Sinking in Fear, Uplifted by Faith
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Analysis by Brad Haugen
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Though the overwhelming forces of our world become like storms that sink us—resulting in the church’s own anxiety, despair, and death—Jesus nevertheless reaches out to catch us. The storms that have separated us from God and one another, finally, cannot separate us from Jesus’ reach.
DIAGNOSIS: Frightened by What We Cannot Control
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): Caught in the Storm
The first time I looked up at the ceiling of the sanctuary in the first congregation I served, I noticed it resembled a capsized boat. Paradoxically, the Latin word for where the congregation sits in the sanctuary is “navis,” which means “ship”; the word is meant to remind us that the church is like a boat on the sea. Out at sea, there are storms.
As we sing, pray, listen, preach, and teach our way through the liturgy each week in worship, how do we really fare during life’s storms? Declining church membership and resources, post-pandemic stress and anxiety, racist and nationalist ideologies, divisive partisan politics, anti-social “social” media and technology, and the bewilderingly rapid pace and unprecedented changes of life, all create perpetually stormy conditions. Rather than sailing a predetermined course, the church—represented by Jesus’s followers aboard a boat on the Sea of Galilee—is “battered by the waves, […] far from land, for the wind [is] against them” (Matthew 14:24).
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem): Testing God So We Can Conquer Our Fears
The sea we thought we knew becomes haunting when we’re caught in a storm. Anything or anyone outside our tiny, terrified circle—not aboard our very own lifeboat—could be a ghost. We suspect that anyone who isn’t in the boat with us, could be a potential or very real threat: a ghost (see Matthew 14:26). We fail to realize that the ghosts that terrify us in the storm could, in fact, be Jesus himself. Though tossed about, the church does receive Jesus’ words intended for his followers: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).
Despite the assurance that Jesus is with us in the storm, we still want power over what frightens us. Maybe then we can gain power, influence, and even control over the storm. Oh, what the church could do and be then! We would no longer be tossed about—or confined to a lifeboat—surviving at best, while the currents, winds, and waves of powerful and influential politicians, ideologues, and technology determine the course of our world. If we could get out of the boat and walk with Jesus on the sea, in the storm, to do what had once only seemed impossible, then the world would take notice, respect, and perhaps even fear the church again. We wouldn’t even need a boat!
We have to be sure it is really Jesus before stepping out, however. We wouldn’t want to get duped by another ghost. It isn’t enough that Jesus said, “It is I; do not be afraid.” If we can get him to prove it, so that we and others can see the power we can obtain from him, then maybe we will never have to contend with any storms or ghosts ever again. With Peter, we test Jesus (“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Matthew 14:28), so we can gain power over what frightens us. If we could command Jesus, then he would make us more powerful than while we remain in our pews—inside the boat, so to speak.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem): Sunk in the Storm
Jesus said, “‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out” … (Matthew 14:29-30). Jesus allowed Peter to come to him, but in doing so, Peter realized he was sinking. Peter couldn’t master the storm on his own. While looking around at the strong wind and the waves, Peter couldn’t even control the storm with Jesus’ help.
Likewise, Jesus commands us to die and rise with him. “Come,” he says. But we can’t. We’re already sunk. The forces of our world have already frightened and overwhelmed us; we and the church are fighting a losing battle. We are not in control. Jesus allows us to sink as the storm overpowers us, culminating in our own death and separation from God.
PROGNOSIS: Peace with Christ When We Are Frightened
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): Caught by Christ
“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught [Peter], saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Jesus reached out and caught Peter anyway. Jesus’ cross and resurrection is his way of reaching out and catching us, with the promise that God will never finally let us go. Though the overwhelming forces of our world become like storms that sink us—resulting in the church’s own anxiety, despair, and death—Jesus nevertheless reaches out to catch us. The storms that have separated us from God and one another, finally, cannot separate us from Jesus’ reach. Christ’s own dying and rising means, finally, that we die and rise with Jesus, not apart from him.
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): Trusting God When We Are Frightened
Sinking in the storm, Peter no longer insists that Jesus command him to come out on the water. Instead, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). The “little faith” that Peter has compels him to call out to Jesus in a new way. Out of desperation for a savior, he trusts that the Jesus walking on water can save him, even though he, Peter, is sinking. Jesus is out there in the storm with Peter after all.
With Peter, we of “little faith” cry out “Lord, save us!” as well. There’s that mustard seed of faith planted in us by Jesus himself. Consequently, we see Jesus—not as a talisman to enable us to master our storms—but as the one we can trust to somehow save us from within the storm. We can’t master the storms that take away the power, influence, and control we crave for ourselves and the church. But because Jesus has shown himself to be our Savior within the storm, we can trust God from within our storms. Christ will see to it that our relationship with God will strengthen, deepen, and provide us peace through our storms rather than break us.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): Peace with Christ in the Storm
“When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:33). As I recall that ceiling that resembled a capsized boat, I am not as afraid to admit how upside-down the church can be in today’s stormy conditions: at times listing, at other times overturned. The pace and amount of change—technologically, socially, and politically—have challenged the church. We hear, see, and experience this both inside and outside the congregations in which we participate and serve.
“Do not be afraid,” Christ assures us as he boards the boat with us. Jesus has already reached out and pulled us out of the water, saving us from the wind and waves that frighten, overwhelm, and otherwise separate us from God. Our neighbors now have an opportunity to see that we no longer expect God to give us power and control over whatever frightens us. Instead, we listen to our neighbors—their experiences of the storm. And we look for opportunities to share our experience of God finding us in the storm—of all places—and giving us peace within the storm. We can hardly believe Jesus desires to board our sinking boats, personal or congregational, but this is exactly where he chooses to find us. Where we least expect to find him, Jesus reaches out with his promise: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).