"A Question of Faith"

Matthew 14:22-33

Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, August 7, 2011


In the ancient world, the sea stood as a symbol of power.  People did not think of it as a lovely spot for recreational boating.  It represented the unchecked chaos that threatens human existence.  The Bible tells the story of Noah's ark when the entire world flooded and all life perished except for those preserved on the ark.  Older than Noah's story was that of a great destructive flood from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest existing pieces of literature.  Similar flood stories are found in ancient Hinduism and Greek mythology.

Arising from these flood stories, water became a symbol not only of the harsh forces of nature, but also of illness, oppression, violence - any adversary to human health and wholeness.  To take one example from Scripture, Psalm 69 begins: "Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me...More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me."  So many people are after him that the psalmist compares his lot to drowning.

In the ancient world, the mention of stormy seas and turbulent waters evoked images of evil powers of chaos that rebel against God's created order and the good that God intends for human life.1 Without this background, it is easy to misunderstand today's passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

When many people hear today's reading they imagine the gospel writer to be describing a supernatural act of Jesus.  Some respond with raised eyebrows, suspicious of this anti-gravity act, while others chalk it up to a miracle that proves the divinity of Christ.

However, we underestimate the artistry and sophistication of the gospel writers when we fail to appreciate their usage of symbol and story.  The early Christian community to which Matthew addressed his gospel would have understood that this story addressed their situation and the persecution they were enduring.

Our text begins with Jesus dismissing a crowd that has come to the shore of the Sea of Galilee to hear his teachings.  While he is dismissing this mass of people, he gives his disciples traveling orders.  He tells them to climb into a boat and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Once the disciples shove off, Jesus climbs a mountain to be alone in prayer with God.  This is the first occasion in Matthew's gospel for Jesus to send the disciples off on a mission without him, and they will soon experience supreme separation anxiety.

While they are sailing in their small boat, the sun sets and darkness envelops them.  They are far away from land when a storm whips up.  It is the ancient mariner's nightmare.  The sea becomes turbulent and deadly.  The NRSV says that the boat - one of the earliest symbols of the church - is "battered by the waves."  However, translated literally, the Greek says that the boat is "being tortured by the waves," a reference to the persecution of those in the early church.

While the disciples struggle not to be swamped by the angry waters, they see someone marching through the raging storm undaunted.  They are terrified by the sight and in their fear scream, 'It's a ghost!"  It turns out to be none other than their master who says, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

The risk taker in the bunch, Peter, replies, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."  And Jesus summons him, simply saying, "Come."

Peter initially expresses impressive faith by venturing into the threatening waters.  Yet when he averts his attention from Jesus to the violent wind, he begins to sink.

Immediately Peter cries out, and I doubt it is a coincidence that he shouts "the community prayer adopted from the psalms and common in first century Christian worship."2 He says, "Lord, save me."

Jesus thrusts out his hand and catches him before the waves overwhelm him, and says, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"  Jesus and Peter step into the boat and everyone in the tiny vessel worships Jesus.

"You of little faith."  That's the heart of this story.  But how you understand faith makes a world of difference in what this story means and how you approach life.

Unfortunately, for many people, faith means adopting particular beliefs.  Worse, many have been taught that faith means affirming ideas that contradict all we know about the natural processes of the universe.   In other words, faith comes to mean believing in supernatural acts, such as walking on water.  Far too many Christians have been instructed that faith means Jesus could perform miracles no one else could perform.  So, if you will just grit your teeth and force your mind to believe that Jesus could execute amazing feats that no one else could pull off, you will go to heaven instead of hell.

If you take today's passage literally, having an adequate faith means you will gain the power to defy all known laws of physics and be able to walk on water.  If that's what faith is, then not one single follower of Jesus has ever had an adequate faith and Jesus simply wants to make us all feel guilty that we never measure up to his standards.  However, faith does not have to mean believing in supernatural acts.  Faith means trust.  Faith is what I give my heart, mind and soul to.  Or, so that Miss Penfield, my seventh grade English teacher, does not flip over in her grave, it is that to which I have given my heart, mind and soul.

Faith involves trust and passion.  To have faith is to trust God as the supreme power of the universe who creates all that is.  To have faith is to trust that God loves us and will never abandon us.  To have faith is to trust God to give us strength when we face difficulties we don't think we can handle.  To have faith is to trust God to show us what produces a meaningful and joyful life.  To have faith is to trust God to give us the courage to do what is right in the face of tremendous resistance.  To have faith is to trust God to give us hope when we are enveloped by dark, stormy seas.  To have faith is to trust God to care for us when our earthly journey reaches the end of the road.  Faith such as this does not mean mentally assenting to a list of beliefs.  Faith such as this is not simply something in our heads; it creates a change within us.  It creates not only a change in our minds, but in our hearts and souls.  It produces a change in our entire approach to life.  We approach everything from a particular perspective.  And that perspective is this:  all of life is a gift.

Episcopal minister, John Claypool, shared a story about a family in his friend's congregation.  The family had four children and were awaiting the coming of a fifth child.  "A number of people gathered at the hospital the night she was born.  She was perfect in every way except one - for some reason she had no arms or legs.  The doctor could not account for this genetic abnormality."

"However, her parents had great resilience and perseverance, so instead of spending their energy feeling sorry for themselves, they focused on giving their daughter every advantage they could, given the circumstances.  She lived to be twenty-one and she developed into one of the most beautiful human beings her pastor has ever known.  She had a brilliant mind, a wonderful sense of humor, and a great capacity for friendship.  Yet never once in her 21 years was she able to dress herself or feed herself or do any of the things most of us take for granted."

"One time her older brother brought his room­mate home from college for the weekend. His friend was a philosophy major who always put life under a microscope and analyzed everything.  After witnessing this girl's life for a couple of days, he asked her, 'What keeps you from blowing up in anger at God for letting you be born in this condition?  How do you keep from becoming a volcano of resentment?'"

"This young woman looked him in the eyes and said, 'What I have may not seem like much, but I have been able to see and hear.   I've been able to smell and taste and feel.  I have been exposed to some of the world's great literature and heard some of the finest music ever composed.  I've had some of the most wonderful friendships anybody could ever have.  I know what I have does not seem like much when compared to what other people have, but when compared to never existing at all, I would not have missed being born for anything!'"

"Where did she get the courage to pick up this kind of hand and play it with such relish?  Somewhere along the line, she acquired the faith that life is a gift and birth is a windfall, and when compared to never existing, simply being born is better than winning the lottery."3

When a gentle breeze is blowing and the waves are calm, it's easy to trust God.  But what do we do when a fierce wind strikes and angry waves threaten to swamp us?  Do we panic or muster courage?  Do we complain about our lot or pull the best out of it that we can?  Following Jesus is not for the timid; it is not for the easily discouraged.  It is for those who know where to put their focus when turbulent waves threaten to pull them under.




  1. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.210.
  2. M. Eugene Boring, "The Gospel of Matthew," in The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.328.
  3. John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), p.32-33.