About a year ago, American swimmer Anita Alvarez was finishing up her synchronized swimming routine at the world championships in Budapest. Suddenly, she lost consciousness in the water and she sank. Her coach, noticing that she was not surfacing, dived into the water fully clothed, and pulled Alvarez out, saving her life. She was in the water before the lifeguards noticed anything was amiss. The images are at the same time unsettling and comforting.
Early one morning, in the middle of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walks out to his friends in the boat, stepping over the waves. What do you think was more frightening to them: seeing the man Jesus walk over the water, or considering the possibility that this person might not be Jesus? Over the disciples’ cries of fear, Jesus calls to them. A more literal translation of this sentence would be, “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid” (15:27). In the middle of a storm, Jesus reveals himself — not simply as Jesus, their teacher, but as “I AM” – YHWH – the God of Abraham. This self-revelation is a disclosure of Jesus’ identity and the source of his power. For Matthew’s largely Jewish audience, Jesus’ words echo the divine name, which may have been as unsettling as it was comforting.
When we read this gospel passage, we usually focus on what happens to Peter, but that is a mistake. We need to focus on Jesus and what he does. Every story of Jesus’ life in the Gospels offers theological insight into how Jesus reveals God’s will to humanity. Jesus is walking out to be with his people in a storm. (This is not a metaphor, although it is a mystery!) It is quite clear that Jesus’s leading disciple isn’t really listening to his Lord as he gets out of the boat and begins to sink into the stormy sea. Immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand, helps Peter into the boat, and then the wind ceases. Seeing this miraculous event, the rest of the disciples say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God” (14:33).
The lesson here is about the identity and work of Jesus, the Son of God, who heals the sick, stills storms, and offers life to frightened people who are not giving him their complete attention.
What do we do with this today? If we want to follow Jesus, we are supposed to imitate him. This is the opposite model of relationship demonstrated by the brothers of Joseph. Don’t be like Reuben and Judah. Be like the good news.
What frightens you? Take a moment to think. According to psychologists, the five core human fears are abandonment, loss of identity, loss of meaning, loss of purpose, and death. (NB, there is no mention of drowning, public speaking, or wildfires – also big and real fears). As in everything else, context is important. Our primal fears are rooted in terrible things which may happen – and whether anyone notices or intervenes. Isolation = terror.
Remember, the gospel story reveals God in Jesus Christ walking over the stormy waters to be with his people. How could the Holy One, the Son of God, help with our profound fears? How could our community of faith support others in frightening times?
Do you know that the command that God articulates most often in the Bible is Do not be afraid. Scripture stories do not ask us to work miracles or to go walking on water. They ask us to remember that God IS and that we are not alone. The Almighty does not expect us to perform tricks or to do impossible things on our own in order to earn grace. God does expect us to confront our fears, to listen for the eternal voice, and to imitate Christ by extending a hand of love and support to our neighbors.
When you slip beneath the waves, where are the people who look for you, notice, and dive in to pull you to the surface when you lose your strength to swim? If you find that your list is shorter than you would like, I invite you to become part of a group here at St Stephen’s. I have noticed that our people watch out for their companions in groups. Start at coffee hour.
At the same time, who can count on you to be that person who will watch and notice when they are under too long, diving in to support them when they are too out of breath to swim in the turbulent water of life? Many of our people watch out for our neighbors who may need a hand up. It is who we are.
The divine admonition to not be fearful is a sign of life with God. It also is a sign of our life in community.
We live in scary times. The waters are wild. Imitate Christ, my friends. Be that hand that keeps someone from sinking. Reach out and tell someone your name. Ask theirs. It matters.
 This is repeated over 400 times in a variety of ways (fear not, do not be afraid, do not fear, do not worry), not counting admonitions to be of good courage, be brave, etc. Variations in translation (KJV, NIV, NRSV) produce only minor variations in the number.