Matthew 14: 22-33, 1 Kings 19:9-18
As a united church – sharing in the traditions of both the Methodist church and the United Reformed Church - you might be aware that things are not looking too good in either part of the church at the moment. Numbers are falling, churches are closing, ministers are getting harder to find… and we are wondering what the future holds.
It is easy to relate to Elijah, especially in the part of his story we heard today. Things are not looking too good for Elijah. The people of God have abandoned worship in favour of idols, many prophets have been killed, and Elijah is threatened too. “I alone am left” says Elijah, and he’s ready to give up. Then the earthquake, wind and fire pass by, followed by God’s presence in the stillness. And Elijah is told to go and anoint new kings, and Elisha as a new prophet – and God promises “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, who have not worshipped Baal”. Elijah feels alone, rejected, threatened, but in fact he is NOT alone. God has a plan, and there are 7,000 people where Elijah felt like he was the only one.
I often think of Elijah when I’m feeling down and sorry for myself “it’s all up to me” “ only I am bothering…”. I am not alone, God is faithful.
And when we are considering the future of the church, or our part of the church, we need to remember Elijah too. We are not alone. We are never abandoned. God is with us and God can act to make a new start.
And the gospel reading shows us what it means to have God with us in Jesus Christ. The story begins with Jesus sending the disciples back across the lake while he dismisses the crowd of over 5000 - the crowd he has just fed - and spends time alone in prayer. And then, in the depth of the night, as the disciples struggle against a head wind, the most amazing thing happens – Jesus walks across the lake towards them.
I am not surprised the disciples were terrified – wouldn’t you be?
The storm is wild, the night is dark, they just want to get to land. And through the dark and the storm comes a figure …walking on the sea. What??
Maybe they had already lamented the fact that Jesus wasn’t with them when the storm started – after all Jesus had already shown them on another occasion that he had the power to still the storm. But the last thing they expected was for Jesus to come and join them in the boat by walking on the water. This is not normal – maybe it is even an evil spirit or something – a sign that something awful is going to happen to them.
And then the figure speaks – it is Jesus, and he tells them not to be afraid. Hearts start to beat a little more normally, and maybe if Jesus is there he will sort the storm out for them, too.
And then Peter does a very strange thing. Peter calls out 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water'.
Peter says ‘if it is you… prove it? Is Peter genuinely unsure that it is Jesus? But then surely a more natural thing to say would have been 'if it is you speak again? or come closer?
Or maybe “if it is you.. save us! Come and still the storm; or come and help us get back to shore; or come into the boat with us”.
But Peter says “if it is you, command me to come to you”. Is Peter perhaps sure now that it is Jesus & is he trying to gain 'top disciple' standing by doing what Jesus does? Is Peter so carried away by seeing Jesus do this amazing thing that he wants to join in?
I can't help comparing this with John's account of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus on the beach. Remember?
After the death & first resurrection appearances of Jesus, the disciples go fishing, and then spot a figure on the beach. John says “it is the Lord” & again it is Peter who is first out of the boat. He wraps something round himself, because he’s naked in the boat, and swims to shore while the others bring the boat in.
Maybe Peter is just impetuous and can’t wait to be with his Lord – putting his friends, the other fishermen, and even the safety of the boat itself to one side in his eagerness to join Jesus.
“If it is you, command me to come to you”. You have to admire Peter’s loyalty and reckless abandon!
And at first it works: he, too, walks on the water. Then he notices, or maybe he remembers, the storm – the high wind, the huge waves – and he is afraid and starts to sink. Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” and Jesus reaches out and catches him and together they get into the boat. Then the part that perhaps we all remember. Jesus says to Peter “Why did you doubt? Oh you of little faith”.
This might seem a bit unfair, Peter getting criticized for trying and failing to follow Jesus, when the others haven’t even tried. We might feel that we are firmly on Peter’s side. In fact we might feel we are always on Peter’s side. We all like Peter, don’t we? - because he is fallible, like us.
But why does Matthew tell us this strange story of Peter’s rash decision to get out of the boat?
In fact only Matthew’s gospel includes this part about Peter in this story, although Mark & John tell the story of Jesus walking on the water. One suggestion is that Matthew puts Peter in this story, as in other stories, to stand for every disciple of Jesus.
Peter is the rock on which Jesus builds the church. Peter is the faithful, foolish, fallible disciple.
Peter is not just like us – he is each one of us.
If this is a story not just about Peter but about each one of us, what does this story tell us about our following of Jesus? Our faith, our doubt? Our need to call out "Lord, save me!"...
Maybe what Peter calls out to Jesus becomes a question to each one of us ‘if it is you..’
If it is you in this story, how are you getting on with following Jesus. If it is you, are you prepared to get out of the security of the boat and risk the storm? If it is you, dare you trust Jesus to help you? If it is you, what do you do when you feel you are sinking? If it is you, what help do you need? If it is you, do you find it easy to believe – or easier to doubt yourself, your family, your friends. If it is you, do you doubt that you’re worth saving, or doubt that Jesus can help?
If it is you, here’s good news. The identity of the disciples in this story may be interchangeable – it could be Peter, it could be me, it could be you. But the identity of the one who can help us all is the same. It is Jesus who comes to us when the storm is at its height. It is Jesus who can give us the power to follow him onto the water’s surface. And it is Jesus who will catch us when we fail.
God is with us and we are not alone. And as a sign of that, we share this bread and wine, taking Jesus’ presence seriously, and celebrating his power.
Let us pray:
“Jesus, if it is you who comes to us, hold out your hand whenever we sink. Hold out your hand to touch and save. Hold out your hand and feed us here at your table. Amen.”