be not afraid.  But also, be not foolish.  Fear is not all bad.  Fear is the built-in mechanism God gave us for self-protection.  It’s our early warning system.  Fear is that built-in voice that tell us to keep our eyes open.  

So let’s run this scene from the top.  

Jesus sends the disciples off in the boat.  He sends the crowds home then goes up the mountain for some much-delayed time alone.  Meanwhile, the sun has set, it’s dark, and out on the lake, far from land, the wind and the waves are making things scary for the disciples out in the boat.  That’s when, in the wee small hours of the morning, they see Jesus walking toward them. On the sea.  Walking on the water, just to be clear.  Something pretty far out of the ordinary.  They think he’s a ghost and their fear meter jumps straight up to terrified.  But Jesus calls out, “Courage!  It’s me!  Don’t be afraid!”

Notice again:  they think he is a ghost.  Layered on top of their already high anxiety due to the dangerous situation they’re in, they now have a very specific fear.  Jesus speaks to them to address that specific fear.  He’s not telling them to adopt a lifestyle.  “Look!  It’s me, Jesus!  Don’t be afraid!”

But Peter goes off the rails.

Peter was anxious.  His anxiety created impatience.  His impatience created more anxiety, which in Peter usually results in something impetuous and rash which is why he says one of the dumbest things yet: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

I can just see Jesus rolling his eyes.  Oy.

Remember when Jesus was tempted by the devil?  How did the devil begin each challenge?  “If you really are the son of God…”  There’s an echo of that here in Peter’s strange challenge.  And do you remember how Jesus responded to the devil at the end?  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Why would Peter say this?  The wind is howling.  The seas are roiling.  It’s dark and spooky. They’re all exhausted.  It’s a pretty strange time for an ordeal of faith.  And what if it had been an evil water spirit and not Jesus walking toward them—they did believe in such things, after all?  Wouldn’t such a being take delight in commanding Peter to come and then watching him drown?

Remember what I said about responses to anxiety and responses to fear—fight, flight or freeze?  From what we know about Peter, it seems pretty clear that his go-to response to anxiety is fight.  He’s a physical guy.  In this moment he needs to do something physical to fight his fear—something external to fight the fear that’s internal—and all the better if it can look like faith while he’s doing it.  So, impulsive as ever, Peter asks Jesus to command him to come to him, to walk to him across the water.

And to Peter’s credit, between the adrenaline, and his love for and faith in Jesus, for a few brief steps he manages to walk on water.  But have you noticed that Jesus doesn’t calm the wind and waves for Peter during his self-imposed test of faith?    

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Why did you doubt?

This looks at first as if Jesus is suggesting to Peter that his doubts caused him to sink—maybe doubted himself, maybe doubted Jesus.  But suppose for a moment that Jesus is really asking Peter why he didn’t stay in the boat.  Why did you doubt that it was really me when I told you it was me?  Why did you need to put us both through that dangerous little test?  Why did you doubt that I was on the way to the boat to save everybody?

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Impatience breeds anxiety.

Anxiety is about control.  

Control is about a lack of trust.

All over the country we’ve seen churches defying state health restrictions by worshipping in their sanctuaries or in large closely gathered crowds in spite of the still-rising numbers of Covid-19 infections. They claim that it is an act of faith, that they won’t be ruled by their fears.  But is this a faith that rests in and trusts in Jesus who is always coming to us across the troubled waters of our lives or is it an anxiety-driven need to prove faith?

They have claimed that their faith will protect them from the virus.  Sadly, that has too often proven not to be true.

Too many of us in this individualistic culture of ours have been trying to walk on water when all we’ve ever needed to do is stay in the boat.

As we sail on in this windy and turbulent pandemic sea, we need to let our faith, our trust, rest in Jesus who is walking toward our boat.  We need to remind ourselves that he will get here and calm the storm faster if we don’t slow him down with our impatient tests of faith.

In Jesus’ name.

Image credit: Melani Pyke

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