When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea (Matthew 14:23-25).
When I was a boy we used to visit my grandmother’s home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. She lived in a house on a hill with a big front porch and a breathtaking view of GrandfatherMountain. At the bottom of the hill was a clear, mountain stream that rushed over smooth, round rocks, and it was there, in one of the still pools at the side of the stream, that I first saw something walk on water. It was a bug, a “water strider” to be exact, but as I watched it make its way across the pool my eyes grew wide with wonder. How did it do that?
My brother Scott explained: “Surface tension,” he said. Something about the way the water molecules held together. If you were small enough and light enough, like that bug, the surface of the water would behave like a sheet of Saran Wrap; you could just walk from one side to the other. I was fascinated. I filed that information away in my brain so that someday, when someone asked me how bugs could walk on water, I could lift my chin just the way Scott had, put on one of my most knowledgeable looks, and say “surface tension.”
On the surface, there is some tension between what we read in this passage from Matthew 14 and what we see in the world around us. Matthew says that Jesus walked on water, and that—for a little while at least—Peter did too. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a man walk on water. I saw my cousin water-ski barefoot once, but that’s not the same thing. That’s called hydroplaning, when something is moving so fast that it skims across the surface of the water. It seems to defy gravity in the same way an airplane lifts off the runway and into the sky by skimming on a cushion of air. But if that airplane came to a sudden stop it would drop from the sky, and if that boat had come to a sudden stop my cousin would have sunk like a stone.
This is what observation has taught us, this is what experience has taught us, but this story from Matthew 14 wants to teach us something else, and on the surface at least is seems to want to teach us that once upon a time a man did walk on water. For some people that’s a problem. Although they won’t usually admit it (especially not in church) there are some sincere Christians who have a hard time believing that things really happened the way Matthew says they did. Luke may have been one of them. Although you find versions of this story in Mark and John you do not find it in the Gospel of Luke. Is it because Luke, the beloved physician, the thoughtful scientist, just couldn’t believe it? There’s really no way to know that, but we do know this: that, for whatever reason, he left this story out of the gospel he was writing in the same way some people leave it out of the gospel they are reading. They turn the page and skip over it; their rational minds just can’t accept it.
They gag on a story too big to swallow.
I once heard someone say that Baptists are people who get together to argue about who believes the Bible more. If that’s true, then this would be one of those stories they would argue about. Someone would jab his finger into someone else’s chest and ask, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” Yes. “All of it?” Yes. “Even that part about Jesus walking on water?” Yes. “Do you believe that he did it physically, literally?” Um…maybe. “Aha! An unbeliever!” Do you see how quickly we might divide ourselves into those who are able to believe everything in the Bible is literally true and those who have some doubts? “Here,” we would say: “if you believe the sun stood still as it says in Joshua 10:13 sit on this side of the church. If you’re not sure, sit over there. If you believe a fish swallowed a man as it says in Jonah 1:17 sit up front, and if you don’t then sit at the back. If you believe Jesus walked on water as it says in Matthew 14:25 then sit in the balcony, a little closer to heaven, and if you don’t then sit down here, a little closer to the other place.”
We could do that. In fact some Baptists have done that—made belief in the literal truth of Scripture a test of fellowship. But let me ask you: what purpose does it serve other than making some people feel superior and others feel inferior—second-class citizens because, for whatever reason, they are unable to suspend their disbelief? I don’t mean that they are unwilling to believe, I mean that they are unable! Suppose we asked everyone who could lift a hundred pounds over their heads to sit on one side of the room and everyone who couldn’t to sit on the other. What would it prove except that some people are physically stronger than others? Why do we try to separate ourselves on the basis of whose faith is the strongest? And for that matter is an ability to believe the unbelievable the same thing as faith? I know people who believe that Elvis is still alive. Does that mean their faith is strong? Or does it only mean that some people will believe anything?
Rather than arguing about who believes the Bible more or dividing ourselves into the weak and the strong let me suggest another way. When I talk about the Bible I like to say that it is the Word of God for the people of God, and that it is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. To put it simply, the Bible tells us what to believe and how to behave. But even before that the Bible is the Word of God. It is how God talks to us. Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,
Did it actually happen this way? but,
What on earth is God trying to say?
What does it mean to say something like Jesus walked on water, and in this story what does it mean to say that Peter did, too? Let’s take a closer look…
This is just one of the things we discussed at Preacher Camp: the whole question of biblical authority and what to do with difficult passages of Scripture. If you’d like to read the sermon in its entirety (“Surface Tension,” preached at First Baptist, Richmond, on August 10, 2008), you can just click HERE.