August 7, 2011
“Just a Little Faith”
A few weeks ago I was embroiled in an intense theological discussion with my 3 year-old, Josiah, courtesy of “Veggie Tales.” Those of you who have children (or grandchildren) are no doubt familiar with Veggie Tales- a series of children’s computer animated films featuring anthropomorphic vegetables, intended to convey biblical lessons spliced with themes in popular culture.
The episode was entitled, “God is Bigger than the Boogie Man” a story in which a frightened young asparagus named “Junior” is assured that “God is bigger than the boogie man, bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on T.V. God is bigger than the boogie man, and he’s watching out for you and me.”
As we were watching the show, Josiah (as per his custom) enthusiastically announced all the characters, one by one, as they appeared on screen. He was quite pleased with himself, having successfully identified nearly all the story’s characters. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he abruptly cocked his little head sideways and asked, “Where’s God Mommy?”
To his credit, it was perplexing. As the story’s hero one would expect this “God” character to make a notable, if not altogether grand appearance. But, as Josiah astutely observed, God never actually shows up.
Understandably confused, Josiah suspected God was perhaps disguised as one of the vegetables. Like a little detective he asked (quite suspiciously) of Bob the tomato, “Oh, is he God?” “No honey,” I responded, “Bob’s not God.” Similarly of Larry the cucumber he asked, “Is Larry God?” “Sorry babe, that’s not God either.” And of Jr. Asparagus, “Well, is he God?” “Nope.” I again replied, “not God.” Clearly dissatisfied and growing increasingly frustrated, he grabbed the battered movie case, hoping to catch a glimpse of God there. When he failed to find God’s picture on the box, he looked up, tears now (literally) streaming down his face, and cried, “Where’s God Mommy? I want to see God!”
The theologically trained part of my mind began to race. Surely I could provide an answer for my three year old. Perhaps I could try to describe the ubiquitous presence of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I could explain how God was made visible in Jesus. Or better yet, I could respond with the old Sunday school standby, “Like the wind, you may not be able see God- but you can feel God, and see the effects of God…” But quickly, I concluded none of these responses would actually satisfy Josiah’s urgent desire to see God for himself, right then and there.
So, instead of trying to provide some sort of 3-year-old-appropriate-yet-theologically-sophisticated answer, I concluded it better to simply honor his question, and respect the dignity and depth of his cry. And so, when he again yelped, “Where’s God Mommy? I want to see God!” I turned to my distraught, desperate-to-see-God son, and simply said, “You know what honey? I do too! I want to see God too!”
Though Josiah’s plea, “I want to see God” may sound to some like a cry of doubt, I think it was much more a cry of faith. It may have been a little faith coming from a small person; but it was faith, nonetheless.
And, as today’s gospel story reminds us, sometimes a little faith is all that’s needed. After all, today’s story is found in Matthew’s gospel; a gospel that illustrates over and over again how God works through little things, little people, and little acts of faith. In fact, it’s right after Jesus speaks of a tiny mustard seed of faith, and then multiplies just a little bread and a few fish, that we hear this morning’s story about Peter and his little faith.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Today’s story opens with an apparently tired Jesus who, after the miraculous feeding of the hungry multitude, orders his disciples to go on ahead of him and dismisses the rest of the crowd. He then spends the rest of the day having a personal spiritual retreat.
But while Jesus is resting, his disciples are working. While Jesus is in solitude, his disciples are together. While Jesus is on the mountain (considered in antiquity to be a meeting place between heaven and earth) his disciples are on the turbulent sea (considered, in antiquity, to harbor demonic forces.)
It’s really a striking juxtaposition. At the same time Jesus hunkers down in prayer, his disciples struggle to steer a boat battered by waves, swept far from land, and tossed about by violent winds. Unlike their teacher, the disciples have no down time. Instead, they are blue-lipped, worn-out and waterlogged, having faced hours of terror on the rocky sea.
But in this story, what makes the disciples most fearful aren’t the fierce winds or perilous waves. What makes them most afraid is the vision of a figure walking on the water toward them. Unable to recognize this figure as Jesus, they cry out with fear, “It’s a ghost!”
Now, one might think they’d welcome the sight of a being impervious to the sea’s whirling chaos; one who strolls effortlessly across its choppy surface. This figure was clearly capable of taming the violent waves and dangerous winds. He could be the answer to their prayers! But instead of greeting him with relief, the disciples shudder with terror and cry out, “It’s a ghost!”
It’s possible the disciples fear was rooted in the Hebraic thought that the unruly waters could only be mastered by one who had divine authority; one whose power transcended the power of the sea.
Perhaps, the sight of the figure evoked images of God’s Spirit hovering over the waters at Creation, or God liberating slaves from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Maybe it reminded them of the God of Israel exercising lordship over the “recesses of the deep” as Israel was led through the Jordan River. Or perhaps it was reminiscent of Job’s claim that “God alone tramples on the waves of the sea.” Whatever the case, the disciples were clearly more rattled, than reassured. It must be a ghost, for no mortal could demonstrate this kind of authority!
In response to their fear, Jesus quickly seeks to comfort them by calling out, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Without hesitation, Jesus speaks peace into their panic; Jesus speaks words of courage into their chaos.
Not only that, but the declaration “it is I” harkens back, (yet again) to the story of Israel. “It is I” are the same words used by the Septuagint- when God’s Hebrew name was revealed to Moses- the name that is, “I AM.”
“Take heart, it is I (or) I AM, do not be afraid.”
Jesus, it would seem, not only speaks words of comfort to the fearful disciples, but he proclaims his unique relationship to the God of Israel. Jesus declares, “I AM the one who tramples the waters; I AM the one who has dominion over the deep; I AM here to deliver my people from trouble! I AM here, once again, to save you. Take heart, it is I…I AM…do not be
And what happens next, is where this version of the story differs from other gospel accounts. Only here, in Matthew’s gospel, are Peter and his “little faith” mentioned.
I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. Like all of us, he’s a bundle of contradictions. He’s impulsive and he’s reluctant. He’s courageous and he’s cowardly. He’s the first to follow Jesus, but also the first to deny him.
He’s called “the Rock,” the disciple on whom the church is built. But he’s also called “Satan” and rebuked for being on of the side of men, not God.
It’s not hard to love Peter; and it’s certainly not hard to identify with him. He’s the quintessential “flawed follower” of Jesus. He is both saint and sinner- both finicky and faithful. One minute he’s focused and determined, the next he’s drowsy and distracted. Peter is everyman, everywoman. He is you; he is me. He doubts and he trusts. He loves and he betrays. He follows, and he falls. He steps out in faith, and he sinks.
It’s not surprising that for Peter, the words “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid,” simply don’t cut it. Peter needs to see Jesus for himself, he needs to test the waters; he needs to check this guy out and see if he’s legit. Peter needs to find out if the one who says, “it is I” is the One who is “I AM.”
And so, with a great sense of urgency and a little faith, Peter tests Jesus by saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” Peter steps out of the boat, and starts walking on the water. But, instead of fixing his gaze on Jesus, he becomes distracted by the chaos around him. It’s then he starts to sink and cries out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretches out his hand, catches Peter, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Many assume Jesus is scolding Peter here, rebuking him for not having enough faith. But the truth is, we don’t actually know the tone of the question. Some suggest it’s equally conceivable Jesus is amused, or at least not angry. Whatever the case, Peter’s faith is admirable, despite his slip-up. Though he temporarily loses his footing, only Peter leaves the familiarity and (relative) safety of the boat, rocky that it is. Only Peter risks his reputation, and possibly his life, to encounter Jesus.
Will Willimon put it this way:
“If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter never would have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. 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. The story today implies that if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.”
To be sure, Peter proved God’s promises, through trusting God’s promises. Through risk and venture, Peter came to not only recognize Jesus, but was rescued by him. Not only that, but when they finally got back in the boat- the wind ceased, and all those in the boat worshipped [Jesus] saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” What began as a practice of faith by one, culminated in profession of faith, by many.
As some of you know, I have the privilege of spending much of my time hanging out with university students. Some of the students God brings my way are spiritual nomads, while others are self-described skeptics. Some have been burned by the Church, while others have never stepped foot in a church. Almost all have misconceptions about whom the Church is and what the Church is for. Even those “raised in the Church” are often reluctant to adopt the label, “believer,” let alone “Christian.”
Though eager to debate religion, they are less eager to practice religion. Though many will discuss faith, few are willing to claim faith. I think one reason for this, is the popular misconception that certainty is a prerequisite for faith. There also seems to be concern over “how much” faith they possess. Countless times I’ve been told, “I would be a Christian, but I just don’t think I have enough faith.”
At times like these, I’m even more grateful for Peter’s witness, and his slippery journey with Jesus. I’m grateful I can point to Peter, and how he practiced his faith, little though it sometimes was.
I’m grateful for Peter, and so many other disciples (both past and present) who are living, breathing contradictions; followers of Jesus who step out in faith, wobbly and weak-kneed, often doubting, slipping, and even sinking along the way. I’m so grateful for Peter (and others like him) who despite their falls and fears, keep on getting up, over and over again, to take another risky step of faith.
But even more than Peter, I’m grateful for Jesus; the one who is right there to catch us as we stumble; Jesus, who continues to speak peace into our panic, and comfort into the chaos of our lives. Even more than Peter, I’m grateful for a God who chooses to work through little things, little people, and little acts of faith. For it is this One who reminds us that ultimately, it’s not about our faith (whether it’s big or little) but it’s about God’s faithfulness.
Though we may be tempted to think otherwise, this whole business of faith is really not about us at all, but it’s about the One who tramples the waters and has dominion over the deep. It’s about the One who asks us to take a risk, and just start walking toward Jesus, even when we can’t fully recognize him. It’s about the One who invites us to practice faith, even when we aren’t sure we have enough.
Though he’s sometimes hard to see, it’s this same Jesus who calls out to us, right here, right now, this very morning and assures us, “I am here- it is I- I AM, do not be afraid.”
And to that good news we are invited to worship, along with all the saints in every time and place, and proclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
© 2011, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
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