“Times of Faith, Times of Doubt”

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

There are numerous reasons why religion appears to be in decline in Western countries.

The judgmental pronouncements of some religious leaders turn people off. So does the nasty behavior of some of their followers.

But a prime cause of the decline of faith seems to be the apparent conflict between the claims of religion and what we know about the world.

In a world with so much suffering and misfortune, some people doubt whether God exists. Others question whether religious faith—even if it is based on facts–is able to change one’s life for the better.

A prime illustration of the conflict between faith and common sense is found in today’s Gospel. It’s about an unusual event in the ministry of Jesus, and the text is so problematic that I imagine that many preachers, contemplating this passage on a Sunday during the dog days of August, wish they could talk about something else!

The story begins with Jesus going off by himself to pray. After he leaves, his disciples get into a boat to travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

But an unfavorable wind carries them far from shore and they remain on the boat over night. Early the next morning the disciples are startled to see Jesus, “walking toward them on the sea.”

This part of the St. Matthew’s Gospel challenges common sense. The universal laws of physics seem to decree that human beings aren’t able to walk on water.

So the questions about this text begin: How did Jesus walk on the water? And, for that matter, why? What was the point?

In explaining “how,” some scholars have suggested that the Sea of Galilee was very shallow in that particular spot–so that Christ only appeared to walk on its surface. As for the “why” question, the text goes on to show that the lesson isn’t just about the unique powers of Jesus; it’s also about the disciples’ lack of spiritual strength.

For Matthew writes that, “when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified…” And they cried out in fear, saying, “It is a ghost!” Immediately, Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So Jesus recognizes that his disciples’ faith isn’t perfect. Even when they witness a spectacular miracle, they doubt. While the disciples had given up everything they owned to follow Christ, they still struggled to live their faith.

This spiritual frailty of the disciples is again demonstrated when Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invites Peter to walk toward him and Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking.

Now again, the modern reader asks: how could Peter do this? But again, I don’t think we need to worry too much about what actually happened. For the important point is spiritual and this point is quickly revealed.

For Peter doesn’t walk on the water for long. The Bible text says that when he notices the strong wind, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. Peter then cries, “’Lord, save me!” and Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

The drama ends when both Jesus and Peter get into the boat, and the wind stops blowing, and the disciples in the boat conclude that Jesus is truly the Son of God.

So however we interpret the miraculous elements of the Gospel text, the basic idea seems clear: when disciples have faith that Jesus bears the love and power of God, good things can happen to them. Not only is there a supernatural reality beyond our natural environment, but the spiritual can effect the physical.

In the text, when Peter strode forward in faith toward Jesus, he was able to walk miraculously on the surface of the sea. The other disciples were saved from the storm and safely brought to shore. Sometimes, in other words, faith works.

Unfortunately, the shining moments of faith often don’t last long. “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” Even the happy ending to the story didn’t solidify the convictions of Christ’s followers, since Matthew’s Gospel goes on to record numerous further occasions where the disciples doubt—When Jesus was arrested, Peter who walked on water, Peter who was the most faith-filled of all the disciples, would deny that he even knew him!

Maybe, then, the main point of the story isn’t what actually happened that morning, on the Sea of Galilee. Sometimes the stories about what Jesus did were like the stories that Jesus himself told. They were parables–subtle messages about how we should live our faith.

In this case, the message seems to be: sometimes faith is successful; sometimes it isn’t.

Now you might think this message would be pretty obvious! After all, a religious person has good days and bad days, like anyone else.

When religion is going well, we have a strong tendency to think it will keep going well, on into the future. The opposite is also true: when we’re spiritually depressed, we tend to think that our lives will never get better.

Sometimes we feel that we’re on cloud nine—walking on air, if not water! Other times, we feel enclosed within what a mystic called, “the cloud of unknowing.” Within that cloud of unknowing, the present is obscure, and the future is dark.

In terms of today’s Gospel, then, we should ponder the two things that happened to Peter: he walked on water, and he sank into the water. His faith worked for a while, and, then, his doubts got the best of him.

Yet that is not the whole truth of this text. For at the same time, the Gospel reminds us that faith and doubt aren’t equal. When Peter sinks into the water, Christ lifts Peter up, and brings him back into the boat. At the end of the story, Christ calms the storm, and leads the disciples safely back to shore.

It is sadly true that, as the Prayer Book reminds us, this is a “sinful and broken world.” Doubt is part of the brokenness.

But it is happily true that in God’s world, doubts are overcome, storms are calmed, and faith wins.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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