Proper 14, Year A
I remember when I was an undergrad, this story bothered me. It seemed to me that Peter was getting chewed out for not having enough faith, and I didn't see why he deserved that. My college chaplain proposed that Peter was getting chewed out because, despite Jesus' directing them to go to the other side, none of them should have been afraid that anything ill would befall them on the way. After all, Jesus didn't say, "go on ahead ... there's an evil ghost who's going to attack you, and I don't want to be around for the carnage," right?
At the time (before I'd taken any New Testament courses, among other things), this seemed like a perfectly good reading to me -- so much so that I repeated it to many others, with the moral of "if you get a word from Jesus to do something, you can anticipate success."
Let me start this week's blog entry by apologizing to everyone to whom I said that, or anything like it. That's the sort of thing that only very young (or young in the faith, anyway) people and people in frenetic denial can say with a straight face. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself when I say that just about every week between then and now I've had plentiful opportunities to fail, and many times to fail in spectacular fashion ... and I'm not one to squander opportunities.
So I can identify with Peter, and especially with that sinking feeling (literally!) he must have had just before he cried out to Jesus to save him. But I don't think that my natural sympathies for Peter form the only reason to think that he's been given rather a bad rap by many interpreters of this passage (e.g., my college chaplain). After all, what does "faith" mean anyway, and how much of it does one need?
The first thing I think it's important to clear up is that "faith" or "belief," at least in the biblical sense of those terms, doesn't connote belief in a particular outcome or intellectual assent to a proposition so much as it suggests trust in and allegiance to a person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we'll be "successful" (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn't imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus -- not because we believe that we've already got the rest of the story plotted out once we've made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord, and the ultimate in good ones. As I've preached on before, having faith doesn't mean convincing ourselves that we're convinced of something. Faith isn't an activity of the brain so much as of the heart, and then I mean it not in the sense of drumming up some kind of feeling, but of pumping blood to ones feet and hands.
In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, "I don't know where you're going, but I know that wherever it is, I'd rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else." That kind of trust in Jesus, in my experience, comes from experience with the person of Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I've experienced Jesus' generosity and mercy, so much that I'm pretty sure that if Jesus is involved, then following Jesus is where I'm going to experience the most of the goodness and mercy God has to offer. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus such that I'm understanding more deeply just how much I can trust Jesus is a major ingredient in what I call the journey of faith.
But when I say that faith is like that function of the heart that gets blood to hands and feet, what I mean is that faith starts with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don't do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.
There's no better evidence for that than the story of Jonah. Jonah just might go down as the whiniest prophet in history. He had no intention of saving anyone. He didn't even intend to follow God's direction, but when the seas got rough, he knew that it was time to step out of the boat. Just about everything that Jonah has said up to this point indicates no faith, no trust that God's will could mean anything good for him, but when his life is at stake, he calls out to the very god he's been running from. That suggests to me that despite all his protestations of how much God's will means only ill fortune to him, underneath all that is both a trust that God will take care of his fellow travellers (as Jonah 1:11-12 indicates) and that God will deliver him (as Jonah's poem in this Sunday's readings indicate). By the end of the story, we understand that every step he took, even Jonah's whiny rebellion, came in some sense from a deep sense (and sometimes an unwelcome sense!) that God will extend mercy, that God's mercy will be the final word.
That trust, that willingness to risk stepping outside the boat, is how I think of faith. And Peter has that. So why does Jesus address him as "you of little faith"? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Jesus addresses his followers as people of "little faith" repeatedly in Matthew's gospel (e.g., Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and 17:20), but following the last of those, he says, "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
So how much faith do you need to make a difference in your life, or even to change the world? Not much, by some ways of reckoning. You don't have to talk yourself into absolute confidence that anything in particular will happen. That's a good thing, since none of us -- not even, or perhaps ESPECIALLY not those who shout most loudly about knowing exactly what God's specific plans for everyone are -- really knows the future, or even the heart of another person. Faith isn't about knowing, though.
Faith is willingness to risk. It's willingness to take that step out of the boat, whether you think you'll sink or skate. It proceeds from the kind of love that, despite all of the butterflies in one's stomach, makes a person willing to be the first to say "I love you" in a relationship -- not because of a certain expectation of a particular reply, but because of the possibilities that saying "I love you" opens. Reading a biblical expression of that kind of faith makes me think of a passage (one I've used in preaching before) from Sara Maitland's short story "Dragon Dreams" (found in her collection Angel Maker):
When [you] died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.
And that's why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God's reluctant prophets and Jesus' wavering disciples. They didn't have it all together, and they didn't fully understand or consistently appreciate what they eventually would proclaim. But the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God's mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith arising -- the kind of faith, shared across the Body fo Christ, that could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.
Thanks be to God!
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Dylan, thank you. It's helpful to think of Jesus' assessment of "Oh, you of little faith" as being better than "Oh, you of no faith..." but how am I to hear the "Why did you doubt?" The tone I always imagine in Jesus' voice is compassionate exasperation... perhaps tinged with disappointment. I've always admired Peter, and agree that he seems to have gotten a bum rap when he was the only one willing to take the risk and step into the waves and wind. But to my ear, the question Jesus asks Peter always seems to emphasize faith's lack rather than its presence.
Posted by: Debbie | Aug 3, 2005 11:37:16 PM
Tozer agrees with you as to the nature of faith. Thank you for reminding us.
Posted by: Chris Hooton | Aug 4, 2005 8:07:40 AM
Debbie, possibly Jesus was asking why Peter doubted that his (little) faith was enough. Peter always had enough faith, little though it was, to keep following Jesus and to never completely drown in his failure. I think this passage points up our human need for beyond-a-doubt certainty and for a cushion of extra, more than enough faith so that our feet never get wet. These are just a few of my thoughts inspired by your question, so thanks for asking it.
Posted by: Sharon | Aug 5, 2005 12:40:23 PM
Thanks for your blog. very interesting.
"Ye of little faith?" We do get hung up on those words. It does seem like a condemnation. I hear it more as a descriptive, though. In the face of fear (e.g. terrorism) faith goes out the window. For me the homiletical point is that God reaches in despite our fear and "little faith." I wish I had even a little faith. But I don't. God still has not abandoned me.
Posted by: mark bloom | Aug 5, 2005 6:05:50 PM
My concern is not so much what happens when one gets out of the boat, my concern centers on the decison to get out of the boat. I can only imagine the ackwardness of moving into a new position or a new level. It takes something special within to seek new territory especially undestanding that Peter's entire life centered around being in the boat. His livelihood, his profession, and his manhood depended on his ability to navigate a boat. But yet he willing to give up his life support system in lieu of something greater-walking on water! He goes where no man has gone before and no man has been since...it is always amazing how the focus is on "what he did not do" instead of "what he did do"! He left his comfort zone, how many are willing to do just that...get out of their comfort level at a time when things are the most uncomfortable?
I certainly admire the astronaughts, willing to go where no one has gone before, and fix a problem before it gets worse...willing to get out of their comfort level, to do the impossible, If only Christians were more willing to move to the next level of faith, no matter how ackward. To sit on diffrent pew on Sunday, or to eat lunch with someone different, or even give someone who looks different a ride to church...
Posted by: darryl | Aug 6, 2005 4:44:11 PM
Dylan's piece and the responses -- especially Darryl's -- remind me of a photo I saw recently of a 2,000 year old fishing boat that was found near Capernaum. In other words, pretty likely what the disciples were rowing that night. It could hold 15 people (the caption said) but it sure didn't look very stable. For Peter to get out, he needed not only that bit of faith, but his friends. A community supporting that one willing to risk for Jesus makes all the difference. Put another way, the other disciples had to have faith not only in Jesus, but in Peter too. Who supports me? Whom do I support and enable to leave the relative safety of the church (Nave coming from navis, ship, after all)? Row, row, row that boat...
Posted by: Susan | Aug 6, 2005 9:47:37 PM
Thanks, Darryl, for the clear message that we find hope in the lives of saints who waver yet trust Jesus and respond with hesitant action. That prompts me to pass along a thought.
Peter has faith enough in Jesus and in himself to leave the boat and walk on water. When Peter sinks, what falters, his faith in Jesus or faith in himself?
The text suggests the latter. Peter (like Jonah) calls out immediately for help, so he trusts Jesus to save him.
We succeed simply by saying "yes" to the call. We need not stress over being inadequate because Jesus amplifies our faith. Nonetheless, like Peter, I always do.
Posted by: Kirk Vandezande, Toronto | Aug 2, 2011 11:51:07 AM
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