Wandering into Doubt

Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Deacon Stephanie Anderson

Matthew 14:22-33

In today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the disciples have found themselves in a boat, in the middle of the night, in middle of a giant lake, as a storm approaches. The boat is being battered by waves and the wind is whipping and they are terrified. Hunkered down amidst the storm, they sway and rock and dumped on for hours, until, in the early morning, they see what they think is a ghost walking toward them on the water. Of course, it’s not a ghost, we know that the person coming toward them was Jesus, but how were they supposed to know that? In the midst of their fear, he tells them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Now, what comes next is perhaps an example of our dear disciple Peter trying to prove himself; trying to be brave. He concocts this idea to prove his faith by coming out on the water with Jesus, but after Jesus says, “Okay, come out here”, he finds himself on the water, “out of his depths”, you might say. The wind is whipping around him and the waves are splashing over him and all of the sudden he begins to go down.

He yells, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus immediately grabs his hand, pulls him up, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And they get in the boat together and the storm calms.

I’ve heard this story many times before and it seems to me that we always focus on this part about Peter getting freaked out on the water and starting to sink. It’s easy to sort of assume that he almost did it. We imagine that if he only had a little more faith, he could have walked on water with Jesus. Or like maybe if he just believed in himself or conquered his fears of the storm, he would have proved himself and been just fine.

Too often, we tell ourselves this too. How often are we told that if we just have a positive mindset, we can power through the pain. Or if we just try harder we can muster our way out of depression or anxiety; it’s a matter of will power or personal might that might help us through our fears. There are aisles of signs that say “good vibes only” or “believe it and you’ll become it” or any number of well-meaning motivational encouragements that tell us we just need to try harder.

But the problem with this thinking is that if Peter is anything other than perfectly faithful – if he (completely unrealistically) ventures through without pausing to consider that this is weird, it’s a failure? This thinking tells us that if we’re perfect or if we aren’t afraid, then somehow we’ve done it right? As if that is even possible. It tells us that if we don’t have enough faith, or positivity, we better find some more.

That doesn’t sounds like very good news to me.

Pretending we’re not afraid of the storms doesn’t make them less scary. Pretending we’re not afraid of the diagnosis, doesn’t make it go away. Pretending we’re not afraid of losing our job, or losing our family, or living with deep regret, or what life will be like without that person we love; … pretending doesn’t stop it from coming.

All that pretending or posturing does is reinforce the lie that we have to do it on our own. Believing that we could do it all if we just tried hard enough, really, just makes God unnecessary. If I can have perfect faith and live without fear and eternally trust in God, then… I don’t really need God. I don’t need healing or mercy or grace.

This helps us understand Peter’s fear – or doubt – in this story as perfectly normal, perfectly understandable, and, in fact, allows Jesus to remind us who is really in charge.

It’s Jesus who grabs his hand, Jesus who lifts him up into the boat, and Jesus who calms the sea around them, not Peter.

If Peter failed in this story at all, it’s a failure much like ours, in that he thought the stormy sea meant that God must have abandoned them. If there is a sign of doubt that we can really learn from here, it’s that Peter assumed that hard things – story seas or rocky relationships or huge mental health challenges or big questions – mean that God isn’t close. Our failure is buying the lie that calm waters is how we know God is near.

Because the reality is that Jesus was always with them, always with us, always by our side, and that God promises to be closest to us in the storms. That God walks toward us in the chaos. God is never far, reaching out God’s hand and saying, “Hey. Take heart, I am here, do not be afraid.”

When you are afraid, you don’t need to be as good or as faithful or as perfect as Jesus. As Pastor and theologian Nadia Bolz Weber says, “If you are wondering what it looks like to have faith, know this: Faith isn’t you doing the impossible – it’s remembering that God can and has and will again do the impossible. And to have faith is to know that God is God and we don’t have to be.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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