22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When Tino was only seven years old, his grandfather, Karl Wallenda, put him on a wire two feet off the ground. Karl taught his grandson all the elementary skills: how to hold his body so that it remained stiff and rigid; how to place his feet with only his big toe on the wire and his heel to the inside; how to hold the pole with his elbows close to his body. “But the most important thing that my grandfather taught me,” Tino said, “was that I needed to focus my attention on a point at the other end of the wire. I need a point to concentrate on to keep me balanced."
Of course, Karl Wallenda was not the typical grandpa. He came from an amazing ancestral family that traveled as a circus troupe consisting of acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists and animal trainers all in one family. As far back as 1780, the Wallenda family traveled throughout the villages of Europe setting up and performing in the city squares, trusting in their talent and skills to provoke thrills and joy, and relying on the generosity of the audience to reward them as they passed the hat around. In the late 1800s, for the next two generations, they became known for their expertise in the art of the flying trapeze.
The Great Wallendas were headliners with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus during much of the 1930s and 1940s. One frightening event happened in Akron, Ohio, when the wire slipped slightly as they were performing. All four members fell to the wire, yet they were relatively unhurt. The next day, a reporter who witnessed the accident stated in the newspaper, "The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying,", and the headline read "THE FLYING WALLENDAS." And that name is still synonymous with the family to this day.
At age 19, grandson Tino thought he was a real intellectual. “I was always eager to talk with people about things, ¬even religion, ¬ on an intellectual plane. If someone would talk to me about God, I would say, "I have thought about this, and I'm an agnostic." But I should have known that God exists. From the time that I was young, my mother and my father told me about God and heaven. They taught me how to pray, and I had a grandmother who told me again and again that God answers prayer. And there were other people in the circus world who told me about the reality of God. It wasn't personal testimony, however, that made an impact on my life. The thing that brought me to an understanding of the reality of God was the Word of God.”(Excerpts from articles on www.wallenda.com)
Now it’s this perspective about God that Tino Wallenda expresses that raises my first question about this week’s gospel reading. What is exactly the word from God in this text? The story has quite a few inconsistencies that I have to address. First of all, what on earth are experienced fishermen doing out on a stormy sea in the middle of the night? Now if you’ve seen any of those movies like “The Perfect Storm” or shows like “The Deadliest Catch” you know that modern fishermen know when not to go out into a treacherous sea. Is it really plausible that Jesus would deliberately have sent his friends out into the teeth of a storm while he went off by himself to pray? Is it reasonable to conclude that hardened fishermen – twelve of them, as a matter of fact - couldn’t read the clouds or that they couldn’t have put to shore at the first sign of a storm? The story defies common logic for what we know of history and culture in Jesus’ day. Are we really dealing with an actual historical event that took place on the Sea of Galilee?
What we seem to be dealing with, at least what the author of the Gospel of Matthew is dealing with, is a parable about the relationship that exists between Jesus and those who follow him. And what Matthew has very much on his mind is the situation disciples were facing in his own church. They were living in a time and place that was very turbulent indeed. The heart of this incident for Matthew is this interchange between Peter and Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel writer who inserts this intriguing conversation and incident into the story. Why? It’s not the fact that Jesus is the one whom even the wind and the sea obey. The other Gospels make that point without Peter sinking.
So let’s dig deeper. First, Peter makes a highly unusual request. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you . . .?” Why is there such uncertainty in Peter’s question? And who else would it be anyway? What is Matthew getting at here? Is Peter asking Jesus to make him capable of a supernatural feat? Once again, we need to consider what is plausible, reasonable; and what is certainly realistic. We know that the disciples of Jesus would indeed have been intimidated by the thought of carrying on the ministry of Jesus after his death. After all, they were surrounded by enemies who had demonstrated in no uncertain terms exactly what they had thought of Jesus and exactly what they would do to anybody who had similar ideas. We know that the reality of Good Friday and the scandal of the cross was very much on the minds of those first followers when they began to tell the story of Jesus. And now as it gets chronicled in written form at least 70 years after his death if not longer, the leaders of this emerging church face the same hostile environment. And yet Jesus had commanded them to do precisely that; to tell the story. The question was: would they be able to obey? Peter is clearly portrayed here as one who is questioning that command. “Uh, well, Lord, just in case I didn’t hear you right the first time, would you repeat that order? Give it to me one more time – just for the record.”
The second thing to notice is what happens when Jesus obliges him. Peter gets out of the boat. He begins to walk toward Jesus on the water. Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on this story saying, “Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learnt the meaning of faith. Before he could believe, the utterly impossible and ethically irresponsible situation on the waves of the sea must be displayed. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.” In other words, faith is only real when it is put to the test. If Peter had not taken that first step, his faith would have been worthless. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Call to Discipleship.”)
Finally, it is when Peter starts walking that he becomes frightened by the wind and starts sinking. We need to get the connection between faith and doubt or between faith and fear. Matthew is not talking about some kind of intellectual doubt. He’s not talking about the kind of skepticism that some people exhibit, people who have no real interest in putting faith to the test, who are merely interested in debating the issue. Matthew is talking about someone who has the nerve to take that first step and then, because of circumstances beyond his or her control, begins to falter and sink beneath the waves. That’s the kind of person, Matthew says, who discovers Jesus’ steadying, delivering hand.
. . . 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?”
“You of little faith . . .” wasn’t something Jesus ever said to those who refused to follow him. He said it to those who did but who began to falter along the way. He said it to those who had the courage to take the first step. “If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps,” wrote Bonhoeffer and that first step is the one that counts most of all. It is that step that makes following a serious business and not just an intellectual enterprise. That first step cuts us off from the way we have been living up to that point, just the way it cut Peter off from his nets. The only proof of whether are not we are serious about following is whether or not we are prepared to get up and muster the courage to take that first step; to begin a deed worth making. A mustered deed takes real faith.
Of course, it places us in an impossible situation. Of course, it forces us to traverse deep and turbulent waters. Of course, it plunges us into a situation of deep insecurity. Does anyone seriously believe for one instant that following someone like Jesus of Nazareth would mean making ourselves popular, safe, or successful? Faith is not about sitting still and waiting. It is about leaving the boat and risking your life. The reason Peter sank, of course, was because he started to doubt himself. It is an easy mistake to make. To think that being faithful to Jesus is all up to us, that it has something to do with our strength, our conviction, our will power, our emotional maturity. When Jesus finally did haul Peter up out of whatever waters he had begun to sink into, he must surely have said to himself, “What a fool I was. Here I thought that it was all up to me.”(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “The First Step” for August 7, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)
As an adult, Tino Wallenda still lives on the high-wire. And so does his family. He said, “At one time or another I have taken each of my four children ¬Alida, Andrea, Aurelia and Alessandro ¬ on my shoulders as I have walked across the high-wire. In those situations the children really can't do any balancing; I'm the one who has to balance and support them. And people have asked them, "Aren't you scared?"
"No," they have said. And when they have been asked, "Why aren't you scared?" They have answered, "Because that's my daddy." You see, they have confidence in me because I'm their daddy. (www.wallenda.com)
And because of that confidence, they have the courage to do it over and over again. And so can we, by the faith of just one mustered deed. Let us pray.
O God; your good news to us today is so simple. If it is our job to leap, then it is the Spirit’s job to catch us; if it is our task to yield, then it’s the Spirit’s job to strengthen us; if our task is total commitment, then it’s the Spirit’s job to bear us up; if it’s our job to trust, then it’s the Spirit’s task to see that that trust does not wither; if it’s our job to love and trust, then it’s the Spirit’s job to grow that love and trust stronger and longer. Thank you for being Abba to us. Thank you for being faithful. Amen.
– Andrew M. Greeley
Meditation: 1. What are the turbulent and violent storms you’ve experienced in your own life?
2. What did it feel like taking that first step into the unknown?
3. What did it cost you?
4. What was your experience of Christ’s hand reaching out to you?