Thinking about cliffs, do you recall this story about a man who fell off the top of a cliff? There he is, falling; but as he falls he manages to grab hold of a branch sticking out from the cliff face. “If there’s anyone up there, please help me, save me!" he shouts. And to his amazement a voice from heaven sounds: "Hear I am, my son, here I am. Do you believe in me? Do you really want me to help you?"
“Oh yes, Lord,” says the man, “I believe in you, more than I can say. And I so much want you to help me!” “Right then," says God, “Just let go of the branch. That’s all you have to do. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you!"
"What?" cries the man, somewhat aghast. And God says again, “Don’t worry, my son. Have faith. Just let go of that branch you're holding on to, and I'll save you. All you have to do is to trust me." The man pauses for a moment, reflects on what he’s just heard, gulps a bit, and shouts out, "Is there anyone else up there?"
We may not fall off too many cliffs, but as Christians and indeed just as human beings we know we’re going to face some difficult and testing times now and again. How might faith help us get through the hard times and weather the storms?
Last week’s set Gospel reading told the story of Jesus using a couple of little fish and a handful of barley loaves to feed a hungry crowd of five thousand and more out in the wilderness. And one important message I can draw from that story is that with God, all things are possible.
The disciples were there and saw what happened, but did they grasp the message? If they did, they pretty soon forgot it. The story we heard today follows immediately on from the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Having sent the crowd away, Jesus told the disciples to cross by boat to the other side of the lake, where he himself would join them later.
And some of them at least were good sailors who knew the lake well, with its reputation for sudden storms. A storm rose up, and they were struggling to make headway. They were probably beginning to feel alarmed. But why were they out there in the middle of the lake? Because that’s where Jesus had told them to go. And a message I might take from that is that for any of us, to follow Jesus won’t always be smooth sailing. Disciples sometimes have to face stormy weather.
So here we are with the disciples on the stormy lake; and see, Jesus walking to them on the water. They think he's a ghost or something, but Jesus calls out, "Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid." And it’s Peter, impetuous Peter who shouts back, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water." Jesus replies, “Come on then.”
And that takes us to the Wile E Coyote moment, if you like. One minute Peter is actually walking on the water, the next he’s realised just what he’s doing and how impossible it is, he looks at the wind and the waves, and straightaway he’s sinking. Walking on water is impossible; but so was feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. I think of these miracles as acted-out parables: the miracle of feeding is a parable of the generosity of God; the stilling of the storm shows how all the creative power of God rests in this man Jesus (as does his walking on the waves). And when Peter panics and starts to sink? A parable, surely, of God’s saving grace: when we’re confronted by what’s beyond our strength, ability and control, God hears our cry for help.
Peter’s cry was heard, and Jesus reached out, grabbed hold of him and helped him get back to the boat. And at this point the storm is stilled, and the disciples are so filled with awe and fear that to a man they fall to their knees.
We find this story told in different ways in the Gospels, though only Matthew speaks of Peter walking on the water. What can we take from it, as Christian disciples here and now? As we travel through life, however surely and faithfully we follow as disciples of Jesus, there’ll be stormy and difficult times, there’ll be challenges, it won’t always be easy. And we discover that (a) we can’t do it alone, we can’t rely only on our own resources and abilities. But (b) alongside that we can set the promise Jesus gives us: "Without me you can do nothing - but with God, all things are possible."
Living the life of faith isn’t easy. Like the man hanging onto that branch, we can find ourselves unwilling to let go, unsure about trusting, hoping for an easier, safer solution than the one God seems to be offering. Or like the disciples in the boat or Peter on the water, we can find we’re focusing on the storms that rage around us, filled with doubts and fears when our focus should be on the one who is Master of the winds and waves, in whom we see all the creative power of the Father.
I’ve got a little card in one of my books at home that just says “Let go, and let God.” Let go of what? I think, of my own anxieties and fears, my dependencies on unreliable sources of help, my trust in things that don’t last, like worldly fame, worldly possessions, worldly measures of success. And let God what? I think, let God help me, heal me, guide me. It’s about me accepting the blessings he offers, it’s about me letting God make of me what he wants of me. Most importantly, it’s about me letting God use me. It’s not just about me, my own life, my own security: there’s a world out there to be saved. So it’s about mission, sharing the word, sharing the love.
As God's people, day by day we’re faced with new opportunities to let go and let God. To let God’s will be done where we are. And each opportunity brings with it the temptation to doubt and falter, to focus on the waves and how big they are, and how small we are. But we’re called to the service of Christ who stilled the storm; we can trust in him. We’re called to the service of Christ who fed the multitude; he will sustain us. We’re called to the service of Christ who reached out to Peter in his fear; we can call on him and know we’ll be heard. Where Christ sends us he also resources us; where Christ sends us he also goes himself.
That takes me back to that guy hanging on his branch - yes, he’s still there, still hanging on. Like him, we may not always like the answer we get when we cry out. Faith is a risky endeavour, and there’ll always be times when the task seems too much for us, our strength seems too little, the road seems too steep and long. But in faith we offer ourselves to be used and to be useful in God’s service, and in return our Lord promises us that he, and he alone is our life, our hope and our salvation. Today Christ is saying to us, “Centre all that you are and have on me. Give me first place in your life. Accept my challenge, so that my love can flow through you into this needy world.” Or, to reduce that down to the two words he said to Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and the rest: “Follow me.”