Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pentecost 8 (Proper 14), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 7, 2011 (Proper 14, Series A)

Try to picture yourself in Peter’s place for a moment. Here you are, standing on top of the water, water that should never be able to hold you up, with waves crashing all around you and wind threatening to knock you over at any moment. It’s bad enough that you’re standing on top of a liquid, a liquid which should by all known laws of nature allow you to sink into its depths and drown. It’s even worse that the wind is whistling around you, pushing against you and trying to make you fall. And then there’s those waves coming your direction, waves which, even if you manage to stay on top of the water, will almost certainly bury you and drag you down into a watery grave. It looked so easy when Jesus did it. In fact, He made it look so easy that you just had to try it, thinking maybe it would even be fun. And that’s probably the worst part about the whole situation. You got yourself into it. You put yourself where you had no business being, and now the water, the waves, and the wind are going to swallow you up and take you to a watery grave on the bottom of the sea of Galilee.

Now, I’m sure most of us have never tried to walk on top of water, so we have never been in Peter’s situation here. But we have all been in situations where we felt like we were doomed. There have been times in all of our lives when there are so many demands on our time, our energy and our abilities that we cannot even concentrate on our ordinary, day-to-day tasks. Whether we have been overcommitted at work, or at school, or found it difficult to balance family with other obligations, or even something as simple as forgetting an important family anniversary or birthday, this kind of hopeless feeling is not all that uncommon, especially in our busy age. The hopeless, sinking feeling we get is the figurative equivalent of the hopelessness and doom Peter felt when he was literally sinking into the waters of Galilee. And as with Peter, the worst part of it all is the fact that we are to blame for the impossible situation we are in. We are responsible, and we will be doomed when the whole thing comes crashing down around us. In extreme cases, we feel our life will be over. Sometimes those who cannot face the consequences of their actions may even commit suicide to avoid the condemnation they are sure the world is going to heap upon them.

I suspect that there is a reason that we human beings so easily give in to despair and overwhelming guilt. We know deep down that we are at least partially to blame for many of our problems. And even the non-Christian knows, even though many of them won’t admit it, that there is a God who made the universe, who is angry over sin, and who will condemn the sinner. And the truly frightening thing is that apart from Christ, they’re right. Apart from Christ and His Gospel and His Sacraments, God is an angry God who condemns the sinner. This knowledge colors everything a man does and thinks, especially when he is burdened with guilt.

The reaction of depression and despair is natural in those who know nothing of a loving God in Christ Jesus. However, to us who know Christ, whose foreheads are marked with His cross in Baptism, the reaction of helpless, paralyzing despair that many of us experience, the reaction that Peter probably was experiencing as he sank into the waves, is a reaction that demonstrates unbelief. It is a reaction that shows doubt in a God who loves and cares about us and will see us through these kinds of problems. Our Lord chastised Peter for his lack of faith. That admonition applies to us as well.

But when you are in the midst of a situation where it seems the world is caving in on you, where nothing you do can avert disaster, simply saying that your reaction to the situation is a symptom of doubt and unbelief doesn’t help. It only increases the guilt and despair, for not only have I let down everyone on this earth I love, but I’ve let down God as well. Indeed, there is only one thing that does help such a person in any truly lasting sense, and that is for God Himself to come to that person in His Word, His baptismal water, His body and blood, and tell that person that his sins are forgiven, and that no matter what the outcome of his current problems he will be with God in heaven for eternity. This is what our Lord did for Peter in the sea of Galilee. He pulled him out of the water. He demonstrated His love and His forgiveness by saving the very man who was doubting His promises. It was only after Peter was safe that he scolded him for his lack of faith. His first response was to restore that faith by saving Peter.

But Peter did die in the sea of Galilee that day. That’s right, I said that Peter died there in the water. Now, before you go accusing me of saying that the Bible is lying to us, let me explain. The Peter who doubted our Lord’s promises, the Peter who gave in to despair and fear, that Peter did not survive. When Jesus stretched out His hand and pulled Peter out of the water, it was a different Peter he pulled out, a Peter who believed our Lord’s promises and relied confidently on His ability to save. In a sense, the old Peter, or rather the old Adam in Peter, was drowned so that a new Peter, a new man in Christ, might come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. By saving Peter, Jesus killed the old Adam who thought that Jesus could not save him.

What really happened out there on the sea of Galilee was that Peter was returned to the time when he was baptized. Most scholars assume that the disciples Jesus chose had been baptized by John the Baptist, since we never read of them being baptized by Jesus. Back there at the Jordan river, God worked though the hands of John the Baptist to drown the old Peter so that a new Peter could arise. Just like every one of us, though, the old Peter refused to die, and so he had to be drowned again every day. As Luther says in the Catechism, “Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins, and that daily a new man should come forth to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” What happened to Peter on that day in the sea of Galilee was simply an unusually graphic example of this process at work.

Now, this daily renewal of our Baptism doesn’t usually happen in such an extraordinary way. But God is rich in His grace. Often in the midst of the worst despair a verse of Scripture, the memory of a particularly powerful sermon, the forgiveness of a caring friend, or on Sunday morning the forgiveness of God Himself in the words of the pastor’s absolution, or any one of a host of other things will come into our minds and reassure us that we do have a loving God who will see us safely through all our earthly troubles so that we can be forever with Him in heaven. We have all experienced such comforts in times of trial. But we don’t usually think of them in terms of death. But that is what happens when God speaks through a friend or a pastor to remind us of God’s promises. The old Adam is put to death, and the new man, the new Christ in us, comes out of the Baptismal water to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Martin Luther was often assailed by doubts and fears. After all, he had a big job. There have been Lutherans around for almost 5 centuries, so we may not realize what he was up against. In Luther’s day, the true doctrine seemed new. False doctrine had been taught by the Church’s highest officials for centuries. In this kind of environment, its not surprising that even Luther himself sometimes doubted whether or not what he was doing was right. Satan would taunt him mercilessly, trying to get him to forsake the reformation he had started. But in the moments of his worst doubt, his worst despair, Luther would cry out, “Nevertheless, I am baptized!” The fact of Luther’s Baptism was his comfort against the doubts and tricks planted by Satan in his heart. He knew that even if some of his ideas were a little off (they weren’t), even if what he had done was more of a harm to the church than a help (it wasn’t), that God had still claimed him as His own and would still take his soul to be with Him at the end. He knew that on the last day his body would be raised, and he would, as he put it, “live before God in righteous and purity forever.” Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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