Doubt: The Ants in the Pants of Faith, Pentecost 9a

Text:Matt 14: 22-33

It was early morning, still mostly dark when “the figure” appeared. Locals report seeing him mysteriously descend from the mountain. They wondered at the time if he could possibly have been human –no one hangs out on the mountain by themselves at night! Too dangerous. “The figure” then walked to the edge of the sea of Galilea. A wind storm had whipped up overnight and the waves were ferocious. At first locals reported that they thought this danger seeking person was trying to go swimming. Something even more unbelievable and scary happened. “The figure” stepped onto the raging sea as if it were solid ground and proceeded to walk across the waves. A boat could be seen out in the distance from the shore, and “the figure” approached it ominously. Poor fishermen. They didn’t stand a chance. Locals reported hearing shrieks coming from the boat. Paranormal investigators have been notified.

After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples out in a boat onto the sea of Galilea. While they waited for Jesus and tried to get some sleep, fierce winds began to blow and white peaks formed on the waves. They were pushed further out to sea than they’d expected to be and they wondered how they would get back to shore to pick up Jesus after he’d had enough time to himself with God. This was a common weather pattern in the sea of Galilea, the sea where the disciples started their professional careers as fishermen. There was nothing to be alarmed about until they saw “the figure.” They rubbed their eyes from sleepiness, were they dreaming? No, there was definitely a figure walking on top of the waves. How? Who? What was happening? Were they about to be assaulted by a ghost?! The disciples worked themselves up into such a frenzy that they began to cry out. They screamed for help, could anyone even hear their frantic cries? “The figure” drew closer and clearer, and their screams increased.

With a compassionate voice, above the sound of the roaring waves, “the figure” called out to them “Take heart, I AM, do not be afraid!”

They knew that voice. They knew it oh so well. It was the same voice that challenged them just the day before saying “YOU give them something to eat”.

Sometimes fear obscures God’s presence.

Their screams caught in their throats. “I AM” Could it be? Their vision clearer now, they could see that “the figure” was not a ghost at all as they had feared, but Jesus meeting them in the midst of the sea. Could Jesus really be “I AM”?

Peter struggled to accept this identity for Jesus. He struggled to believe that the guy he’d travelled around with, and who was a great teacher and healer, who did things he couldn’t entirely make sense of, was actually God. Peter doubted deeper still, he struggled to even believe that the figure walking on the sea, defying all natural laws, was Jesus. He needed proof. He needed a sign to banish any doubt in his mind.

Peter skeptically cried out to the figure approaching their boat, “Lord, if it IS you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Show me a sign, Lord, show me a sign.

This request does not put Peter in good company in the gospel of Matthew. Others who demand that Jesus prove his identity include Satan, the Pharisees, and those who mocked Jesus during his Passion.

Show me a sign, Lord, show me a sign.

Most readings of this story portray Peter as stepping out of the boat in bold faith, and then beginning to doubt as the winds whip up and the waves grow stronger. But Peter’s very request for Jesus to prove that it is he is an expression of doubt.

Show me a sign, Lord, show me a sign.

Doubt is the shadow side of faith.  It’s something every disciple experiences from time to time, but something very few readily admit to. Doubt is a sign of one’s healthy wrestling with faith in the direction of God.

In the midst of the life of faith, we encounter doubt. Crises naturally lead to questions. We question whether God is REALLY powerful enough to transform our lives or loving enough to forgive us all our sins-especially as we struggle to forgive ourselves of our own mistakes. We’re much harder on ourselves than God is on us. Oftentimes we choose to make God in our own, unforgiving image. We readily accept the law, but we doubt the gospel. We doubt God’s identity as we struggle to accept that God is REALLY as gracious towards us as our faith leads us to believe.

We question whether God is REALLY leading us into unexpected new territory. The world is changing rapidly, and our black and white concrete answers to moral questions no longer always apply in every situation. Our quest to discern the will of God in any particular moral issue often leaves us frustrated and questioning further still. Churches everywhere, even right here at St. James contain faithful Christians who stand on both sides of any moral issue you might name, and numerous others who don’t know what to believe, who seek God’s will and find more questions than concrete answers. Most of the time it feels like God is found somewhere in that middle ground. God is in the gray… and that is exasperating.

Humans crave certainty.  We crave proof of God’s will and identity. But matters of faith cannot be analyzed with quantifiable data.

We doubt and we feel guilty for doubting.

We tell ourselves that Good Christians are not supposed to doubt. Good Christians should have answers, not questions. Good Christians are not supposed to ask for a sign from God and are supposed to know exactly what God’s will is at all times. Good Christians are supposed to recognize God’s presence immediately and without question.

I guess, I’m not a very good Christian. I guess I don’t know many good Christians either, at least not many who meet these pious definitions we create.

Doubt is something we don’t reflect on enough in church. We act as if admitting you have more questions than answers is somehow sacrilegious, but doubt can be the catalyst for great spiritual renewal and awakening. Theologian Frederich Beuchner said, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Peter’s doubt that Jesus was who he said he was led to further exploration. It may not have been the pious thing to do, but because of his doubts he DID ask the bold question. He stepped out of the boat and into the sea on faith. And though he started to sink, he experienced God’s saving power in a personal way, a way that transformed his faith as he proclaimed for the first time that Jesus –his friend and teacher- was the son of God. God used Peter’s doubts to transform his faith.

Faith is an adventure story. Sometimes we’re safe and content in the boat with our fellow believers sailing on calm waters, other times we’re struggling for our lives- all hands on deck- battling the raging wind and sea that make us question everything we thought we knew about life together. Still other times, we find ourselves alone, no longer even in the boat but just barely treading water, struggling for our lives to find something reliable to cling to.

It’s time to get over feeling guilty. This text reveals not punishment for doubt, nor a casting off into the great deep of despair because of Peter’s audacity to ask for a sign. Jesus does not abandon him to his doubts or take offense that Peter asks him to prove his identity. Peter thinks he’s drowning, but Jesus is so close to him that he simply reaches out his hand and lifts him back up into the boat.   This text reveals a God who is closer to us than we ever perceive.

Jesus is strong enough and loving enough to uphold and sustain us all through our doubts and through our wrestling together toward God. Jesus is faithful enough to stay with us in our struggle and to carry us safely back into the boat of belief. Jesus swims alongside us through the waves of doubt and uncertainty. Jesus reveals his intimate closeness to us over and over again.  Through his faithfulness, we no longer see him as a mysterious, somewhat ominous far off figure. His strong arms lift us back into the boat of belief and enable us to proclaim with confidence alongside all our fellow disciples: “Truly, you are the Son of God!”

Amen.

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