Some of you may remember that I am not, as we say, a “cradle Episcopalian.” I was raised a Christian Scientist. One of the hallmarks of Christian Science is that members read daily not only from the Bible, but also from the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health. Now, Science and Health was first written in 1875 by the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, and although it went through hundreds of revisions by the time of her death, it always maintained its rather gilded Victorian literary style, with long, complicated sentences and an ornate, advanced vocabulary. Some of my earliest memories are of struggling to read aloud from this book, stumbling over phrases like “animal magnetism” and “infinite manifestation.” But it certainly helped my reading comprehension! As a little child, I could have easily told you the meaning of words like “omniscient” and “efficacious.” And it was because of this book that I first learned the meaning of the word “impetuous,” because it was used to describe your favorite disciple and mine, Peter.
Peter, the "impetuous disciple," he was called. I learned what impetuous meant not by looking it up in the dictionary, but by looking at what Peter did. Impetuous, I discovered, meant to act without thinking – to run off the edge of a boat with all of your clothes on, to lash out at your leader when he says something you don’t want to hear, and, of course, to step out onto the surface of the sea in the middle of a furious storm. To be impetuous is to be like Peter – impulsive, reactive, perhaps even a bit foolhardy.
At first glance, it would appear that today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is the most extreme example of Peter and his impetuous nature. The disciples are asea in the middle of a storm, bashed and beaten by the waves and the winds, struggling to steer their boat to shore but making little headway against the violent weather. Suddenly, they see a figure walking towards them on the water. They are, understandably, terrified, and reach for the first explanation that comes to mind – this must be a ghost, a specter, something extra-ordinary. But then Jesus speaks, “Cheer up! It is I. I am – fear not!” And here is where the impetuous Peter shows up. He looks out across the water, sees Jesus standing on the surface of the waves, and decides, Hey – I want to try that too! So he jumps out of the boat and tries to walk to Jesus. But when he feels the water splashing against the hem of his robe and the rain slapping him across the face, his brain finally catches up with the rest of his body. What am I doing, he asks? He looks around, wild eyed in fear, and almost immediately begins to sink. And so he cries out for help, Jesus reaches out and catches him, and they both get into the boat as the wind stills and the waves calm.
As I said, at first glance, this story looks like just another tale of Peter leaping before he looks, another example of that hapless impulsivity that can make him such a charmingly irresistible figure. But take a second glance, look carefully at these verses, because there is one sentence here, one moment, that completely changes the tenor of this story. “Peter answered him, ‘Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’” Look what happens here in this one moment. Peter pauses. Command me to come to you, he says, say the word, and then I will step out. Peter seems unable to move without this word; he is stuck in the bow of the boat like in some nautical version of Simon Says. If we look carefully, we can see that here, in this moment, Peter actually does look before he leaps; he does think before acting. He waits for Jesus’ command, for that one word: come. This is not just another example of impetuous Peter. Here, in this moment, Jesus is the impetus, and Peter’s action the response.
Now why does this matter? Is it really so important to see Peter’s water-walking as a step of faithful response instead of just another impetuous leap? It is really so important, because it completely changes the way we see Peter. Suddenly, we see not just another knee-jerk reaction from an overly-excited disciple; we see brave, bold action from a disciple who is unafraid to risk his life, his all, to follow as his Lord commands. We see Peter as a man – a real man, instead of a mere caricature of himself – a man who desperately wants to follow in Jesus’ footsteps even when they take him into the middle of the wild, wild sea. It is only when we see that first step over the side of the boat as a faithful response to the call of Christ that we are able to let ourselves feel the very real terror that must have been raging inside of Peter’s heart, that we are able to recognize in this often impetuous disciple the mark of true courage, of faith in the face of real fear.
And if this change of perspective helps us to see Peter differently, then it also changes the way that we see ourselves. Because if this is a picture of faithful discipleship, and not just of an overly-zealous disciple, then this is exactly what we are supposed to be doing. We, too, are supposed to be stepping out of the boat. We, too, are required to be brave, to have true courage, to act out in faith despite our fears. We, too, are invited to step out of the comfort of our own lives right smack into the middle of the storm that is raging out there – a storm of fear, prejudice, hatred, judgment, blame, divisiveness, apathy, cynicism, and greed. There is scary stuff out there. We could so easily be swamped by any number of headlines – Climate of Fear! Wall Street Volatile! Brace for the Pain! Brutal Crackdowns in the Middle East! Flash mobs, church abuse, famine, starvation, climate change…wave after wave of truly terrifying stuff crashes against us every day, again and again, until we feel truly battered and bruised.
But the simple fact is that even in the midst of this mess, Christ calls. Jesus stands in the middle of the storm and speaks, a long list of imperatives, commands to which we are invited to be the response. Come. And pray and fast, yes, but also forgive, offer, visit, love. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Cast out demons. Step out of the boat. Do unto others as you would have them to unto you. Step out of the boat. You give them something to eat. Step out of the boat. Repent, follow me, keep my commandments. Eat, drink, do this for the remembrance of me. Step out of the boat. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Go and do likewise. Make disciples. Step out of the boat.
If you’re thinking that none of this is likely to be very easy, I think you’re probably right. Like Peter, we will have to screw our courage to the sticking point before offering the response that God requires. Because it’s one thing to say that your response is to invite your friends and like-minded neighbors to pray with you in a stadium in Houston, that’s fine, perhaps, but it is quite another thing to say that your response is to truly love one another as Christ has loved us. It’s another thing entirely to really love your neighbor as yourself, even when that neighbor thinks exactly the opposite of everything that you think and isn’t afraid to tell you about it. It’s another thing to make disciples of all people. To preach the Gospel…at work, or in the grocery store, or to our own families. To feed the hungry…in Philadelphia and in Somalia. To heal the sick who are dying from diseases caused by their poverty, to heal this sick world from the ravages of our consumerism. Sometimes it’s quite another thing just to love yourself.
So yes, you’re right – none of this is likely to be very easy. And we’ll probably start to sink. Peter did. And that is okay, because we are never, ever asked to offer this response alone. Christ is always present, standing in the center of the storm, speaking at surprising times and in extra-ordinary ways, calling us, beckoning, willing us to keep him in the center of our vision at all times. Christ is here, front and center each week as we cry together, “Lord, have mercy!” Christ is here each week reaching out his hand, ready to catch us in the cradle of this altar and lift us up into the stillness of heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ knows that the storm is scary. He knows our fear, our weakness; he knows how much easier it is to just sit in the boat with the rest of the world and wait for the storm to blow over. But he calls us anyway and waits for the response. Come. Step out of the boat.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
7 August 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia