Intersections: Faith Meets Doubt – Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

Second in a four-part series: Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life
August 13, 2017

Young adults and teenagers are good at asking some really important questions:

  • “Is God real?
  • Why are churches so messed up?
  • Why are so many Christians hypocrites?
  • Can I trust the Bible?
  • Is it wrong to doubt God?

Denying the power of these questions – or worse, ignoring them – simply feeds into the suspicion that our faith isn’t strong enough to handle doubt. But we don’t have to have all the answers. Admitting that we don’t is actually the first step toward establishing our credibility as faithful disciples.

Brad Griffin, of the Fuller Youth Institute, writes, “It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith—it’s silence. … It isn’t the goal of mature Christian adulthood to be “answer-people” or to have everything figured out. In fact, the more we lean into faith, the more we realize it is marked at every turn by mystery, unseeing, complexity, and paradox. As most of the biblical witness portrays, these features deepen our awe, wonder, and humility before God; not our certainty, arrogance, or pride.” 

Paul Tillich is often quoted as saying, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 2)

Both of these authors challenge a standard assumption many Christians hold; that faith and doubt have to be mutually exclusive. But when we look at scripture, we find that this just isn’t the case. In fact, we often see faith and doubt intersecting to bring people into a deep and trusting relationship with God.

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel gives us one of these examples. Let me give you the back story: Jesus has learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. He heads off into the hills to be alone, but the crowds follow him. Jesus has compassion on them, and spends the day teaching.

As dinnertime approaches, his disciples urge him to send the people away to buy food, but Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” They tell him they only have five loaves and two fish, but Jesus takes these small offerings and turns them into a feast for 5,000 people, with twelve baskets of leftovers. Once everyone’s hunger has been satisfied, Jesus prepares to get back to his original plan of spending some time alone.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.
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. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” – Matthew 14:22-33

The wind was against them. They were far from land, battered by the waves. No doubt, these disciples had experienced such weather before. Some of them had earned their living fishing these very waters. They knew how quickly a calm sea could become a tempest, as the wind swept down from the Valley of Doves on to the lake. It wasn’t the water that was the problem. It was the wind.

How often do we find that the wind is against us? No matter how many times we experience this kind of sudden and strong opposition, it always seems to take us by surprise. We think we have things under control. We’re enjoying a nice evening sail, and suddenly, it feels like we are fighting for our very lives as one thing after another batters us. It’s often in the face of strong opposition that our faith is tested. And what is the first thing we experience when this happens? Is it doubt? Usually, it’s fear.

The disciples in the boat were terrified. Not only was the wind against them, and the waves were crashing, but there appeared to be a figure approaching them on the water that scared the living daylights out of them. “Stop being afraid,” Jesus called to them. “It’s just me – take heart!”

How often do our presuppositions and assumptions prevent us from seeing Christ for who he is? How often do we cry out in fear when faced with the one we should ultimately trust?

Peter’s response was one of hope mixed with uncertainty. “If it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.” How often do we test God like that? “If it’s really you, tell me what to do, Lord! If it’s really you, make me do something I know I can’t do on my own, something no one in their right mind would even attempt.” In other words, “Prove to me that you are real.” And Jesus calmly obliges Peter. “Okay, come on then.”

Yet even after Peter stepped out of the boat, fear reared its ugly head when he noticed the wind’s strength. Fear is just as much an enemy of faith as silence and certaintyg.

I’m beginning to believe that fear is much more dangerous than doubt. This weekend, we have heard the news of violence breaking out in Charlottesville, Virginia as protestors and counter-protestors have clashed with each other. And what is fueling this violence? Fear. Each group believes that the other group is a serious threat to health and peace. Sadly, it seems to be true.

But there is something even deeper than clashing ideologies at work in our society, something that continues to polarize and divide people. It is fear of giving up power and losing control. In our broken human state, we have somehow been conditioned to believe that controlling each other, exercising power over each other, is the only way to survive.

That kind of thinking leads to oppression, and Jesus was pretty clear that oppressing one another does not fit in with God’s plan for us. Instead of exercising power over others, Jesus demonstrated “power under” – supporting one another in love. Which brings us back to Peter and Jesus, out there in the dark on the water that was being churned up by a strong wind blowing against them.

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter. Keep in mind that “little faith” might not be a reprimand. Jesus could be reminding Peter that he does indeed have enough faith – it only takes a little to move a mountain, after all. But when he asks “why did you doubt” he isn’t asking why Peter thought he couldn’t walk on water. He’s asking “Why did you doubt it would be me?”

Think about it. Who else would be coming to this boat of disciples in the wee hours of the night, especially when they were struggling? Why assume that the figure in the distance was a ghost? Why did Peter doubt for a minute that the only possible person who could walk on water in the middle of a storm in the middle of the night would have to be none other than Jesus himself?

Remember that the word used here for “doubt” is only used in one other place in the New Testament. It’s after the resurrection, when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee, just before Jesus gives the Great Commission. Matthew 28:17 says there they worshiped him, but some doubted. This word, distazo, doesn’t refer to unbelieving, but uncertainty. It could also be translated as “wavered.” The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. Wavering can be an act of deep faith. Here’s why:

When we waver, and admit our own uncertainty, we show humility. In our humility, we learn to depend on God alone, not our own certainty.

When we waver, asking hard questions of our faith, we admit that we aren’t God. We don’t know everything. We become receptive to truth that is beyond our own understanding. How can a human being possibly walk on water? We can’t explain it. We have to learn to trust in something, someone beyond ourselves, in order to grasp the unexplainable.

When we waver, when we doubt, we allow ourselves to hover in uncertainty, to embrace paradox, to dwell on mystery. This is where we grow.

Elizabeth Dickson asks, “If we lived in a world of certainty, without mystery or the challenge of infinity, then why would we need faith?”

Author Anne Lamott goes even further. In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, she writes, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Resting at the intersection where faith and doubt meet puts us right there in the boat with Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Many years ago, I experienced a crisis of faith. I wasn’t sure God existed, and if he did, I was pretty sure he didn’t care about me any more. I hadn’t renounced God, exactly. I just wasn’t convinced that the God my parents and my church had raised me to believe in was really GOD. I spent months examining each of my beliefs; every assumption I had ever made came under close scrutiny. I was skeptical.

But deep inside, I think I really wanted to believe. I wanted Jesus to be true. I wanted to think that God cared about me. I just wasn’t sure. There came a moment – and honestly, I can’t tell you now what particular belief I was considering, whether it was the virgin birth or the idea of heaven or what, exactly – but there came a moment when I realized I was never going to know for certain. I had to choose to believe. I had to choose to trust.

It was in that moment that Jesus reached out to me, lifted me out of my fear, even while the strong winds of uncertainty blew hard against me, and helped me back into the boat.

Now I know that lots of people read this story and think it’s about mustering up enough faith to take big risks. John Ortberg even wrote a book called, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Gotta Get Out of the Boat. And others hear this story and think it’s about staying connected to the church – because it’s only when Jesus gets Peter back in the boat that the storm calms down and everyone is safe again. Look at our chancel arch. It represents the prow of a boat, and the idea is that when we are gathered here together in Christ’s name, we are in the boat with Jesus where we belong.

But I think the lesson to be learned here goes back to the question Jesus asks Peter. Why did you doubt? I don’t think it’s rhetorical. I think Jesus really wants to know what causes us to waver. If we have faith to answer that question honestly, Christ promises to reach out to us and lift us up.

Here’s the thing. Peter may have been the only one who got out of the boat, but they were all afraid. The disciples may have stayed in the boat where they belonged, but they struggled against the same strong opposing wind that Peter faced. Fear in the face of opposition, certainty in the face of mystery – these are the enemies of faith.

Why do you waver? Why do you doubt? Near the end of John’s gospel, we find the answer. It’s “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:17

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