Yesterday, Steve and I had the chance to take a tour of a B-17. During World War II, my grandfather flew on one of these airplanes. I’d heard about B-17s all my life, and seen them in photos and the movies and on old news reels, but I’d never actually been in front of one in person. For some reason, I’d always thought they were pretty huge, but they’re not. You know it couldn’t have been too big, because this one landed at the Angelina County Airport in rural East Texas, not exactly a military or commercial-length landing strip.
My grandfather was a second lieutenant and the navigator on a B-17, and I got to go underneath the cockpit area and stand for a while in the little space overlooking the windows toward the nose, where he would have sat during missions on the left side at a small wooden desk, working with his maps to keep the plane on course.
What struck me as I stood there was how he and the crew must have felt as they got into that plane day after day, facing this hard, and uncomfortable, and dangerous work, knowing they were going into harm’s way. They were all so young, men in their early 20s, mostly. There were pretty much ordinary guys, with families waiting for them back home. So, how did they do it? Where did they find the courage?
In Matthew 14 we have twelve disciples who Jesus has compelled to get into a boat and go around to the other side, while he breaks up the huge crowd they’d fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes we heard about last week. I’m sure the disciples didn’t want to be parted from him, or to leave him alone without any support. But the Scripture doesn’t say he asked them politely, or begged them, or gently hoped they’d get into the boat. It says he made them get in. The crowd goes home and the disciples are in the boat, and he gets back to the solitude and prayer that he’d been heading for when the crowds found him. He spends the better part of the night on the mountain, and meanwhile a storm has whipped up and blown the disciples’ boat from the shore out into the sea, and they can’t get back to Jesus because the wind is against them.
This is like their experience in Chapter 8 when the disciples are together in a boat in a storm and their ship is getting swamped and they all think they’re going to die – but Jesus is with them, although he’s asleep, and they wake him up and he said then, like he says in today’s story, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he calms the wind and the sea with a command, and the disciples wonder what kind of man he is, that he can control the elements. Did you catch that? They wonder what kind of MAN he is. Not whether he’s God, but what kind of man he is.
In today’s story Jesus blows any kind of doubt about who he is out of the water – literally. The disciples spot him walking toward them across the water through the storm. They are terrified. It is storming, but they’re not afraid of the water. They think what they see is a spirit of some kind, Jesus’ ghost, or possibly some kind of evil that is heading toward them, and they’re stuck with no Jesus to wake up and help them this time. Jesus calls out to them, immediately, “Take heart.” In some versions it reads “have courage.” Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. This “it is I” phrase Jesus uses here is the same translation of the Hebrew name God uses for himself in Exodus 3 with Moses in the story of the burning bush when he says “I AM who I AM,” “tell them it is I AM who has sent you.” Jesus is in the storm, telling the disciples exactly who he is and who has sent him. “I AM God. This is who has sent me. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter, always the one to push the envelope, asks Jesus to further prove who he is. If that’s you, call me out into the water, he says. And Jesus says, “Come.” Peter gets off to a good start, but as soon as he pays more attention to the situation than to the Savior, he starts sinking, and calls out for Jesus to save him. Jesus immediately reaches out a hand and pulls him up, asking, like he did before, “Why do you doubt, You of little faith?” They climb into the boat together and the wind dies, and the disciples, finally, understand – at least at this moment – and worship him as the Son of God.
We live our lives in an ocean of change. One day things are calm, and suddenly, without any warning, we may find ourselves in the midst of a storm. There are storms we face on the outside, caused by circumstances or people beyond our control, or storms happening within ourselves. There are storms that happen in our families, our church, our community, and sometimes, you may feel like you’re sinking. How do we handle that? How do we get up every day and keep doing this hard and uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous work of living in this stormy world? God is always with us, and we can be sure that when we cry out to him, Jesus hears us, immediately. And his Holy Spirit comes to comfort us, immediately.
Those men on that B-17 – they did it because they shared a common goal. They were ordinary guys, who were bound together in a mission to fight for freedom and to make the world a better place, especially for the families they were hoping to get back to. Some of them made it, and some of them, like my grandfather, didn’t. Surely some of them, probably most of them, were scared at times, but they still answered the call to serve. God was always with them.
The disciples were ordinary people – fisherman, tent-makers. They were regular guys who had families waiting for them back home, but they were bound together in a common mission. They had all answered Jesus’ call to ministry. They were at times also called to face ridicule and even death. They had to go out into real storms, more than once, and they were scared, and some of them handled it better than others – but they were never abandoned by God.
We are the Body of Christ. We are the Church. We all have gifts for ministry, but we are also all ordinary people, people who come from regular jobs and regular lives to answer God’s call to serve, and this binds us together in a common mission to love others in the name of Jesus. Sometimes we handle our mission to love others well, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves faced with heading into a storm. Even then, God is with us.
Notice in both storm stories that Jesus doesn’t make everything peaceful first and then says, “Everything’s all right now, I’ve fixed it. You can look.” No, it’s still storming and the wind is still blowing when he reveals himself and says, “Don’t be afraid, I am God, and I am here with you.” It’s not until after he immediately comes to comfort us that he calms the storm. God is sovereign over all creation, and nothing will stop him from working out his purpose – even the worst of storms.
The truth is that sometimes we don’t have the courage to get out of the boat. Years ago, a pastor named Ernest Campbell said “the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”
Like Peter, Jesus is calling to us to get out of the boat and to start walking. He calls us to walk into places and situations in our church and community ministries that require faith, because they require us to be uncomfortable, and to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. The key to finding peace in the storm is in understanding that we don’t take our comfort from situations. We don’t take comfort from trying to keep everything perfect. We take our comfort from God. We have a God who reveals himself to us when we are scared, who hears us when we call out to him, and who reaches out and pulls us back up to safety first, before he ever stops to calm the storm.
I read something interesting this week on the phrase “you of little faith.” When Jesus said in both disciples’ storm stories, “Oh you of little faith, why do you doubt?” what if we look at the phrase not as a negative, not as saying they don’t have much faith, but as a positive, like the story of the mustard seed. True faith is so powerful that all it takes to do a great thing is to have a “little faith.” Peter had just enough faith to step out of that boat and start moving toward Jesus, and that’s the same guy, this guy who started sinking, who became the rock that Jesus chose to build his church on. That gives me a lot of hope, because even if we fail in our faith at times, just getting out of the boat can make a difference in God’s Kingdom. If we will focus on having just a little faith, then we have all we need to start walking.