Stepping Onto The Stormy Waters
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
How many of you have visited St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome? It is, by most measures, the biggest church in the world—now that Hagia Sofia is no longer a church or a mosque but a museum. While several architects helped with the design, it was Michelangelo who brought those designs together and made them a beautiful, cohesive structure. It is marble everywhere with a soaring dome that dominates Rome’s skyline. After all, it’s the second tallest building in the city. And St. Peter’s is certainly one of the richest in terms of ornamentation. It is home to countless pieces of priceless art, ancient bells, and relics from the earliest years of Christianity.
To get to the church, you first go through St. Peter’s Square, an enormous plaza lined by two long, ornate rows of columns. It was built so that as many people as possible could gather and receive the pope’s blessing.
St. Peter’s is, according to many Christian historians and architects, the greatest of all churches in Christendom. Everything about it, from its square to its altars to its windows, was designed to evoke a sense of awe.
It is also the final resting place for 91 popes, from Ignatius of Antioch, who died in the second century, to Benedict XVI, who was laid to rest there just this year. And guess who else is supposed to be buried beneath the church? St. Peter, of course. The first Bishop of Rome. The first pope.
Yes, that very same Peter who in today’s gospel is basically saying, “Look, Jesus, I’m doing it!” Right before he starts to sink under the waves. That same Peter who last week said, “let us build dwellings for these three amazing people,” and God is like, “No.” That same Peter who exclaims, “but you can’t die, Jesus,” provoking Jesus to respond, “Get behind me, Satan!” That same Peter who said he would never deny his relationship with Jesus but then does so three times on the night before the crucifixion.
So how is it that this famously bumbling disciple became so important, so beloved in our tradition that arguably the greatest church in the world, along with countless other smaller, humbler churches, bear his name?
Well, first let’s talk about water. Water is a literal and symbolic force in our faith. From our Jewish roots, in the beginning there was only water present in the formless void and darkness. A substance that predates even creation. When creation becomes evil, God floods the world with water to destroy and cleanse it. And then God vows never to do it again. Moses parts the water to liberate the Israelites from slavery. When Jonah boards a ship to flee God’s call for him, a storm comes upon the water until the sailors throw him overboard and the water calms. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in water, creating a template for our own baptism in which water washes over us, cleansing us with grace, and welcoming us into the Body of Christ.
It seems that water represents God’s will, God’s desire for us, which is love—but sometimes tough love, which is another word for accountability. Our baptism covers us in God’s love and holds us accountable to that love. So water, in a way, symbolizes our calling as followers of Jesus.
So back to our guy Peter in today’s gospel. He’s on a boat with the other disciples, and things are getting choppy on the Sea of Galilee. They are being battered by the waves far from the land, the wind against them. But then, even more terrifying, they see a person walking on those choppy waves. Jesus is calm, unaffected by the stormy sea. A perfect symbol for an anchor in troubled moments, a touchstone when things get hard. Jesus’ trust in God is absolute, and not even the raging water can pull him under.
But none of us are Jesus. None of us have that kind of absolute trust. We’re human. Not God from God, not Light from Light, not conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But then there’s Peter. He may not be Jesus, he may be just another human, but he’s willing to trust when Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” I imagine him, brave, scared, maybe a little foolhardy when he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And when Jesus says, “Come,” Peter steps over the edge of the boat onto the water.
The thing is, none of the other disciples have the audacity to even think that they might be able to walk on the water with Jesus, let alone try. Ernest Campbell, who served as pastor at Riverside Church in New York City, said “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”
Peter risks believing. Peter risks his life for his trust in God. And yes, like a kid who finally gets a few pedals in when they manage to balance on their bike for the first time, he becomes self-conscious, afraid, and begins to sink.
But his trust was not misplaced. Jesus is right there and catches him and brings him to safety.
Maybe Peter is supposed to be the model for our faith. A human model. Imperfect. Blundering. But he never stops trying to learn. He never stops trusting. He’s willing to ask the seemingly dumb question in order to get to the more faithful answer. He’s willing to put his ideas out there even when he knows Jesus is right there to set him straight when he’s off base, sometimes sharply. He’s willing to step out of the boat and into the raging water.
When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith,” I wonder if he’s thinking about the mustard seed, which he’d just taught the disciples about not long before in that same location, just in the previous chapter of this gospel. “It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.”
The smallest of all seeds who becomes the cornerstone of God’s community in this world, the first bishop of Rome, the namesake of perhaps the grandest church in the world that many of us have traveled halfway around the globe to experience.
Theologian William H. Willimon wrote, “I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith.”
Your baptism, however lovely or compulsory or dramatic, was probably a little less intense than some. Jonah asks the sailors to throw him into the raging sea. Peter steps out of the boat far off shore and into the storm. After Jesus is baptized, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
But your baptism, no matter how it happened, has one thing in common with each of these: it is a call from God into the deeper waters of our hurting world, the stormy waters. It is a call into God’s purpose for our life, which is always love and love beyond ourselves, beyond the people who are easy to love.
After all, Jesus says, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” That’s what Peter did. He was willing to risk everything to follow Jesus. To step out of the safety of the boat into the deep and raging waters of the world, trusting that Jesus would uphold him.
Yes, he faltered. And Jesus picked him up. Yes, throughout his time with Jesus, he kept trying and stumbling. But with every stumble he learned more about the Kingdom of God. And in the end he became the cornerstone of God’s Church in this world.
Which makes me wonder: What might we become, what might our world become, if each of us risks stepping out of the boat into the deep and raging waters?