Stepping out in Faith - Matthew 14.22-33
In the Canadian city of Toronto, there is a very tall landmark called the CN tower. Between 1975–2007 it was the world's tallest free-standing structure at just over 555 metres high, and even now it is still the world’s third highest building. CN stands for Canadian National, the railway company who built it and it is used for telecommunications and broadcasting. It is also a tourist attraction and one can ascend in an elevator to the top and admire stunning views of the City and Lake Ontario. At the top is a restaurant, and a viewing gallery, and in part of the floor is a slab of thick glass, on which one can stand and look down nearly 500 metres to the earth below. Standing on it is like being in mid-air, with nothing beneath your feet. I am told it is strange experience, suspended between heaven and earth as it were, but I am only told this because when I was up there I could not bring myself to step out onto that glass-covered void. ‘O ye of little faith’ I hear you say – because you know as well as I do that standing on that plate of glass is perfectly safe. Thousands, if not millions of people have done so already, and no-one has ever fallen through. Apparently Blackpool Tower has a similar thing. Yet, knowing something to be safe, and being able to take a step of faith even in the face of evidence, is quite different. Rather like Peter seeing Jesus walking on the water, what we have here is hard evidence that something that seems impossible is actually possible, but our inherited fears are in conflict with what is before us, and some of us, Peter and I perhaps, have to replace fear with faith. St Peter therefore is to be admired for his faith on seeing Jesus walking on the water, for he steps out in confident faith and is borne along, saved from sinking by his faith. O me of little faith who would not stand on the plate glass!
And then Peter, who when the storm comes, gets frightened, has doubts about what he is seeing or doing, and he begins to sink. Just as his faith saves him, his doubt causes him to sink. But rather than simply sink or swim, he calls on Jesus, who takes his hand and saves him. For even though Peter may well have been able to swim, in a storm that would not have been good enough – he could not have saved himself.
Obviously, it is not every day that we are faced with the frightening opportunity to walk on water or stand 1800 feet off the ground. Yet every and any day our faith may be tested, not only spiritually, but also scientifically, so to speak. For we put our faith in the wonders of science and technology too, albeit in a slightly different way. Every time we get behind the steering wheel of a car we take our lives – and others’ – in our hands, relying on technology and engineering which we barely understand.
Take electricity, for example: that is something which, without some faith in the theory and practice of electricity, we would become paralysed by fear, rather like Peter. Do you understand how electricity travels around your home, and not only how dangerous it is, but also how safe it is?
Interestingly enough, St Peter the fisherman might have known about electricity, as there are records dating to the ancient Egyptians that refer to electric fish, and the Romans knew that the electricity could be conducted through the water as a predatory device employed by electric rays and catfish. Peter might have known that water and electricity do not mix well, even if electrocution was the last thing he feared when walking on the waves. Nevertheless, the history of the discovery of electricity did not really begin until around 1600, and it was the nineteenth century that saw the major developments in understanding, such that during the twentieth century electricity became a household necessity and the huge electricity generation industry burgeoned. Wind farms, hydroelectrics, solar panels and nuclear power have pushed forward our climate-damaging dependence on coal and gas, to keep us charged up by the electric circuits running around our homes, into which we can literally plug in.
The single-phase electric power which runs through our walls carries alternating current between the power grid and the household, and is usually earthed, to prevent damage from lightning. Circuit breakers and fuses are also there to protect us, lest there should be a surge or other problem, and we rarely pay any attention to them unless one breaks or blows. We take electricity for granted, and yet, house fires, explosions and electrocutions can be caused by it, given the wrong conditions or human error. While we ‘trust’ the electricity flowing through our house, if we paused to think about it, we might become very scared. What would someone from St Peter’s age think and feel, walking into a modern house, seeing something that kills other fish in the water, being used to power lights, hospital equipment, communications and entertainment systems? It is easy to forget both how remarkable and how recent this all is. And it is all ultimately powered by the natural world which God created, even if we have become over-consumers of that natural world in order to increase our own desire for power.
According to Jesus, Peter had insufficient faith in what he could see, but began to doubt and so began to sink. Even though he initially trusted, because walking on water contradicted everything he took for granted, he floundered and had to be rescued. His doubt caused him to sink, even though his faith had initially saved him. For us, who do not get the opportunity to walk on water, even if we can stand on a plate of glass, it can so often be the case that what we have believed in, often for years, is buffeted by a storm and we begin to consider what underlies our faith: we think about whether what we believe really adds up. Under pressure and perhaps realising the precariousness of what he was doing by walking on water, Peter begins to sink in a sea of doubt. Nowadays, we might become fearful, distrustful perhaps even frightened of things we have put our faith in for years. If we did that with electricity then we would be frightened to turn anything on and would literally have to sit in the dark. Yet, whether our trust in electricity is shaken or not, it continues to work, it is there nevertheless. If a circuit is broken, it can be mended.
Perhaps there are short-circuits in your faith, perhaps some fuses have blown and the power is not getting through. What you need is an electrician. What we all need when we are sinking, or when the fuses are blown is a renewed encounter, in the heart of the storm, with our Lord Jesus, calling to us o’er the tumult, inviting us, ‘Christian, follow me’. Jesus is the spiritual electrician of our buffeted souls, his call, his hand of help, are offered and outstretched amid the short-circuits of despair and the raging waters of self-doubt.
As Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) put it in her hymn of 1852:
Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult
of our life's wild, restless sea;
day by day his sweet voice soundeth
saying, “Christian, follow me.”
May that call, and that sweet voice, sustain us all our days. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 13/8/17