Why Did You Doubt?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

August 9, 2020
10th Sunday After Pentecost/19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture readings – Matthew 14: 22-33

Throughout my childhood, we would often visit my great-aunt’s house near the University of Texas in Austin.  Her house was an old house, where my great-aunt had lived for most of her life.  Her mother had lived there too, so it was a family house of sorts.  That house was just full of the most amazing antiques you ever saw: bookcases with sliding glass windows on the front, chairs that looked like they were made in the 1800’s, oak coat racks, full-size solid oak dining room table, and everything around it adding to the overall décor of the house.  Even as a child, I was always very impressed with my great-aunt’s house.  

One of the things I remember the best was a small, ancient tapestry showing the Lord walking on water and Peter struggling in the waters at His feet.  The picture was very, very dark, a faded brown with a gold-painted circular frame.  The Lord was done in bright colors which had faded a bit to mostly white.  Peter’s picture was similar.  The overall look of the picture gave great emphasis to the two main characters of the story: Jesus and Peter.  I studied that picture for hours; I always looked at it carefully whenever I went to that house.  It was such a striking picture, and I wish I had it today to hang in our church office.  It would certainly add to the atmosphere of any church building.

The main impression I always got from that picture was the strength and serenity of Jesus – and the struggling, desperate fear of Peter.  And with the line from Scripture to add to the picture – “Why did you doubt?” – the whole scene is complete in my mind.

After studying this story for many years, and after thinking of that picture from my great-aunt’s house, I have decided that I really don’t blame Peter at all.  Of course he doubted!  I have a hard time believing that anyone else would NOT have doubted in the same place.

But the point that does not escape me is that Peter should not have doubted.  He knew his Lord, he had seen him in action… Peter knew better than ANY of us.  

Yet Peter doubted.  What happened here?

First of all, let’s review what had just occurred in Matthew’s Gospel account.  And let’s remember that it’s always a little dangerous to read any passage of the Bible out of context.

Jesus had just learned of the murder of John the Baptist.  He tried to get away and be alone for a while, probably to grieve and to pray in isolation.  However, the people wouldn’t let him.  So when a vast crowd of at least 5000 men and countless women and children approached him, Jesus set aside his own wants and desires and healed their sick.  Then he performed the miracle of feeding this vast crowd using only a few fish and some barley loaves of bread.  After that, he dismissed the crowd again, sent his Apostles across the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and went off by himself at last.

And it become night…very, very late at night…between 3 and 5 AM at night.  The Apostles knew how to sail a boat, but the wind was against them, and the battled it all night.  Out of the darkness, the Lord came walking across the waves toward them.  To see him in the darkness, he must have been visible somehow, perhaps with his clothing white against the darkness of the water.  They panicked and screamed that they were seeing a ghost.

Let’s stop here for a moment and talk about this.

They didn’t expect Jesus to come walking across the water.  They NEVER expected him to do that.  We can say in hindsight – which is always SO perfectly clear, isn’t it – that they should have expected Jesus.  But they didn’t.

So when they saw this “ghostly” figure appear out of the darkness walking on the water, what should they have expected?  Did any of them say first thing, “That must be the Master!”  I don’t think so, and I don’t think any of us would do that either, given the same circumstances.

So when Jesus called to them, that should have reassured them.  Once again, we get that same phrase that crops up several times in the Bible; Gabriel said it to Mary; the angels said it to the shepherds in Bethlehem; and Jesus said it here, “Don’t be afraid.”  Once they stopped panicking and actually paid attention to his voice, THEN they knew it was Jesus.

And then, despite their amazement at his ability to walk on the water to save them, they knew it was him.  

Or so we think.

Let’s stop again and take a look at this.  Recall exactly what Peter said: “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on the water to you.”  What on earth was going on in Peter’s mind?  What was he thinking?

Was Peter putting Jesus to another test?  Didn’t the religious leaders of Jesus’ day do that often enough?  

Was Peter so relieved that it wasn’t a ghost but his Master coming to save them?  If so, was Peter just being impulsive as he often was?  No one would be surprised by that.

But once Peter got out of the boat, don’t you wonder what the other Apostles were thinking?  I certainly wonder about their reactions, especially when Peter began to actually walk on the water – at first!  But then, as it would probably be for any of us, Peter began to sink below the waves because he became afraid.  

Peter slipped from faith to doubt because of what he saw, not because of what he knew.  I think we can forgive Peter for that.  He was being as human as any of us would be in that same situation.

In fact, without Peter’s doubt, would we have the same sort of incredible story that we have for today?  All we would have would be the Apostles in a boat, struggling to cross the Sea of Galilee in the dark, Jesus walking on the water to rescue them, the Apostles mistaking him for ghost, then relaxing once they realize it was Jesus, and finally Jesus getting in the boat, calming the wind, and the boat reaching the other side.  This would all be followed by Jesus once again healing everyone in sight, some by just letting them touch the edge of his cloak. 

A good story…but a tapestry of that story in my great-aunt’s living room would not have been nearly as impressive.

After all, it showed every single one of us personified by the Apostle Peter sinking in the water, and the dignified, calm, serene, holy figure of Jesus Christ standing miraculously on top of the water and pulling Peter to safety.  Now that’s an incredible tapestry, worthy of memory.

“Why did you doubt?”  Because we need you, Lord.

“Why did you doubt?”  Because we know and confess that our faith is weaker than Peter’s.  Most likely, none of us would walk on the water for even an instant.

“Why did you doubt?”  Because perhaps we need repeated examples of your love, your miraculous healings, and your mercy before our doubt will fade even a little.  We are weak and fallible human beings.

We should not doubt.  We have NO reason to doubt.  But we do anyway.

But we are not alone.  And that’s why a faith community is so important.  When one of us or many of us waver and sink down, we have not only the examples and the miracles and the stories of our savior, Jesus Christ, to lift us up – we have each other to remind us, to repeat the stories, to set examples of faith that inspire our own.

“Why did you doubt?”  Because like Peter, we are quite helpless without faith.  

But remember: Jesus saved Peter immediately.  There is no need to doubt.

He reaches out to us too, even in our doubt.

It’s not a ghost.  It’s not something we can easily understand.

It’s the Lord, the worker of miracles.  He loves us.  He reaches out to us – even in our doubt.