What We Know
We can learn a lot from today's text. The disciples did. It's fitting to learn, to grow in Pentecost, the season of growth. One of the big barriers to growth is what we know. For example, the disciples knew Jesus was a real Man, and that it was impossible for a man to walk on water, so they cried, "It's a ghost!" What do you know that is stopping you from growing?
The text before us is explained away by what unbelievers know. Higher critics, people dedicated to studying the Bible yet who don't believe it's the inspired Word of God revealed without errors, explain away this text based on what they know. One knows Jesus' walking on water was just the hallucination of simple village fishermen. Another knows that Jesus was able to project a double of Himself while standing on the shore. Still another knows Jesus was really walking on the shore or wading in the surf and the early morning mist caused the disciples to think He was a ghost then that He was walking on the water. Others know there is a mistranslation. "Walking on the sea," is really "walking in the sea." And finally, some just know that the early church made the whole story up to teach a lesson about the power and presence of Christ.
Modern Bible commentators and prestigious divinity schools are where you'll find this the sort of thing. Those who study history or the psychology of religion explain away this text in a different way, but it's still based on what they know. They know all religions have walking on water stories connected to them. The Buddhist tell the tale of a disciple who walked on water when he meditated on the Buddha and who sank when he did not. The Jews have a story of a rabbi who appeared to be drowning but rose from the sea. Homer said the god Hermes had winged sandals that carried him over the water. Virgil said the god Neptune glided over the waters.
So according to what some secular scholar's know this text is nothing more than one more water walking fairy tale told in religion. I doubt any of you explain away this text that way. You believe what the holy evangelist St. Matthew has recorded. Jesus walked on water. You're a Christian; you take God at His Word. However, be aware there are Christians who explain away this text by what they know too.
Here is what a leading Reformed commentator says about the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. "Jesus' action makes him the channel of divine power and authority." Doesn't sound like that much of an error, does it? Doesn't sound like he's denying anything at least not in the sense that the first group did. True. However, there is an error here that leads to seeing nothing wrong with Christian pastors praying with Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and other non-Christians. This same error is also why some of you don't see Lutheran Communion as radically different than the Communion of Reformed Churches such as Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Baptist.
To say that Jesus is the channel of God's power and authority is to say that Jesus is like a hollow pipe. God's power and authority come down from heaven through the flesh and blood of Jesus. God's power and authority must pass through the body of Jesus because a finite, limited human body is not capable of the infinite or unlimited power of God. God can be using the flesh and blood of Jesus but the flesh and blood of Jesus cannot be God. It's just like a water pipe. The water passes through the pipe but the water is not the pipe. Makes sense, doesn't it? Everyone knows that the water and the pipe are 2 separate things. The water does one thing the pipe does the other. You can separate the water from the pipe. You can place the pipe in the choir loft and the water in pews. The water can use the pipe, but it's not the pipe.
I agree; this makes complete sense. But then how is Jesus different than Peter? Peter was a channel for the power and authority of God. It was only the power of the divine Word of Jesus working in Peter that gave Peter the power to walk on water. Peter didn't have the power in himself but got it from Jesus. If Jesus is a channel, then He didn't have it in Himself either. As a channel, the power and authority to walk on water came from a bigger God above Jesus. So why can't the Muslims, the Jews, the Sikhs and any other religion that believes in a god be connected to that Big God too? Why can't Mohammed, Buddha, Vishnu, and other holy men and women be channels of this Big God too? Why should Jesus be the only channel?
Lutherans have never thought of Jesus as a channel of God, but as God in flesh and blood. Along with St. Paul in Colossians we have confessed, without trying to explain it, that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ. We have said such startling things as we know of no God apart from Jesus Christ. Mother Mary gave birth to God, nursed God, diapered God, rocked God, and kissed the face of God when she put Jesus down for bed. When Jesus walked on water it was the feet of God touching those waves. God was not far away in heaven operating through the flesh and blood of Jesus on the water, but God Himself walked on the water.
Likewise, Lutherans can hold the Communion elements and say, "Here is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world." Communion, because of Jesus' Words of Institution, is not a channel for the Son of God, but the actual Body and Blood of God the Son here on earth. Communion is not a channel for Jesus whose body is only in heaven right now, but it is Jesus on earth right now. Communion is not a reminder of Jesus, but Jesus. Who can understand this? Who would ever dare say it unless Jesus had first said, "This is My Body; This is My Blood?" But who are the only ones who can appreciate the miracle of Communion and that of Jesus walking on water? Not those who know so very much but those of "little faith."
Jesus is trying to teach His disciples something very important about Himself in this text. Up till this point St. Matthew has showed us how the Old Testament, God the Father, the devil himself, and the demons all confessed, admitted, recognized that Jesus is God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in flesh and blood. But here, 14 chapters into the Gospel, 2 years into Jesus' ministry, is when the disciples are finally able to confess that Jesus is God the Son. What happened here that was so stupendous as to bring this confession from their lips? If Jesus is only doing what Peter does, why would they be so impressed?
The disciples are students of the Old Testament. In their 2 years with Jesus, He had constantly taught them the Old Testament which says that only Jehovah walks on water and only Jehovah can save a person from the waves. Job 9:8 says He alone "tramples down the waves of the sea." Psalm 77:19 says, "Your way was through the sea; your path through the great waters." Isaiah 43:16 says that Jehovah "makes a way through the sea and a path through the mighty waters."
Psalm 69 seems to predict the saving of Peter. "Save me O God! For the waves have come up to my neck...I have come into deep water... I am weary with my crying." And Psalm 107 seems to predict the saving of the other disciples. "He spoke and raised up a stormy wind which lifted up the waves of the sea...Their souls melted away; they were at their wits' end...Then they cried out to Jehovah...He caused the storm to be stilled, so that the waves of the sea were hushed."
It's not just the situation or even the salvation that Jesus brings to Peter and the disciples that causes them to confess the truth that Jesus is God the Son. It's Jesus words. When Jesus says "It is I," He uses the Greek for "I am that I am." This is what God answered Moses from the burning bush when Moses asked Him for His name. He said, "I am that I am." Which in Hebrew forms the name "Jehovah." Peter alone acts on this tremendous revelation. Jesus comes walking to them saying in effect, "Jehovah is here; you don't need to be afraid." Peter responds, "Lord," which is the Greek translation of Jehovah, "If it's you tell me to come to you on the water." Jehovah says come and Peter does albeit with "little faith."
Jesus is the Jehovah of the Old Testament. This is the Christian confession of faith. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, "No man can say Jesus is Lord (i.e. Jehovah) without the Holy Spirit. This means Jesus is the One who comes to the despairing Elijah in the still small voice. Jesus is the One who walked with Adam in the cool of Eden's evening. Jesus is the One who put Noah in the ark and got Him back out. Jesus is the One who came down to Mount Sinai and dwelled in a cloudy presence above the ark of the covenant. Jesus is the One David was talking about when he said, "The Lord is my Shepherd," but you probably already knew that.
Jesus is Jehovah. There is no god above Him. He is not a channel of some divine authority and power above Him, and therefore, it is wrong and blasphemous for a Christian who prays to Jesus to pray with those who pray to other gods. Jehovah, the God above all gods, walked in flesh and blood on the water and Jehovah comes to our Communion table in, with, and under the Bread and Wine. Bread and Wine are His means to come down to earth bodily; they are not means for us to ascend by faith to where His Body is in heaven as other Protestants teach.
All of this is true, yet none of it is the Gospel. The Gospel in this text is that God in flesh and blood, God in the Person of Jesus comes to save us despite inadequate faith. Peter's actions, displaying such little faith, teach us that what counts is the saving presence of Jesus not our strength of will, courage or even faith. In fact, you get the impression that while Peter had little faith the rest in the boat had none. Yet Jesus saved them too.
Friends, you heart testifies to you day in and day out that you're a sinner. Jesus has told you that He came from heaven taking on flesh and blood in the womb of a Virgin in order to be born under the Laws that you can't keep and to pay the due punishment you deserve for breaking the Law. You know this; you want to believe this; to trust this. Yet, storms descend on your life. Horrible storms of sickness, of death, of dying, and harsh living. You feel like such an absolute coward. How can you believe so little, trust so timidly, doubt so mightily? You seem to sink in your sins and doubts.
Yet, Jesus still comes to you, not walking on water but in the Waters of your Baptism, assuring you, liked we prayed in the Collect, that He has forgiven you of the things of which your conscience is afraid. He comes to you like He came to the disciples, in the Word telling you, though your sins say that you must be afraid, you need not. He comes to you like He came to the disciples hidden in the ordinariness of a human body only now His flesh and blood are hidden in the ordinariness of Bread and Wine, but in both cases He comes to save you despite your sins and little faith.
Dear friends, don't let what you think you know about your sins, about Jesus or about miracles get in the way of what Jesus knows. The disciples just knew that Jesus was a ghost, but that didn't stop Jesus from being Jehovah or saving them. You might know that Jesus can't forgive you for this or that or deliver you from this particular stormy sea in your life, but what you know doesn't stop Jehovah in flesh and blood, that is Jesus, from coming to your rescue in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XII (8-11-02); Matthew 14: 22-33