Harrowing Of Hell
August 13, 2023

Truly, You Are the Son of God

The Rev. Pam Tinsley

Click here to watch the sermon

Years ago, when my husband Dave was in grad school, we spent our two-week summer vacation visiting his parents in Columbia, Missouri. One of Dave’s brothers happened to be in town, and one beautiful afternoon, they went out golfing. At the end of the round, they discovered that they’d misplaced the car keys, so they called the house to ask me to come get them.

In the meantime, that day’s clear, sunny weather had suddenly turned ominous with dark clouds and wind. As I walked down the driveway toward the back of the house where our pick-up was parked, Banjo – yes, our basset hound – was reluctant to come. We did the “basset-drag” and got into the truck. 

By then, the winds were even stronger. Banjo was cowering on the floor in front of the passenger seat when Dave’s mom yelled from the house: “Don’t go! Don’t go!” So, I got out of the truck, leaned down, and tried to pull Banjo out. 

And then, boom! A large tree landed on the center of the cab. The roof creased into a V, and the rearview mirror hit me on the head. If my head had been three inches higher, I wouldn’t be preaching here today. Banjo and I managed to pick our way through a mass of branches and what remained of the tree to reach the safety of the neighbor’s storm cellar. Thanks to Dave’s mom’s warning and to Banjo, whose basset-ness forced me to lean down, I suffered only a mild concussion during what, I later learned, had been a nearby tornado. 

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we meet Jesus and his disciples in a different type of storm, a storm that’s commonplace on the Sea of Galilee. This passage falls immediately after the feeding of the multitudes – a miracle that reveals Jesus as the source of inconceivable abundance in the wilderness. And, the miracle isn’t carried out by Jesus alone. His disciples literally have a hand in the miracle, as Jesus places the blessed and broken five loaves of bread and two fish into their hands so that they can feed the crowds.

After this full day of ministry, Jesus sends his disciples out in a boat to cross the sea as he seeks some time alone to pray. Just as his disciples lose sight of the shore in the darkness, a mighty storm descends upon them, raging from evening until dawn. 

And it’s in the morning, while the storm is still raging, that Jesus walks towards them. On the water. 

Who walks on water?? Well, Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, walks on water. 

Jesus, this apparition, walking on water, terrifies his disciples. The storm doesn’t. They’ve already had a lesson in faith on a stormy sea back in Matthew 8, when they awaken a sleeping Jesus to save them. They’ve begun to grow in their faith and can cope with the stormy sea.

To assure them, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. It is I.” That is, “I am,” the words God spoke to Moses at the burning bush. The words that Matthew’s Jewish audience could not misunderstand. Nor would they fail to associate the raging sea with Chaos, Chaos that only God can tame. 

Who calms the disciples’ fears? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God, who calms disciples’ fears.

Of course, then, with Jesus’ identity confirmed, and the disciples’ fears assuaged, Peter speaks up: “If it is you, Lord, command me to walk to you.” And Jesus responds, “Come.” Note the mutual interaction. Both Peter and Jesus are involved in Peter’s attempt to walk on water. Peter walks toward Jesus because of his own desire – and because Jesus encourages and empowers him. “Come,” Jesus says.

Who teaches, encourages, and empowers his disciples – yet respects their freedom to choose to act? Jesus, the Son of God.

So, at this point, Jesus may be thinking, Peter’s taking the next step in his faith. He’s taking the next step in discipleship. Peter’s stepping out of the boat! Peter’s walking on water! He can do it!”

Who has faith in his disciples? Who trusts in his disciples? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God.

And when he says, “Come,” Jesus meets Peter where he is – spiritually, and in his desire to be like Jesus. Jesus has faith in Peter and realizes that Peter is now taking another step in his personal transformation, as he walks on water toward Jesus.

Who is this who believes that his human disciple can walk on water? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God.

Of course, then what happens? Although the wind and waves are still battering the boat when Peter begins his walk, a sudden, even stronger wind arises, and Peter is terrified! He calls to Jesus to save him. And Jesus takes Peter’s hand and leads him to the boat.

Who is this who saves us when we sink? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God.

Yet, then we hear Jesus’ perplexing words: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Is Jesus scolding Peter when he says this?  All of Peter’s actions in this passage emphasize just how much faith he has! Would you have stepped out on the sea believing you might walk on it – even if it had been as still as glass? Add to that the wind and the waves, and it strikes me that it took a lot of faith – and probably some of Peter’s infamous bravado – to step out of the boat. 

We also remember Jesus saying in Matthew 17 that faith the size of a mustard seed can accomplish anything.

It helps us here to know that “doubt” can also mean to “waver” or to “hesitate.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation, Jesus’ question reads, “Faint-heart, what got into you?” NT Wright translates his words this way: “A fine lot of faith you’ve got! Why did you doubt?”

So, like a baby learning to walk or a child learning to ride a bicycle, any hesitation can easily lead to flailing and falling.

Just who is this God who understands human hesitation, and loves us as we are? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God.

Then, as Jesus and Peter join the other disciples in the boat, the wind ceases, and Jesus’ disciples worship him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Who is this God who stills the storm? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God.

We all are faced with storms in our lives, multiple storms, both as individuals and as the Church.  Some are more intense than others. Some feel as though they are insurmountable and might sweep us away. And some storms do….

Other storms feel overwhelming and in retrospect give birth to something new within us, transforming us in unexpected ways.

We see this latter effect with Peter. Jesus, after all, chooses Peter to be the rock on which to build his Church. We might wonder why. After all, Peter often seems to put his foot in his mouth, and he even denies Jesus when Jesus is arrested. In this pericope we could look at Peter and say that he sinks when he takes his eyes off Jesus, when he loses his focus on Jesus. 

OR, we can see in Peter an example of how Jesus helps us grow in our faith and in our discipleship. Faith and discipleship aren’t all or nothing. Rather, we grow and are transformed incrementally. I’ll bet if Peter had a second chance to walk on water, he would have made it farther – maybe he would have even reached Jesus! Although we don’t hear a story like that, a couple of chapters later in Matthew, we do hear Peter declare that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And after Jesus’ Ascension, Peter leads and builds the new Church with confidence – healing people and encouraging new disciples.

And this is the message for us, the Church, Jesus’ disciples today. Just as Jesus chose his first disciples, Jesus has chosen you and me. We – you, me, and the Church as a whole – are responding. Yet still, we may stumble in our Christian discipleship. That’s what any journey involves, especially a journey of faith, a journey that sometimes seems impossible when we strive to shine God’s love and healing power into a stormy world.

That’s why we need each other here at Epiphany, our spiritual gym. Sometimes we may be like Peter, confidently stepping out in faith. Other times we may be more like the disciples, rooting Peter on and then being there to embrace and encourage him when he falters. Nonetheless, we are here “working out” to become stronger and more faithful disciples.

So, harkening back to that storm in Columbia, MO several decades ago, you may wonder what happened to Dave and his brother Fred out at the golf course. After making the call to the house from a payphone in the parking lot, suddenly what seemed like a black, low cloud came sweeping across the sky. They were pelted by rain and hail, and the strong winds almost knocked them down. With lightning hitting all around them and funnel clouds forming, they literally crawled to the clubhouse. Dave then realized that he had called me and that I was probably on my way in the storm with the car keys. 

And at that point a terrifying storm brewed within him – and he whispered a little prayer. 

The external storm passed almost as quickly as it had begun. As the sun came out, Dave then remembered where he had put the keys. Downed power lines and crushed vehicles forced them to detour on their way back to the house. And when Dave and Fred arrived home, I – and Banjo – were there to greet them. 

Both Dave and I had been saved – in different ways – by Jesus. And we rejoiced together, in the boat, like Peter and the disciples with Jesus.

Who is this God who stills our storms? Truly, it is Jesus, the Son of God!