Walk on Water

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Introduction: Superstitions

Never say “pig” on a ship. So advises seasoned seafarer Bruce Macdonald in his book of sailor superstitions[1]:

The word “pig” is unlucky and so is never said aboard and is substituted with “curly-tail,” “Mr. Dennis,” “little fella” or “gruff”. . . If the word “pig” is uttered, it will cause a storm since it is thought that pigs can see the wind.

Uttering “pig” on a ship is thus strictly off-limits. Tattooing a “little fella” on your knee, however, comes highly recommended:

Despite the superstition against having a pig aboard, having one tattooed on the foot or leg, with a hen tattooed on the opposite limb, [protects] against drowning. […] “Pig on the knee—safety at sea.” […] These tattoos, in combination, are commonly known as “ham and eggs.”[2]

“Curly-tail.” “Ham and eggs.” These maritime superstitions are not unlike ones found in medieval Essex where church bells “were rung during storms . . . in the belief that nature could be calmed”[3] since demons animating the storms would flee at the sound of church bells.[4] Regardless of your own superstitions, what all this reveals is our human insecurity in relation to the natural world. It reveals a desire to control the weather, to control chaos, to be in charge of something beyond our own, natural limits.

Beyond Control

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’s disciples are once again faced with uncertainty. Last Sunday, they were confronted with food insecurity before Jesus miraculously provided loaves and fishes for them and more than 5,000 others. Today, they come face to face with wind and wave on the capricious Sea of Galilee. But this time there’s one key difference: Jesus is not around. The night before he sent them on ahead while he ascended a nearby mountain to pray alone and recharge his batteries. Meanwhile on the waters below, there is a dearth of sailor’s delight for his apprentices, most of whom were seasoned fishermen. Did they mistakenly bring a pig aboard? More importantly, did they have their protective “ham and eggs” tatooes? (I doubt it seeing as they were Jewish.)

But now, as if a great windstorm wasn’t unsettling enough, lo a phantom appears on the water, walking around. “Ghost!” they cry. Would your reaction have been any different seeing someone or something walking around on the sea in the early hours of the morning? The disciples are terrified; the wind, the waves, and the wanderer are all outside their control. Around them chaos reigns.

This plunges another element into chaos: their faith. Eager to test the waters to see if the phantom is really Jesus, Peter steps out of the boat. He advances until a strong wind takes the faith right out of his sails. He begins to sink. And it’s here that we find the shortest prayer in the Bible: “Lord, save me!”[5]

Jesus’s response is enlightening. He extends his hand, addressing Peter with “you of little faith” or “little believer” in a different translation (McKnight). Peter is probably as surprised as we are: Jesus is calling him a believer. “So, you’re saying I’m a believer!?

I personally am happy to be called a little believer, for you see, in God’s economy, the strength of your faith depends not on the amount of faith you muster but on the one on whom you call, his strength. Muster you must but muster the mustard seed, faith even as small as a mustard seed (Mat 17:20).

New Realizations and Miracles

Trusting God through situations that are beyond our control brings new awareness of who he is. These experiences inspire; they are a flint that sparks faith. Poet George Bernard Shaw captures this well when he writes: “A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. . . Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.”[6] Here there is no phantom, no deception. We are in fact witnessing several miracles:

  • Jesus walking on water.
  • Peter walking on water.
  • Jesus saving Peter from sinking and drowning.
  • Jesus calming the storm.
  • The disciples realizing who Jesus truly is.

The miracles push them to understand that Jesus is the Son of God. They go from natural reaction (“Ghost!”) to supernatural declaration (“Truly you are the Son of God!”). They go from fright to faith, but only once everyone is safely back in the boat. In the moment, there’s confusion, fear. Afterwards, they have a new understanding, and they worship.

The Son of God

What do we mean when we confess that Jesus is “the Son of God”? When we recite the Creed, we join Christians throughout time and space in declaring that “we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.”[7] Each of these affirmations has been carefully chosen and crafted to communicate something very specific about Jesus. Each one is a guard rail for our faith, buoys keeping us from sinking into theological error.

When we confess Jesus as the Son of God, we are declaring that he has a unique relationship with God the Father, one that only he and the Father share. We believe in one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Jesus as the Son of God is the “only begotten,” the “one and only,” the “onlyborn” Son of God.[8] If we here today are considered “sons and daughters of God,” it is by God’s grace of adoption whereas Jesus is the only Son of God by nature.[9] He always has been and always will be.

In ancient times, seas were often thought of “as turbulent, monster-infested waters.” In today’s reading, the Messiah, the Son of God, demonstrates his authority over these chaotic forces as well as his power to save. He stakes his claim as the rightful sovereign over land and sea.[10] The disciples witness his power and are stirred to faith and a new understanding of who he is. They declare: “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Your Chaos

When faith ignites, it’s Jesus reclaiming his sovereignty over the human heart. What is your heart within you if not a chaotic force? In your heart, your emotions, your faith, your whole being, does chaos not erupt? Like unbridled waters, the tide of emotion sweeps over. Panic. Disorientation. Grief. Fear. Anger. Doubt. What can we do in these cases? Breathe, touch something you can see, and talk to the one with authority over all these things: “Lord, save me. I’m being tossed about like a ship. I need you. Save me, Lord.” The Scriptures invite us to turn to him and assure us of his presence:

Don’t be anxious about anything; but bring all your requests to God in prayer and petition, along with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.” (Php 4:6–7 CEB [modified])

Stirred to Faith

This stirs me to faith. How about you? Today’s reading from Romans tells us how to respond:

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. … “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” (Ro 10:9–11 NLT)

This is not a call to superstition like the uttering of magic words or curly-tail tattoos. It’s something more significant, it’s something real: it’s a whole hog trust where the center of our being leans into Jesus, where out of the heart, the mouth declares: Jesus is Lord! You realize who Jesus is—he is Lord and God—and you declare this truth openly by your words and actions.

Conclusion

What or who will you trust when things get out of control? Jesus’ first followers rode this raucous roller coaster. What makes you think your life will be any different? Even so, they remind us that through fording life’s out-of-control moments with even the smallest of faith Jesus brings rescue and new understanding. He inspires faith and leads us to worship. We start to see with the eyes of faith how extraordinary he really is. The wind, the waves, are literally under his feet, under his control. I want to be, too. How about you?

Don’t you want to trust someone like that? The king of all creation to whom creation is subjected. We do our best to control our lives and maintain that control. It feels good and it’s the responsible thing to do in most cases. But something infinitely more comforting is to know that we are not our own. We belong to God. So, call out to him like Peter, “Lord, save me.” And he will extend his hand to you, “Why are you afraid, little believer? Don’t be afraid, I’m here. It’s me.” No ghosts, no superstition, no chicanery; but the Son of God, the one who folds wind and wave and chaos like a blanket.

This morning I hope you have a new appreciation of who Jesus is. If any of us have come to worship Jesus as the Son of God, it is a miracle. Life will get out of control if it’s not already. Whom will you trust, O little believer? “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

References

Cary, Philip. The Nicene Creed: An Introduction. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2023.

Franz, Gordon. “What Type of Storms Did Jesus Calm: Wind or Rain?” Pages 175–82 in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels. Edited by Barry J. Beitzel and Kristopher A. Lyle. Lexham Geographic Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Macdonald, R. Bruce. Never Say P*g: The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions. Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing, 2022.

Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem, eds. “Church Bell Drives Away Devils and Storms.” A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ratcliffe, Susan, ed. “Faith.” Oxford Essential Quotations. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Spencer, F. Scott. “Son of God.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology. Edited by Samuel E. Balentine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Medieval Essex Churches. Essex Record Office Publications 60. Chelmsford: The Essex County Council, 1972.

“The Apostles’ Creed.” The Church of England, n.d. https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/what-we-believe/apostles-creed.

  1. Never Say P*g: The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions (Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing, 2022), 101–2.
  2. Macdonald, Never Say P*g: The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions, 141–42.
  3. Medieval Essex Churches, Essex Record Office Publications 60 (Chelmsford: The Essex County Council, 1972).
  4. Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, eds., “Church Bell Drives Away Devils and Storms,” in A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  5. Gordon Franz, “What Type of Storms Did Jesus Calm: Wind or Rain?,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, ed. Barry J. Beitzel and Kristopher A. Lyle, Lexham Geographic Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 179.
  6. Susan Ratcliffe, ed., “Faith,” in Oxford Essential Quotations, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  7. “The Apostles’ Creed,” The Church of England, n.d., https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/what-we-believe/apostles-creed.
  8. Philip Cary, The Nicene Creed: An Introduction (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2023), 57–65.
  9. Cary, The Nicene Creed: An Introduction, 58.
  10. F. Scott Spencer, “Son of God,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, ed. Samuel E. Balentine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

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