His Strong Grip:  A Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday August 13 2023 

Readings – Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45c; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33 



But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Mt 14.27)

Today’s gospel reading is one that is perhaps most well known for spawning legions of corny church jokes.

You know the ones, like the church bulletin that says “This week’s sermon:  Jesus Walks on Water.   Next week’s sermon:  Searching for Jesus.”

Perhaps the humour is inspired by the sheer implausibility of the story.   Walk on water?  I can barely stay seated in my kayak without falling into the drink.

Perhaps as well the humour is driven by fear of our spiritual inadequacy.  Many sermons I’ve heard, and some I’ve preached, assume that the central character in this story is Peter, and so we compare his faith, his doubts, and his fears, to our own, and the conclusions we draw can be pessimistic.

If the point of the story is about the necessity of faith, and if Peter, the best of the disciples, the one chosen by Jesus to be the rock of his church, well, if Peter fails, what hope is there for us?

When such thoughts assail us, I always think the best way to read and think about these gospel stories is to remember that they are about Jesus, and not about the disciples.  

First, it’s helpful to think about the context of the story, about what Jesus has already done and what we should remember about him, even if the disciples forget.   Today’s story begins with Jesus sending the disciples on ahead in a fishing boat, sending away the crowds, and then going “up the mountain by himself to pray” (Mt 14.23).

I said in last week’s homily that Jesus often goes up lonely mountains to pray and to recharge through his connection with God his Father.   So why does Jesus need to recharge?  Because immediately before the walking on water story, Matthew has told us how Jesus attracted crowds, cured them, and then miraculously fed them because “he had compassion on them” (Mt 14.13-21).

So it seems odd that Peter sees Jesus “walking on the sea” and, with all these miracles fresh in his mind, says to Jesus “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Mt 14.28).   Why the “if”?  Why the doubt?   Why would Jesus walking on the water be any more miraculous than Jesus healing and feeding people from food he has created on the spot?

Perhaps the answer lies in the panic of the storm, the crashing waves threatening to swamp the boat.  It’s in such moments that our fears rise and our doubts make us want to put Jesus to the test:  “Lord, if you can get me out of trouble, then I will believe in you”.   

So why doesn’t Jesus just tell the storm to stop, as he’s done before (Mt 8.23-27)?  Why does he walk out into the storm, across the waves, to be with the disciples?  Here it’s worth remembering that it’s in our worst moments that Jesus comes to us.   Our challenge in our own lives’ storms is to see and trust that Jesus is with us.

Also, the fact that Jesus chooses to walk on the water in the storm is another sign of who he is.  I said last Sunday that the Transfiguration story connects Jesus with the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and the same is true here.

Biblical scholar Nicholas Schaser notes that the Greek words used by Matthew (Jesus “went (elthen) to them, walking upon the sea (peripaton epi tes thālassa Mt 14.25)” are the same words that God uses when he asks Job “if he ever “went upon (elthes… epi) the springs of the sea (thalāsses) or walked (periepātesas) in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:16 Septuagint).  

Likewise, when Jesus tells the frightened disciples,  “It is I; do not be afraid” (Mt 14.27), Schaser reminds us that these are the same words that “God says to Moses at the burning bush according to the Septuagint:  ‘I am’ (egō eimi)” (Exodus 3:14 Septuagint).   As Schaser notes, “If walking on water weren’t enough to reflect his divine status, Matthew’s Jesus repeats the very words of God”.

So Jesus in today’s gospel speaks the same words, with the same authority, as God his Father.    It is on of those moments, like the Transfiguration, where we see the full authority and power of Jesus, the same power by which God brought order out of the “darkness [that] covered the face of the deep” (Gen 1.1).

So while I’ve called attention to the divine power of Jesus, which I hope will comfort us in our moments of extreme anxiety and need, there’s also an aspect of vulnerability to Jesus in the larger context of Matthew 14.   Remember the crowds that were mentioned at the start of today’s story?  Their needs and wants distracted Jesus from his original intention of being alone in prayer because he had just learned that Herod had executed his cousin, John the Baptist (Mt 14.1-12).   

Jesus could have laid low at this point to avoid further attention from the authorities, but he is determined to heal and feed the crowds, and he is determined to go to Jerusalem, even if that means that he too will be killed.  Indeed, the last words of today’s gospel, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt 14.33), are essentially the words of the Roman soldier at the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Mt 27:54).

So the larger message of this story is not just that Jesus is truly the Son of God with power over the waves and winds.   That is something that we, like Peter, should know and believe.   The good news in this story is that this all powerful Son of God is willing to die for us to save us out of his love and compassion for us.    Think of that strong carpenter’s hand reached out to clasp and save Peter from the waves, and imagine that same hand gripping your hand in your moments of need.  Jesus won’t let you sink.

In our second lesson, we heard Paul say that the role of the church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ (Rom 10:12-15).   I maintain that if our church believes that this strong and compassionate Jesus died to save us, and will save us, and if we are willing to share that message, then we need not fear the future.