August 7, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’”
What causes fear? There are many answers to that question. People are afraid of the unknown, being faced with a future without knowing what will happen. Others are afraid of people, animals, or things that are more powerful than they are: think of the fear of tyrants, sharks, or severe storms. Still others are afraid of what they cannot control. A line of thought connects these fears: people are afraid, and rightly so, of what can harm them. The idea, rational or not, that a negative fate will be visited upon them sparks fear.
Fear is seen in the disciples that St. Matthew writes about in the Gospel Reading. Continuing the narrative of events surrounding the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Gospel Writer tells us what took place as evening fell over the Galilean countryside: “Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.” The crowds had been satisfied by Jesus, receiving healing for their illnesses and food for their stomachs. Now, they are sent back to their villages. Jesus now gets to withdraw by Himself after sending His disciples away from Him.
But the disciples’ boat ride is no pleasure cruise! The boat is afflicted, battered by the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee. Away from land, the disciples are at the mercy of the weather. Struggling on the oars, the Twelve attempt to reach the safety of the other side. The hard effort goes on all night. Even for seasoned fishermen, a bit of fear creeping into the hearts and minds would not be irrational. But then the supernatural takes place: “And in the fourth watch of the night [Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea.”
So what is the disciples’ reaction to this sight of a man striding across the waves towards their boat? “But when the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear.” Fear completely grips the Twelve! Why? Because of what they are experiencing. Men can’t walk on water. It is the witching hour, the time when nothing good takes place. The figure must be a ghost, a spectre, maybe even a demon. Harm is going to be visited upon them. Into the water they will go, doomed to drown in the waters that they had known from youth.
But Jesus steps right into the disciples’ fear to relieve it: “But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’” Jesus identifies Himself. He tells the Twelve that they are seeing Him. Knowing that it is Jesus, the disciples will have no reason to fear. So Jesus says: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus’ words give courage to His disciples. His presence will give them help. He had already calmed a storm for them on a previous sea journey, demonstrating His care for them. Now the same Jesus is present in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, coming to them in a supernatural way to bring His aid. The disciples’ fear is removed.
The presence of Jesus even causes great courage in the disciples, at least one of them: “And Peter answered [Jesus], ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.” What an amazing act! Jesus’ word goes out to Peter, and he immediately he gets out of the boat. Jesus’ word goes out to Peter, and he can do what is supernatural. Jesus’ word goes out to Peter, and he comes to Jesus on the water. No fear is found in Peter as he acts according to Jesus’ will.
But the situation changes when Peter sets his heart on something other than Jesus: “But when [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’” Yet even then, Jesus shows that Peter need not fear: “Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.” Jesus’ middle-of-the-night appearance on the Sea of Galilee and His command for Peter to get out of the boat was not going to bring harm. No, He was there to bring aid, to bring deliverance, to bring salvation. That is the truth that Jesus reveals through these actions. And receiving that truth, the disciples are brought to right faith in Jesus: “And those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God!’” That is the purpose of Jesus’ actions, a purpose that He achieves for them. Once again, Jesus’ works reveal His identity, character, and will. And they are all wrapped up in bringing deliverance, not harm.
This is what you are given to know about Jesus for your benefit, so that you can call on Him and receive salvation. In this event, your Deliverer, your Redeemer is made known. Jesus is the Son of God. His presence in the world was to bring about your salvation. This is the One who offered His life in exchange for yours. This is the One who answers your cries for help. This is the One who brings forgiveness, life, and salvation to you.
Who is it that walked on the waves? It is the One who says, as He did to Job: “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” Who hung on the cross, lay in the tomb, and rose from the dead? It is the One who says, as He did to Job: “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” Who now sits enthroned in heaven, ascended to the right hand of God the Father? It is the One who says, as He did to Job: “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” Your Redeemer, the same Jesus who told the disciples, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid,” is the One who asks those questions to you and all other people. Your answer and theirs is “No.” But for Jesus, the Lord incarnate, the answer to those questions is “I have done so, and I did it for you.”
This is the portrait of your Redeemer that you are given to know. This is “the word of faith that we proclaim.” That word of faith tells about the identity, character, will, and work of Jesus. That word of faith is spoken to you, so that you can know and believe in Jesus. It is how salvation comes to you: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing His riches on all who call on Him.”
Faith in Jesus is given to you: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” The word of Christ, the word of faith, testifies about Jesus’ identity, character, will, and work—all these that bring you benefit and aid. Knowing Jesus’ identity, character, will, and work, you can take heart and not be afraid. Why can courage be given? Why is there no reason to fear? Because there is nothing that can bring true harm you. Jesus has mastery over the Law of God, fulfilling it for you; no accusation can override His forgiveness from you. Jesus has mastery over creation, bringing it into existence; the winds and waves cannot take away His salvation from you. Jesus has mastery over death, rising from it; the grave cannot keep you from entering His eternal life.
That faith created by the Word of Christ is what removes fear and brings you courage, just as it did for the Twelve in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. That faith in Jesus is what drives you to call on Him in times of need, for you believe the promise: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” You would not call on someone whom you did not believe could bring you aid. If they could not help, then your call would be in vain. But you know that Jesus can and does deliver. Your faith in Him is like the faith that David had: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”
Faith in Jesus drives your actions. What you believe motivates what you do. So you act like David spoke of in today’s psalm: “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. . . . In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry to Him reached His ears.” David’s song vividly describes how the Lord comes to the aid of His people. That “word of faith” shows you how your Redeemer acts for your benefit. Jesus hears your cries and answers them. He knows your struggles with sins, so He forgives them. He knows how death haunts you, so He gives you life. He knows how you suffer the assaults from Satan, so He works to accomplish His will for you.
Amid the many causes of fear, Jesus acts for you. Knowing His identity, character, will, and work, you know that your eternal future is secure. It is made so by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is ensured by His supremacy over all things in heaven and on earth. Though you do not have control over everything in your lives, your Lord does have such power and uses it for you. He uses it not for your harm, but for your good. That is what the word of faith makes known to you. Hearing the word of Christ, you believe in Him. Believing that He truly is the Son of God, you call on Him. Calling on Him, you receive action from Him. And that will lead you to fulfill His command: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.