When to Get Out of the Boat

Matthew 14:22-23

August 13, 2023

Rev. Shannon Jordan

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But 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.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Many of you were at David and my installation last March. If you remember in the service, my husband, John, gave me the charge towards the end of the service. One of the things that he said was that in our relationship, I am the “Wow!” and he is the “How?” I tend to be more of an idea person and don’t think of the how until I am in deeper water than comfortable. Are you more of a How person or a Wow person?

For the How people out there—there is quite a bit of discussion in commentaries as to whether this is a historical story or is it metaphor. Did Jesus and Peter really walk on water, or was there really a big sandbar beside the boat? Whenever I read something like that I remember my Hebrew language and Bible professor, Dr. David Hopkins, who was also an archeologist. He mentioned that he began his studies because he wanted to prove that the Bible is historically true. He found out that there are chunks that you can’t prove, so what do you do? He lifted up that point, which has really stuck with me, that regardless of whether a true miracle, or whether the timeline is perfect, that what is in the Bible is in the Bible because scripture was formed by the Spirit. If it is in scripture, there is something for us to learn from it. History, metaphor, or origin story, we can learn from it.

In the early 2000’s John and I read a book called If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat, by John Ortberg. The title was incredibly intriguing to me. It challenges the reader to leave their comfort zone and lean into the potential we have when we follow God. If we choose to live lives that seek to go where God is…where the Spirit is leading us… and trust God with the “How” while we live into the “Wow”. Little did I know that God was about to invite me out of my comfortable boat. I had done lots of Children’s Ministry and was a great volunteer—and I was content there. Then I was asked into a leadership position and in what seemed like a strange series of events, I was teaching my first Bible study to adults—about 400 women a week! I was out of my comfortable boat. It was terrifying and exhilarating. I knew I was doing what God had created me to do. A few years later, in 2005, we moved to Northern Virginia and I started seminary in 2006.

This passage follows directly after the sermon from last week. As a matter of fact, the first verse of our passage this morning says:

22 Immediately (after feeding the multitudes) he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

If you remember, he was going to go and pray before being interrupted by the crowds—and healing them and feeding them. He had continued with his plan to pray and sent the disciples on ahead.

The wind was rough and the waves were battering the boat.

We can learn quite a bit when we compare this experience in the boat with the one in Matthew 8 (which parallels the passage from Mark 4 that Patrick preached a few weeks ago), Jesus calming the storm. In that one, Jesus gets in the boat first and the disciples follow him. In our passage this morning, Jesus sends them on their own.

In Matthew 8, Jesus is in the boat and asleep, and still the disciples are terrified.

In Matthew 8, they cry out “Lord, save us,” and Jesus quiets the waves.

In this passage, the boat is battered by wind and rain, there is no indication that the disciples are afraid, until they see him walking on water and think he is a ghost. In this instance Jesus answers, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” I actually like Dale Bruner’s translation better when he writes, “Courage, I AM, Don’t be afraid,” because it makes clearer the ties to Moses at the burning bush when Moses asks God’s name and God answered I AM. Actually, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the “I AM” in Exodus is the same here in Matthew—Kurios for Yahweh.

In Matthew 8, Jesus calms the waves, in Matthew 14, he doesn’t—and Peter still gets out of the boat, during the storm, to walk to Jesus.  To draw closer to the Christ—to whom he called “Lord, if it is you, call me to come out to you.” Jesus replies “Come…” And Peter climbed out of the boat.

Think about the contrast in the transformation of Peter—from cowering in the boat to being willing to get out of the boat while the seas are still rough.

It is when he is out on the water that he becomes frightened and begins to sink. Then he says, “Lord, save me!” like in Matthew 8. It must have been terrifying and exhilarating.

Finally, this passage ends with Jesus pulling Peter back up and chiding him for his little faith. This not a critique of Peter, but more of an indication of what Peter can do with just a little faith. It is the same word used in Matthew 28:17 after the resurrection and the disciples worshiped him, but still some doubted. I think in both cases it was terrifying and exhilarating.

Jesus walking on water had additional significance when Matthew was written.

Water in scripture often indicated chaos. Water in the creation story showed the chaos God controlled when God separated water from land. God had Noah build a boat. God parted the Red Sea; God made water come out of rock. Justice rolls down like water. Water in the Old Testament often showed the power of God.

Isaiah 43 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you – He who made a way through the sea, a path through mighty waters.

Additionally walking on water was something God did. Several commentaries lifted the fact that this passage helped demonstrate the divinity of Jesus.

Ps 77 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,

    your lightning lit up the world;

    the earth trembled and quaked.

Your path led through the sea,

    your way through the mighty waters,

    though your footprints were not seen.

I wrote a paper in seminary about how in the times of the early church, when Matthew was written, that boats were symbols of the church. In that time, the sea was very unpredictable. Most sailors and fishermen stayed near the coast—in sight of land. It was dangerous to be too far from the coast. Additionally, the Sea of Galilee was unpredictable as the geography enabled winds to come over the waters quickly, kicking up storms with little or no notice. It was dangerous to be at sea.

The seas often seem to demonstrate the liminal space between the kingdom of Heaven and Earth. If you think about it, much of Jesus’s ministry is done on or near the water. He was baptized in water in chapter 3. He called many of his disciples along the sea in Matthew 4. He stilled the storm and healed two men in Matthew 8; he crosses the sea and heals people in chapter 9; our passage here in Matthew 14 where he feeds the multitudes and he and Peter walk on water; and in Matthew 15 beside the water he “cures many people.”  It is at the edge of chaos that Jesus works. Chaos doesn’t frighten Jesus. The disciples learn this.

We can see the transforming power of following Jesus in how Peter responds. He goes from terrified to gutsy.

We can see that God can and does often send us into choppy waters—or even into the storm, and will be with us in the midst of the storm. We can trust God. We explored this a few weeks ago when Patrick preached on Mark 4, which parallels Matthew 8 and Jesus being asleep in the back of the boat. Patrick’s sermon lifted up the ways that God uses testing to shape us and develop us as disciples. Often challenges can help us.

We can remember when things get tough that God can use these tough times to grow our faith. We see this in the disciples—we touched on it last week in that it is our tough times that help us have more compassion for others. What if we saw challenges, either a small challenge like a frustrating person—or a bigger challenge that really rocks our boat—as opportunities to learn more about God?

Boats have long been a symbol of the church. As a matter of fact, the “nave” of the church, the place where the congregation sits, originates from the Latin word, “navis” or ship. If you look up in many churches it can look like the bottom of a boat. Some think this symbolic boat is from Jesus calling the disciples to be “fishers of men” or from Jesus calming the sea—it could be the gathered community of Christ being gathered to be sent by the wind—which is symbolic of the Holy Spirit.  This is our boat. This is the vehicle that God has provided us to gather us together to make our way through the chaos of life, the dangers of the sea, as led by the Spirit to go and do God’s will in the world.

If you look at the pattern in scripture, Jesus and disciples used the boat to go and minister to others. Like boats, churches are places where people come together to get from one place to another. We come together to worship and praise God. We come together to care for one another. We come to church to receive care. We come together to learn more about the life of Jesus so we can better live our lives as his disciples. We come together to learn and practice skills that we can take into the world to serve others. It is not about getting into the boat and staying there. It is about coming together as a church, learning what we need to learn, caring for one another, and then going out and serving others. The disciples were not disciples for themselves—they were disciples to bring the good news of the Gospel, the love and forgiveness of Christ, to the world. We were not created to stay in the boat all of the time.

Where are you? Are you in the boat to be healed and comforted from a challenging time by the community of Christ? Are you in the boat to learn more about Jesus and to learn about what gifts God has for you—a place to develop your skills—so that you can get out of the boat and serve?  Are you in the boat to care for others in the boat, or to teach others in the boat? Regardless, remember that God is with you—you don’t want to miss God telling you to get out of the boat with God.


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