“Saint Peter Walks on the Sea” by James Tissot

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Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Have you ever had a nickname? Did you like it? Hate it? Still answer to it? I suppose it depends upon the nickname. Sweetie or Dolly or Mama Bear are good. Stinky or Lumpy or Terry the Toad, not so much.

Did you know that Jesus had nicknames for His disciples? James and John were Boanerges, “The Sons of Thunder.” Thomas was Didumos, “Twin.” In this week’s Gospel, Jesus has a less-than-flattering nickname for Peter (already a nickname for Simon, meaning “Rock”). Jesus calls him Holigopiste, “Little-Faith.” This Greek word occurs only in Matthew (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). Where it does occur, it always applied by Jesus to His disciples in rebuke. However, the result never is that Jesus rejects them. No matter how weak or small their faith may be, they remain His followers. “Little-Faiths” are not the same as unbelievers.

Faith can be little or great, and your faith may fluctuate. Faith is fed by the Lord, present in His Word and Sacraments. The more you receive Him and His grace, the stronger your faith is likely to be. The less you make use of His means of grace, the weaker your faith will be. However, it’s important to note that your faith is like your pulse: as long as you have one, you’re alive. A strong pulse is better than a weak pulse, of course, and a strong faith is better than a weak faith. One with a strong pulse can get more done and is less susceptible to death. One with a strong faith will accomplish more good works and is less susceptible to doubt and temptation. But a little faith is still a saving faith because it holds onto Jesus.

Sometimes, nicknames just happen, but often there is an incident or trait behind the nickname. I suspect the moniker, Stinky, would be connected to someone who has frequent gastric issues. Blondie is probably noted for her golden locks. Jesus’ nickname for Peter also has a context. Let’s explore that a bit.

Our Gospel reading follows immediately after Jesus feeds the 5,000. Having provided compassionately for the people, Jesus sends away the disciples in a boat while He dismisses the crowds. Then He goes up on a mountain to pray, finally finding some time alone with His Father, a necessary recharge after the news of the Baptist’s death and all the busyness of healing and feeding the hungry horde.

Somewhere between 3 and 6 o’clock a.m., Jesus heads out to His disciples, walking on the sea. The response of the disciples when they see Jesus walking on the sea is threefold. (1) The disciples are terrified. (2) They speak a sort of anti-confession, “It is a ghost!” (3) And they cry out in fear.

They are afraid of such power and mystery. They do not understand who this is. Only one possibility enters their minds: It must be a phantom. This is like their reaction when Jesus appears in the upper room on Easter evening. They can hardly be blamed. Unlike Easter evening, Jesus has not promised He would walk to them on the water. He simply shows up unannounced, which may be why He does not chastise them, but encourages them.

Notice how Jesus’ response matches the disciples’ responses perfectly. Because they are troubled, Jesus invites them to “take heart.” Because they don’t know who He is, Jesus responds simply and absolutely, with echoes of Yahweh’s “I Am” at the burning bush, “It is I!” Because they have cried out from fear, Jesus speaks assuring words, “Do not be afraid.”

The message is clear and straightforward. This amazing being who has mastery over the sea and who comes to them in a fearful epiphany is none other than Jesus, their Master. Because it is He, they can know that this awe-full figure is for them. They do not have to be afraid. In this, His reassuring word, He has given them everything, and it is enough.

It should be. But it is not enough, apparently, because Peter does not quite believe it is Jesus. So, Peter opens his big mouth. He poses a bizarre question (a challenge?) to Jesus. “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” It’s a pattern that is repeated throughout the Gospel. Peter speaks from a lack of understanding at best, and perhaps from a far worse motive (see 15:15; 16:22; 17:4; 17:24-25; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33, 35, 69-74.) You think our current presidential candidates are gaffe-prone; when Peter speaks, bad things always come out of his mouth. The one exception to the pattern occurs in Matthew 16:16, where Peter speaks a wonderful truth: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He only does so, however, because the Father gives Him the words to speak.

 Doubting Jesus’ words of assurance, Peter wants evidence. Surprisingly, Jesus obliges. “Come,” He invites. Unsurprisingly (given Peter’s impulsivity), Peter accepts the invitation and steps out of the boat. Doubts quickly rise again, however, and Peter begins to sink. He cries out to Jesus a second time, not to challenge Him, but to find salvation. “Lord, save me!”

Earlier, when Jesus spoke to all the disciples who were in the boat, He offered them only words of invitation and encouragement. Speaking now to Peter, however, His words are a gentle rebuke. He doesn’t say, “I’m so proud of you for being bold enough to try stepping out on the water.” He’s doesn’t say, “You did well for a while; you only need to learn to trust Me more.” Jesus reaches out His hand, takes hold of the sinking man, and says, “Little-Faith,” why did you doubt?”

Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus manifests itself in fear. The same happens for you and me. Jesus promises He rules over all creation. He promises He will deliver us from all adversity and provide for all our needs. But we don’t always see it, which leads to doubts and fear. Fear leads us into all kinds of foolishness.

What is causing you to fear? Which promises of Jesus are you struggling to believe? Financial instability? Questionable governmental leadership? The pandemic? School re-opening? What has Jesus told you that you have a hard time believing? ? To what foolishness is your fear leading?

At the heart of all fear is idolatry, foolishly following false gods that seek to lead you away from Jesus, in this case, not because they promise pleasure or help, but because they terrify you into thinking that Jesus is no match for them. The example of the Gospel is the wind. Peter believed Jesus at first. Then he saw the wind and believed it was more powerful—that it had more power to kill him than Jesus had to save him. You, too, will be tempted by false gods who rule by fear.

It may be the god of pain or heartbreak. In this case, it may be a sinful relationship that you’re afraid of losing, because you’re afraid that the broken heart would be too great for Jesus to mend and cleanse. Therefore, you stay in it out of fear of the hurt. It may be that you’re afraid of staying in a God-given relationship because there will be some pain on the way to healing it; therefore, you get out of it in fear of that pain. It may be that you are afraid of leaving old sins behind, afraid what life will be without them. In that case, that sin has become a god that terrifies you that you will be worse off as a new creation.

Your peers may become a false god. Whether it’s in the office, the locker room, or the classroom, you’ll be tempted at times to deny your faith and confess another because you’re afraid of losing their respect or their friendship. You may  be afraid of suffering persecution for your faith. In that case, those people have now become your gods that you fear more than you trust in Jesus.

Disease is a big one. When healing is slow or the disease is chronic, when the scary stories of the pandemic are in front of you every day, you’ll be tempted to believe that the illness is too powerful for your faith and your Savior. You may withdraw, hoping that isolation will protect you, even as it saps your soul, mental health, and physical strength. In that case, disease has become a powerful false god which boasts it has more power than Jesus.

The greatest of all, of course, is death. Many have feared death enough that they were willing to deny Christ to avoid execution. Confronted by death, many are terrified because they can’t see beyond it. They recognize the power of the grave and doubt that there’s any way Jesus will raise them up again. The fear of death may cripple people, prevent them from doing those things that God would have them do in worship of Him and in service to their neighbor: once again, death has become a false god that must be obeyed out of fear.

In this world, the false gods that rule by fear look so big and intimidating, while Jesus looks so small and weak. These enemy idols are formidable and powerful, and the devil mocks you for putting your trust in a Savior who was so weak that man put Him on a cross and killed Him. That’s what the devil does, turning everything upside down. And living in this world and looking at everything upside down, those with little faith will be intimidated by those false gods that rule by fear. At times, you will be intimidated, for at times you will be Little-Faith.

But you rejoice because little faith is still faith. It still clings to Christ. It’s not intimidated by what you see—faith trusts in what you do not see, despite what you do. So, when you are afraid of these false gods, by faith you do what Peter did: you call out, “Lord, save me!” You call upon the One who has conquered your enemies, including sin and death and devil. By faith, you call on the One who has borne your sins and sicknesses and destroyed the power of the grave. And by faith, you hear Him draw near to you in His Word. To you, the risen Christ declares, “Take heart; It is I. Do not be afraid.” He forgives for all your sins—including all your fears.

Through the means of grace, Jesus comes to you as He came to the disciples on the boat; unasked for, sometimes unrecognizable, but always with authority. His stroll on the sea gave them a glimpse. His resurrection from the dead sealed the deal. His promise to return will provide the final assurance for you.

Jesus can save, and He will save all who have only a little faith in Him—even if at times we, too, doubt. The promises He has made He will keep, even now in the present time, as this tired old age still fights against the new age of salvation. He is the Lord of creation, who entered it to set things right. His power over creation was masked in weakness. He took upon Himself humanity’s sin and the divine curse of death, only to burst forth new as the Lord of life, the Lord over death and everything that would destroy us. This is Jesus; it is He, and no other.  For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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