Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 19 A
texts: Matthew 14:22-33; 1 Kings 19:9-18
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Is doubt really the main problem Elijah and Peter have?
Elijah has just stood alone on Mount Carmel against 400 screaming, dancing prophets of Baal, 400 with royal support and encouragement. Elijah’s absolute trust in the one true God lets him stand before them; the power of fire from heaven consuming his altar and sacrifice shows there is only one God, the LORD of Israel, and no other. This is a man of faith.
Peter, alone among his fellows, dares to speak to this being that looks like a ghost walking on the water. He absolutely trusts his Lord and Master, stepping out into the wind and waves, alone walking on water while others cower. This is a man of faith.
Yet Jesus says Peter’s problem is doubt; Elijah’s looks much the same. Jesus gives Peter a new nickname, calls him “Littlefaith.” “Littlefaith, why did you doubt?”
But is doubt the real problem? The word for doubt carries connotations of “waver,” “hesitate.” Maybe that’s what Jesus meant.
Because Elijah and Peter are filled with fear, not doubt.
Oddly, though 400 prophets didn’t frighten Elijah, the queen’s death warrant and threats against him did. He fled into the wilderness, to Mount Horeb, afraid for his life. Elijah is the greatest prophet Israel ever had. Yet fear, not doubt, drives him to panic, to struggle with his faith, to run.
Peter doesn’t doubt, he walks on water in faith. But he looks at the fierce wind, the high waves, and becomes terrified. He sinks. Peter, the acknowledged leader of Jesus’ disciples, is always the one who steps forward boldly. Yet fear, not doubt, drives him to panic, to struggle with his faith, to sink.
There is a question of how much faith these two have, Elijah and Littlefaith.
Jesus once compared a little faith to a mustard seed. We might’ve missed his point. The disciples, weak in faith, come to Jesus; he tells them if they had faith only as big as a mustard seed they could uproot mountains. (Matthew 17:20) It’s tempting to think of faith this way, dwell on its size, assume more is better. To compare ourselves to others, thinking they’ve got more than we do.
Maybe that’s not what Jesus meant. Maybe the size of the faith is irrelevant, unimportant. Mountains can be uprooted only by the power of God; maybe Jesus is saying God is the important thing, not the amount of faith.
Elijah and Peter are surprising, how quickly they act as if they have no faith. How can such heroes falter: from a dominant performance on a mountaintop to quivering in a wilderness cave; from walking on water to sinking like a true “Rock”? Maybe our mistake was thinking either of these were giants in the faith.
Jesus calls Peter “Littlefaith.” That could just be the truth, about him, and Elijah.
All this suggests two important things.
If Elijah and Peter only had a little faith, the things they did are astonishing. If they’re not faith giants but people who have only a tiny, seed-sized, faith, the great deeds both did, the honor two major faith traditions accord them thousands of years later, the faithful discipleship they lived, is even more impressive. Jesus was right: even a tiny bit of faith goes a long way.
Second, fear is the great opponent of faith, of whatever size, not doubt. Believers have had doubts for millennia and still lived in faith: Peter himself, Mother Teresa, Luther, even mentors we’ve known. We worry about our own doubts, but we have seen that because people doubt doesn’t mean they don’t believe, that you can act in your faith even with doubts.
Fear is what has the ability to stop us in our tracks.
Fear can freeze what little faith we have, make us start to sink, or crawl into a cave. Fear like Elijah’s, of a world where people attack innocents and seek to destroy others, a world we know well. Fear like Peter’s, of external and internal circumstances, storms in the world outside, storms in our hearts. Fear we aren’t good enough for God or for others, fear the world is out of control, fear of illness, fear of death, fear we cannot be loved, fear we aren’t loved.
Fear creates enemies that threaten us, enemies that weren’t there when we weren’t afraid, enemies that are real people, enemies that are thoughts in our head. That’s what pushes faith away. Elijah and Peter don’t doubt God – both cry out to God in their situations – their fear is what immobilizes them.
In the end, Elijah and Peter had just enough faith to say, “Lord, save me.”
In the depth of fear, they called out to God for help, knew where to turn in darkest terror. They only had a little faith, a tiny grain, but it was enough. That’s when they heard, “don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
Elijah is so afraid he needs it twice, to hear the LORD God is with him. He’s promised retirement, told whom he will anoint as his successor. God says, “I know, it’s been tough. So you’re coming to the end of your service, I’ll give it to someone else.” Afraid, he receives comfort, strength, and promise of rest.
When the disciples are afraid of ghosts, Jesus says, “Be of courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” Peter acts in that courage. When, afraid, he starts to sink, he calls out in faith, and finds a hand reached out, a beloved voice speaking. Yes, the voice calls him “Littlefaith.” But the hand pulls him up out of the water, into the safety of the boat.
Jesus looks at you and at me today, and says, “Littlefaith, why do you hesitate? Take heart, it is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Littlefaith” isn’t an insult, it’s just the truth. We don’t have much faith. That’s OK. It is the God in whom that little faith is lodged who has the power and ability to change the world, to love evil back into good, to turn death into life.
Our faith is little, but it’s always enough because it’s never been about what we have, what we bring, what we can do. It’s always been about the Triune God who made heaven and earth and who wants to heal this broken, terrifying world. Whatever frightens us, from within or without, whatever freezes our hearts, we belong to the God whose love for us and the world cannot be stopped by anything, not even death. The one who says, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid,” who brings us into the safety of the boat, who has entered our existence and, as one of us, has passed through even death to love us and the world.
Here’s the wonderful thing: If we are “Littlefaiths”, if our weakness of faith isn’t a hindrance to God’s work, what astonishing things can we expect God to do through and with us? If Peter and Elijah were who they were with tiny faith, well, that’s something to think about. If they were told not to be afraid so that they, with their little faith, could not just be freed from fear but continue to be vessels of God’s power and grace in the world, well, what does that say about us?
Two Sundays from now we will hear Jesus say this to Nathanael, inviting him to follow: “you will see greater things than these.” That’s God’s promise, that through the children of God the healing of the world will happen, even through us, even with our little faith.
And that’s a marvel to consider.
In the name of Jesus. Amen