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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 14:22-33
June 23, 2013 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

         My hat blew off. That was my big concern when a gust of wind blew across us. I had rented a little motorboat and my daughters and I were out on Paulina Lake to do some fishing in eastern Oregon. When my hat went, I started the motor and we went after it. We made a couple passes with our landing net, but missed. We sighed when on the third try it sank out of sight before we got there.

         What we hadn’t noticed while chasing my hat was that the wind was really picking up, along with clouds covering the sky. Then there was a flash of lightening followed by some thunder rolling down the mountain. We realized we were in a perilous position. It was time to turn around, really twist the throttle and get off the water! I prayed for that whole fifteen minute ride that we would beat the worst of the storm. And we did.

         The disciples in our text didn’t do as well. The wind was against them as they tried to row across Lake Galilee and they were, as verse 24 says, “far from the land.” As we heard last year in John’s Gospel, the sea was rough. They must have been frightened by the weather.

         Picture their situation. It was scary enough, as anyone who’s been in rough water in a small boat can tell you. It was dark, they were worn out rowing against the wind, and they didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the shore.

         Please feel free to make whatever connection you like to your own situation. Maybe you’ve been hunting for a job or a better job for a long time. Or perhaps you wake up every day to pain that isn’t going away. It could be a mountain of work that doesn’t seem to get any smaller. Or there’s conflict in your home or your extended family that just doesn’t resolve or heal. Whatever is blowing up the waves in front of you, you may feel like you’ve been pulling at the oars a long time and not getting anywhere. It can be scary.

         So those disciples were scared, bouncing around out there in that boat. Then, in verse 26, something came along to frighten them even more. It was actually a someone, who came walking across the water in the still dark morning. We know it was Jesus. The image of Him striding across the waves is so familiar and probably so comforting to most of us as Christians that we need to take a moment and put ourselves in the disciples’ place.

         There they are in the dark, out in deep water away from shore, already tired and scared, and here comes a figure walking toward them through the mist and gloom. Who can blame them for thinking what they thought? Who can blame them for being “terrified,” as Matthew himself remembers the experience? What else but some kind of immaterial, ghostly spirit could be moving across the churning water?

         Make some connections again, not just for yourself but for your family and friends and neighbors who don’t know and believe in Jesus. In the middle of all the deep waters of life, what are they supposed to think about this figure who walks out of the pages of an old book? They’ve got a mortgage or cancer. How is some ghostly being they can’t see going to help? They just want to row through all the hassles, land somewhere safe, and relax. Isn’t the spiritual aspect of Jesus walking toward them with expectations a little frightening?

         Jesus knew all about the disciples’ fears, and He knows about ours. That’s why His first response to their fear is to call to them, “Take courage!” Courage is the last of the cardinal virtues for us. Courage is the habit of standing firm for a good cause in the face of danger. In older language it was called “fortitude.”

         Fortitude comes at the end of the list of virtues because it depends on the others. The great bishop and doctor of the church Ambrose said, “Fortitude must not trust itself.” Courage or fortitude is not an independent virtue. Simply being brave is not good by itself. People have been brave, have been fearless for all sorts of stupid and/or evil reasons. I’m sorry, but killing yourself like Sarah Burke did last year in Utah while training for halfpipe skiing isn’t really courage. And none of us would say that a young man strapping explosives around his waist and blowing himself up in a crowded shopping area is courage.

         Courage depends on a good cause, on a good reason for facing danger. That’s why courage for Christians first of all depends on faith. For us, courage must not trust itself. It must trust in God. That’s why, when Jesus came to those disciples on the water He said, “Take courage!” and then He immediately added, “It is I.” He didn’t tell them just to buck up and be brave. He told them to trust and have courage because He was there. Our first and best reason for fortitude, for courage, is because we believe Jesus is here with us.

         You can see from what I’ve said that courage is not just daring, not just a willingness to rush out and do things that make others afraid. Courage depends on the virtue of prudence. The courageous person wisely considers the risks and what the good to be gained is. In the next verse, Peter may look as reckless and brash as any motocross trick rider, but listen to what he actually said in verse 28, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

         Peter didn’t just leap out of the boat, trusting in his own courage to keep him afloat. He carefully asked both if this were really Jesus before him and whether Jesus wanted him to step out there. He had faith and he had prudence before he ever had courage.

         Peter also had a good cause for getting out of the boat. When Jesus said, “Come,” in verse 29, we read that “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” Peter wasn’t just out there for himself, to prove his own manhood or whatever. He was out there to go where Jesus was.

         Courage also depends on justice. It’s not courage unless it has a just cause. Augustine said, “Not the injury, but the cause makes martyrs.” Christian courage is not about suffering for the sake of suffering, but facing suffering and danger for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. The person who faces death for the thrill of it or for some evil cause like terrorism is in some sense brave, but that person is not courageous, that person does not have the virtue we’re talking about.

         So courage depends on the other virtues. Ultimately you can’t have the greatest courage unless you believe and hope in God through Jesus Christ. And you can’t have it without prudence and justice and temperance. Foolish daring for no good cause is not courage. Of course Peter couldn’t have walked on water without Jesus, but he might have thought it was a good idea, maybe a first-century extreme sport, to go boating and swimming in storms all the time. But that wouldn’t have been courage. It would have just been dumb.

         Perhaps most of all, though, you can’t have real courage without love. The best cause for courage is to protect and stand firm for someone you love. Peter loved Jesus. That was his cause. Love for God and for others has been the fundamental reason for Christian courage all through the ages.

         So Peter heard Jesus and he took courage. In love, in his desire to be with Jesus, he got out of that rocking, pitching boat and stepped out into the wind and waves. But now comes the hard part. And it’s the hard part for us sometimes to get about courage. It’s the part that made me want to have us hear the old word “fortitude” today.

         Courage is not just attack. It’s not just the soldier charging toward enemy artillery to defend his country or the firefighter running into a burning building to save a child. It’s not just Peter crawling out of the boat onto the choppy water. That’s sometimes how courage gets presented in the movies, sometimes how Christian faith is described. Just take that first step, jump off the high dive, leap out of the plane, push forward down that slope. Just go and you will find your courage.

         But courage is not just that first rush of casting fear aside to face something frightening. It’s not just that immediate attack on whatever makes you afraid. Thomas Aquinas says that “endurance is more of the essence of fortitude than attack.” Peter was good on the attack. He made it through the first charge, but he was short on that second and greater part of courage, the endurance, the true fortitude.

         I skipped over what Jesus also said to the disciples in verse 27: “do not be afraid.” He meant that they should not be afraid of Him, that He was no evil spirit come to haunt them. But He didn’t mean that they should somehow eliminate all their other fears. Because the essence of courage is more about endurance than about attack, courage doesn’t mean being fearless. Courage is doing what is good, what is right, in spite of your fears. Courage is going on doing good even when you continue to be afraid.

         For Peter it was the wind and the waves around him. Verse 30 says he noticed the strong wind and became frightened. In his first rush toward Jesus, he forgot his fear, but then fear came back and his courage, his fortitude failed. The best and greatest courage keeps going on, keeps holding firm, even when we are afraid.

         It’s that kind of enduring courage, that kind of fortitude, that you and I will need much more often than the daring courage to run to the attack. That first is important and good. Only Peter had the bravery to get out of the boat and he’s to be honored for that. But Peter learned, and you and I need to learn, a bravery, a courage that endures as well.

         When I was a boy and we were driving out in the country and ran into a swarm of flying insects my mother had a quip I’ve since adopted and inflicted on my own family. Whenever a big, juicy bug hits the windshield, I say, “Bet he won’t have the guts to do that again.” Yes, please feel free to groan, but those bugs are a picture of courage that only has attack without endurance. Peter had the guts to get out of the boat, but didn’t retain enough guts to keep going. Fortitude means both.

         Fortitude is courage that endures. It keeps going forward despite the wind and the waves around us. Fortitude is a soldier sticking to his post and not running. Fortitude is a firefighter staying in the smoke and flames until she’s sure everyone is out. Fortitude is a father getting up everyday to look for a job when it seems hopeless. Fortitude is a mother or an adult child sticking by a hospital bed when the diagnosis is bleak. Fortitude is being afraid but hanging in there anyway. That’s what Peter had to learn.

         In a bit we’re going to sing a song written by a man who became one of the first Covenant pastors, Nils Frykman. The last couple verses are about courage. First in verse 4 it’s daring, that fearless rush into the fight on God’s side. He wrote:

         The evil adversary may in his fury smite;
         I fear not, for I carry God’s armor in the fight.

         But he didn’t leave it at that. Frykman wasn’t a pastor when he wrote those words. He was a school teacher in Sweden. He had come to new life and faith in the revivals which gave birth to the Covenant church. The problem was that the local government, the school board, didn’t like Frykman’s new faith. They were worried about what he might teach the children, so they tried to fire him. His friends appealed to the King and his job was saved.

         Then almost immediately Frykman expressed his faith again by having one of his children baptized outside of the state church, by one of the new free church pastors. This time no appeal worked and he was forced to resign. It was during that time that Frykman probably wrote this hymn with these words in the last verse:

         Now marching on courageous, with joy I see my goal:
         The blessing of the ages, the haven of my soul:
         And on the pilgrim journey my voice in song I raise,
         My God and my savior to praise.

God let Nils Frykman’s firm stand over the long haul cost him his job as a teacher. But that was how he became a pastor and eventually came to America to help start the Covenant Church here. His fortitude in spite of fear led him to where Jesus wanted him to be.

         The virtue of fortitude is marching on courageous, with our eyes on the goal, with our eyes where Peter’s needed to be, on Jesus. Fortitude is following Jesus wherever He wants to lead us, wherever He is going, even if it’s out in the deep water, even if it’s into danger.

         I could talk to you about missionaries like the folks who will be here next week who follow Jesus into dangerous places in the world and stick with Him there. I could talk about young people from our own congregation who choose to move into risky neighborhoods because they believe that’s where Jesus wants them. I could talk about many of you who’ve stayed and held your course in tough times and hard places and frightening circumstances. That’s courage. That’s fortitude. But let me get back to Peter.

         You know the end of this story here in the Gospel. Peter sinks and cries out to Jesus and, as verse 31 tells, Jesus saved him. He reached out His hand, lifted Peter out of the water and chided him for his lack of faith. We could also say his lack of courage, of endurance, of fortitude.

         Courage is the last virtue because it depends on the others. It may also be last because it takes a long time to form in us. It took a long time for Peter to grow into real fortitude. We know he still hadn’t got there by the time Jesus was arrested and Peter’s courage failed again. He denied he even knew Jesus.

         There’s a legend about Peter’s courage being challenged one last time. The Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz takes up that legend in his great novel Quo Vadis, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a story of courage. It’s in our church library. In any case, the legend goes that Peter was in Rome during the persecutions of the emperor Nero. Nero was crucifying Christians, hanging them on poles and lighting them afire as human torches. And so, we’re told, Peter left Rome. Sienkiewicz suggests that other Christians urged their dear leader to go. But basically, Peter ran for his life.

         Then as he hurried down the road with a young companion, away from the city, Peter saw a figure ahead of them. Sienkiewicz says the boy with Peter couldn’t see it, but Peter realized Jesus was headed toward him. Peter stopped short, dropped his walking stick and stood motionless. Then he fell on his knees and cried out “O Christ! O Christ!” and kissed his Lord’s feet. Jesus remained silent. Finally Peter asked Him the question from the legend, “Quo vadis, Domine?” “Where are you going, Lord?”

         The answer was, “If thou desert my people, I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time.”

         Sienkiewicz says that the boy there did not see or hear any of this. He just saw Peter his master get up and turn around and start walking back toward the seven hills of the city. So like a tiny echo the boy asked Peter, “Quo vadis, Domine?” “To Rome,” said Peter.

         And the legend tells us Peter died there on his own cross, crucified upside down because he didn’t feel worthy to die in the same posture as His Lord did. This time Peter found the courage, the fortitude to follow Jesus all the way out onto the deep water and dive in head first to be where His Lord was, to serve His God and Savior.

         Wherever Jesus is leading you, may He give you grace and help to have courage, to learn fortitude. May the cause of Christ strengthen you to endure whatever fears and dangers you find along your way. And may our Lord be there with you, taking you by the hand whenever you start to sink, until you come finally and completely into His presence where there is nothing to fear, but only love.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated June 23, 2013