August 10, 2008 - Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The bride is weeping. Her father is red-faced and furious. Her mother is alternating between sobbing hysterics and wondering what to do with all the food for the reception. The guests are confused and starting to drift away. All because the groom hasn’t shown up. He got cold feet. That’s the expression we use when doubts and fears at the last moment keep a person from taking some big step.
We don’t know where and when the use of “cold feet” to mean backing out at the last minute began. It appears for the first time in print in the second edition of a Stephen Crane novel in 1896. The picture seems to be of standing on the brink of an icy stream, dipping in a toe, and then backing away because it was too cold. I remember Boy Scout trips in the Sierras when we stood at the edge of an alpine lake with snow melting into it, one by one testing the water with our feet, wondering who would take the first chilly plunge.
Peter was the one among the disciples who took the plunge there on the Sea of Galilee, not into the water, but onto the water. Their boat rocked back and forth, “tortured by the waves,” verse 24 says literally. The twelve men were afraid for their lives in the storm and they had been made even more fearful by the sight of a ghostly figure walking toward them over the waves.
When Jesus called out those reassuring words, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” it was only Peter who wanted to get out of the boat and go meet Him on top of the water. Only Peter. The rest probably thought he was crazy.
Yet when Jesus told him to come, Peter went without hesitating. We don’t get any sense that he put out one foot to test and see if the water would hold him. He didn’t hold back. Verse 29 just says, “Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” No cold feet there. He didn’t chicken out, he didn’t balk, he just went for a walk… on the water.
I’ve heard a number of sermons on this passage asking us to be a little more like Peter. We’re supposed to be less hesitant, be more willing to just step out and take the plunge of trusting the Lord. In terms commonly ascribed to the philosopher Sřren Kierkegaard, we ought to be ready to take “a leap of faith.” If we want to accomplish great things for God, then we must take some great risks. As the title of John Ortberg’s book puts it, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. So this amazing event in Peter’s spiritual life is a warning for us not to get spiritual cold feet.
Except that I’m not so sure, as I look at this text once again, that it’s very much at all focused on the fact that Peter was willing to get out of the boat. That part of it is all told petty much matter of fact. He asks Jesus to tell him to come, and then he goes. That’s it. No big deal is made of the fact that Peter walked on water. What Matthew focuses in on is the fact that, once he was walking, Peter got scared and started to sink.
I’m sorry if I offend someone, but any fool can take a big risk. It might be courage, or it might just be reckless stupidity. Every time I go to Slide Rock State Park in Arizona I see a few young people jumping into the creek below the Slide from a rock high above. I always shake my head because I’ve heard my mother talk about the number of people every year who are injured there, breaking legs or worse, their necks, because they misjudged their jump or dive and hit the rocks instead of the creek.
You just don’t have to have that much on the ball to take a big, risky plunge into dangerous water. Sure, it took some guts for Peter to get out of the boat, but it wasn’t all that bright or awesome. Any of those kids jumping off the rocks into Oak Creek would probably do the same.
Now risky, brave first steps are sometimes absolutely necessary. Ortberg quotes Teddy Roosevelt about the need to dare “mighty things.” I don’t want to be one of those who hang back, as that late president pictured, never venturing into the great arena of life, never risking anything and therefore never achieving anything. In terms of our text and of Roosevelt’s words, we don’t want to stay safely in the boat, being “cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Yes, sometimes we must get out of the boat and walk with Jesus where the water is deep and the storm is raging. If we don’t, we will miss the greatest glory of our Lord.
Yet this text here is not really about Peter’s courageous initial step out of the boat, as important as it was. For us, it’s not about brave first steps of faith, as necessary as those are. This text is about what happens once we’ve begun, once the first steps are past, once we taken the plunge and now things are getting scary. It’s about what happens when we’ve already started walking toward Jesus and begin to lose our nerve. It’s not about daring to get out there; it’s about hanging on once you are out there.
So I’d like to suggest that Peter got a different kind of “cold feet.” He didn’t get the preliminary chill of dipping a toe into a frigid pool and then being scared to jump on in. We saw that he went for it at the beginning without hesitation. In verse 28, he asked Jesus to invite him out to walk on the water. No, this wasn’t the kind of cold feet that scares off a bride or a groom at the altar. It wasn’t the fear that grips you as you stand on the high dive and then shamefacedly back down the ladder. No Peter had already jumped. His feet got cold as he kept on walking with them immersed in the surface of that stormy lake. This was not a few first icy goose bumps, this was the deep, penetrating cold of prolonged exposure.
As the tragic death of Lamar Doxey last month reminded us, it’s really easy to get in trouble in cold water. On one of those Sierra backpack trips when I was a teenager, my friend and I decided on a long swim in one of those chilly mountain lakes. There was a little island of rock in the middle of the lake, sticking up about a hundred yards or so from our camp on the shore. Ed and I determined to swim out to it and then swim back. We knew better than to go out alone. There would be two of us, the buddy system. We were both good swimmers and each had earned the Lifesaving merit badge. No problem.
We jumped in and took off. The shallower water near the shore had been warmed a bit by the sun, but as we swam on out farther, the temperature of the water was lower. A little more than halfway there, too late to turn back, we each suddenly felt something we had never experienced before. It was like all the strength in our young muscles was seeping out into the cold water. As we said to each other a few minutes later, shivering in the sun on top of that rock, we had both begun to wonder if we would make it. And we realized that neither of us would have had energy left to help the other. If it had been another ten or twenty yards farther, Ed and I might have become one of those sad news stories.
That’s the kind of cold that got to Peter’s feet. It snuck up on him as he tread across the waves. It came from the freezing wind that blew into his face and whipped the spray into his eyes. He didn’t get cold feet at the start. He got cold feet along the way, on the journey out to where Jesus had called him. He got cold and afraid and he began to sink. It’s that kind of cold feet that’s the real problem for you and me.
Mark and John tell us about Jesus walking on the water, but only Matthew wrote down Peter’s part in it. Matthew wanted it remembered for the sake of his fellow Christians, for those whose feet might be growing cold as they walked the chilly path of faith in Jesus in circumstances that might cause them to doubt, to become afraid. Matthew didn’t remember what happened to Peter in order to encourage his fellow believers to risk following Jesus. He wrote it for those who had already taken the risk and who might now be growing cold, discouraged and afraid. He wrote it for us.
Matthew helps us remember through Peter that the story of walking with Jesus is different from many of the painful stories on the 11 o’clock news. It has a happy ending. As soon as Peter began to sink, we read in verse 30, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” And his Lord was right there. Verse 31 begins with the word “immediately,” “Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” Peter’s feet got cold and began to slip beneath the waves, but Jesus’ feet remained firm and steady and His hand was strong and ready to grab hold of His doubting disciple.
Spiritually, you and I may count on the same immediate presence and help from Jesus. His feet are still as steady and His hand as strong as they were for Peter. When we begin to slide beneath the waves around us, He’s there to catch us. His grip can pour faith back into us and help us walk to the safety of the boat.
Of course, you know very well that Jesus does not immediately yank you out of every lake of trouble into which you sink. You may find yourself jobless or addicted or abused for quite awhile. You may cry out, “Lord, save me!” for what feels like a long time, with no divine hand appearing to haul you up on top of the waves again. Yet the truth is that Jesus is there; His hand has got you; He’s not going to let you sink. But you still need to walk back to the boat with Him through the storm.
Look at verse 32. It says, “And when they had climbed back into the boat, the wind died down.” Why did Jesus wait until then to calm the wind? It was the wind that frightened Peter. It was the wind that chilled him and made him think about his cold feet. It was the wind that caused him to doubt. Why didn’t the Lord just stop the storm and keep the wind from blowing? Then Peter could have kept on striding confidently and serenely across the smooth surface of the water.
The church fathers saw it very clearly. They said that all this—the storm, Jesus appearing frightfully like a ghost, Peter growing afraid and sinking—all of it was for the sake of spiritual growth. It was so that the disciples could learn to trust their Lord more deeply than they had before. And Jesus does not stop the hard, cold winds blowing across our lives for the same reason. He wants us to grow.
His first word to Peter in verse 31 sounds harsh. But “You of little faith,” is just one word in Greek, “littlefaith,” almost like a pet name. In the Gospels, that name is only applied to believers. Once again, this story is not about taking the first step, it’s about those who already believe, who already are trying to walk with Jesus. “Littlefaith” is Peter. It was those first Christians. It’s you and I. We have little faith. And Jesus lets the storms keep blowing for awhile so that we can learn big faith, faith that doesn’t get cold feet along the way.
Faith that doesn’t get cold feet is faith that keeps walking toward and with Jesus even when the storms are blowing. It’s faith that doesn’t give up on prayer and Bible study and Holy Communion when it seems as if they aren’t doing any good. It’s faith that keeps on walking the walk even when it seems like the surface beneath our feet is wet and cold and dark and deep. It’s faith that cries out “Lord, save me!” and reaches for the hand of Jesus even when it’s hard to see and feel that hand. That’s the faith which endures through storms. That’s big faith.
There’s one more thing about the faith Jesus wants to grow in us through these storms that make our feet cold. I’m going to dare to make the analogy the early Christians made out of that boat tossed on the waves of Lake Galilee. Remember that Peter and Jesus walked back to the boat, and that’s when the wind died down, that’s when the storm grew calm. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers saw that boatload of disciples on the turbulent sea as a picture of the Church. All around the storm may be raging, but in the boat we are safe with the Lord.
When churches began to be built and Christian architecture developed, the part of a church building where people sat, where you are sitting, was given a name based on that analogy with the boat. The center of the church, the place where we gather, is called the nave, to remind us that we are together on a naval journey. We are a little band of disciples riding out the storms of this world in the safety and calm of a vessel whose captain is Jesus Christ our Lord. His Church is the boat which carries us.
So the one thing further I want to suggest is that Jesus desires to grow in us a faith that walks back to the boat with Him. He may call us to take some chilly step out into the world in order to meet Him where He is reaching out to others. He may lead us, like Peter, alone out into deep waters of family or health or mission. But in the end, He wants to take our hands and lead us back to the place where He calms the storm. He wants us to be with Him in the boat, in His Church.
Big faith, then, is also faith which doesn’t get cold feet about the Church. We may feel at times like the wind blowing at us came from fellow Christians. We may think it’s other believers who’ve pushed us out to deep water and caused us to doubt. But the Church is still the boat in which the Lord’s people sail. This is where the Lord brings us to find stillness and safety.
Verse 33 concludes, “Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God!’” We’re all still in that boat. That’s why we come here, to worship Jesus and praise Him as the Son of God. Out there on the water alone, we’re going to get cold feet and sink. If we take Jesus’ hand, He’s going to bring us back here, to the safety of His ship, to this nave where we can sail through the storms together, guided by God’s own Son.
I may not know what storm gives you cold feet, what causes you to doubt along the way, what makes you start to sink. It may be worries about your children or anger at a fellow believer who has hurt you. But I know that Jesus is there with you, that His hand is reaching out to catch you up. And I believe He wants to lead you back to a place of calm and peace, to the safety of where His people gather in worship. Don’t let cold feet drag you down. Don’t give up and sink. Reach up and take His hand and come back with Him.
Peter came back to the boat. We know from Acts and from early church history that his little faith became a big faith. He ventured out into deep waters, but he always stayed with the boat. At the end of his life, he walked with Jesus through the stormy times of the emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome. A tradition says that he was fleeing that great city to escape execution when Jesus met him and Peter asked in Latin, “Quo vadis, Domine?” “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus responded that he was going to Rome, to be crucified again. So once again, Peter went back to the boat with Jesus, back to the Lord’s people, back to His Church in Rome.
This time however, the storm blew very hard. Peter was arrested and sentenced to be crucified. Not wanting to be equated with Jesus, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, with his feet hanging in the air. But those feet were no longer cold. Peter had grown a big faith. He did not doubt. Through the storm, and on the other side of the widest sea, Jesus took his hand and brought him safely home into that great Ship in which all God’s people rest in peace and joy forever. May you and I have the big faith to meet them there.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj