Matthew 14:22-3322 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." 28 Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29 He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
There is, in these troubled times, a need for ceaseless innovation. Call it a need to escape our present realities or the manifestation of a utopian dream in which progress promises a tomorrow which will eclipse the trauma of today, but I don’t think it is too profound an observation to suggestion that we believe deeply in the salvific power of the new. New medications, new smart phones, new computers, new books, new theories, new, new, new. That we believe that with every latest gadget or scientific development, we are somehow one step closer to at last, feeling like a whole person, invulnerable to life’s inevitabilities and struggles. And it is not that innovation is an inherently evil reality or anything like that, it is just that purchasing the new Iphone when it comes out in September (?) is actually not a great way to solve a personal crisis, regardless of what Apple’s marketing department, and what a talented bunch they are, would have us believe.
Yes, in this process, this attempting to find a meaningful and coherent existence, often we become ashamed of those answers which have heard so many times, fearing that they do not have the gravity, the existential umph, to reach our present pains. In this, we believe ourselves to be a part of a time and place where those old answers just do not work anymore. What, after all, would a phrase like “I love you” mean in a time when we have mapped the human genome? What does a phrase like “I am thinking of you in your grief” really mean in an era of high speed internet? Can the old stories really help us make sense of this brave new world of ours? Regardless, though, of that deeply held dogma that innovation can save us, in times of deep suffering, in times when we become intimately aware of our own limitations and frailty, or even when the newness of that latest gadget or thought has worn off, we return, with that deep intuition of what is really valuable, to those old stories, to places of love and comfort, where we know truth resides. Places like a child’s smile or the embrace of a loved one; oh yes, these things lack innovation, but that might just be the point. In the words of late author David Foster Wallace, “in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death significance.”
Nor is any of this some sort of idle speculation, but rather this is precisely the lesson that we see Peter learn: the importance of familiar words and learning to trust their goodness and truth. You see, when these disciples, forced back in the boat by Jesus to return to Herod’s territory, the same man who, you will recall, has just beheaded John the Baptizer, all manner of chaos ensues. For these Israelites, being in the middle of the sea at storm would have been something like being the very grips of the evil one himself. For the sea was the place of dark and chaotic forces, a place marked by God’s absence. It is no wonder, then, that Jesus had to force them into the boat, for being on land meant much more than not having to worry about sea-sickness. And so, deep in the midst of a spiritual and physical terror, fighting for their very lives, Christ happens upon them with these words: “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Now, there is a significance to these words that this particular translation simply misses. For this phrase, this “it is I” is actually “I am,” certainly one of those deeply familiar phrases for these disciples. For that phrase, “I am,” is one of the central ways that God identifies himself in the Old Testament. This is, to Peter’s Jewish ear, one of those old familiar phrases. Later on, Jesus will also be charged with blasphemy for using it; for this phrase, this “I am” means that Jesus is in fact the Lord of the Cosmos. The Christ, the “I am” enfleshed, has come right into the midst of chaos, just as he did at the beginning of creation, with the power to rule over that chaos and speak it into order.
But you see, Peter, like us, wants a little bit more than this “I am,” a touch of innovation to this old, familiar phrase, a little evidence that the statement that carried so much meaning in days past could still be of some use today. So Peter, with a bravado that is both charming and a bit troubling, tells Jesus that, if that is true, if he is the “I am” walking on the water, the Word brooding over the chaos, then surely he will bid Peter to come to him. Now Jesus grants Peter this wish and all seems to be going famously until Peter realizes what is actually happening. He is on the water, no buffer between him and the powers of darkness and the very sight of the wind kicking up waves is enough to begin to sink Peter. Yes, it was a decent enough idea to innovate on the “I am” from the safety of the boat, to update Christ’s eternal presence with Peter’s own initiative, but like any such efforts, all that Peter really comes up against is his own powerlessness, his own limits.
But all is not lost for Peter, for the failed innovation of one phrase simply leads him to steadfastness of another: “Lord, save me!” And make no mistake, dear people of God, there is no more honest, timeless an expression as that, but there is also great difficulty with saying such things; it is a blow to the ego, a death knell to our myths of self-sufficiency and endless progress towards that brighter tomorrow. “Lord, save me!” that one batters the ego until there is nothing left at all. We would, I think, love to believe that we have progressed beyond the need for such phrases, that we, little by little, become masters of our destinies to the point where any such statement is a relic of past generations who had neither the wit nor wisdom that we possess, and this is where Peter is so very instructive for us. He, too, believed he had enough, enough courage, enough faith, enough whatever to conquer the chaos by his own efforts and this he meets with predictable consequences. But he also does not hesitate to call the instant that the darkness begins to overwhelm, to indeed call on the God who, as St. Paul writes, is so very near to us. In that one cry, in that “Lord, save me!” we hear our own fragility, our susceptibility to powers both great and small that threaten our destruction and we see the meagerness of our attempts to conquer those forces. All this is true, but in that cry, issued just before the water level rises above our lips, we see the graciousness of a God who extends his hand, plunging deep into the darkness and despair and then lifts us out. In that cry, that old familiar cry, we are greeted by a God who conquers darkness and frees from the burden of attempting that which is unthinkable. Yes, take heart, dear people, for the great “I am” has come among you, has dropped his strong and steady hands in the water of chaos, into the depth of despair, and his grip holds you even now. Is it an old story, one we have heard before? Indeed it is. But in a way that even David F. Wallace could not have imagined, it is the story that conquers death, the grave and hell itself. To be sure, the storm remains and chaos threatens us in this old world. But fear not, for your good confession, the confession of Christ as Lord, seeing in the broken body of a Jewish man the “I am” of the cosmos, none of that will not lead to shame. Instead, it is the Word that flings wide eternity’s joyous gates and hoists you up into the presence of God almighty. And though it might lack innovation, that is a story worth telling. In Jesus’ name, amen.