The Sea of Galilee set as it is between two sets of mountains- more like hills to us- is prone to sudden, violent storms, and it seems, in our 1st reading today that the disciples found themselves out in one. Now some were fishers, so they should have been well-used to such times, when the boat rocks and is awash in water, but it seems, that even for them this was a frightening gale, and they were more than a little terrified. Perhaps, it was partly because of the striking contrast- they had just been with Jesus at the feeding of the multitude, that wondrous time when so little went such a long way. But then, Jesus had ordered them into the boat, and left them, to go to the mountain top, where he prayed. And I imagine, they were left to mull over what they had just witnessed- needing some peaceful time together to process what they had seen and felt, peaceful time to re-adjust yet again, to how they thought about Jesus, and what his presence meant to them and who they knew him to be. So this frightening storm must have felt particularly disorienting. And to add to their turmoil, the dramatic storm happened in the dead of night, when our fears and worries can seem heightened and more disturbing than they do in the light of day.
And it was in those early morning hours when darkness is deepest, that the disciples see an apparition, a ghost-like figure walking towards them on the roiling waters. And they are terrified. But immediately, they hear Jesus’ voice saying “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid!” And Peter responds- “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” That “if”, is important- Peter thinks the figure walking towards them is Jesus, it surely sounds like Jesus’ voice, looks like him, but there is doubt and fear in Peter’s response. And yet, there is also an element of trust- he is willing to risk his life by stepping out of the boat, hoping that if Jesus can walk on water, he can too.
In our Western society, we seem pre-occupied by dichotomies- as if we must always choose sides! And in the same pattern, our scripture passage today is often presented as a text of faith versus doubt. In other words, Peter makes a conscious choice, actually two choices in rapid succession. Faced with the wild unsettling waters and his own terror Peter first choses to trust, to over-ride his own fear. So he steps out of the boat, and starts walking toward Jesus. If the story ended there, we could, perhaps think of Peter as a model of perfect faith, one we need to emulate. But the story doesn’t end there- it goes on to describe Peter becoming frightened by the strong wind, and promptly starting to sink. Sinking in stormy waters generally doesn’t end well- but Peter is saved by Jesus outstretched hand, and they return to the boat, where upon the wind abruptly stops.
Now such doubts as Peter had may be part of your own experience or they may not. I think that has something to do with how each of us experiences the Holy in our own lives- for some this experience leads to a quiet, settled faith, for others, to lots of uncertainties and turmoil and questions. What I do believe is that God, meets us where we are, with whatever views of life we bring, with whatever traumas we bring, with whatever doubts we bring.
But let’s return to the story as it is told to us. As is typical in the interactions between Jesus and Peter, Jesus appears to end up scolding him. This time he says “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But suppose this is not so much an admonition as it is a question and a very important one “why did you doubt?” Perhaps Jesus is inviting Peter to explore his thoughts and his feelings, to probe deeply this important “why” question. So perhaps we don’t have to see this as right or wrong, black or white, true or false, perhaps we can take up Jesus’ invitation, those of us who are doubters, to ask ourselves why we doubt, and what purpose doubt may serve in our lives.
It may be helpful to listen to famous theologian Paul Tillich words, when he says “doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is one element of faith.” That cracks open a door for us, leaving the possibility that that our doubt is an essential part of our growth. It may even be that that doubt is necessary if our faith is to become stronger, deeper and more personal. I think many of us in the church today, are searching for a lived faith, something we can act upon, not something we simply inherited or were taught to believe but, something we can grapple with, and challenge depending on the events in our own lives. Some of us simply come to a place where we need to work some things out for ourselves. In those places, it may be helpful to remember that although Jesus sometimes seems exasperated with Peter, he never gives up on him, and just look where that relationship leads!
Peter, who often seems so hapless, so confused, so likely to miss the point, eventually becomes the rock upon which the Church is built. And then there is doubting Thomas, who demands to see physical proof that the risen Christ is indeed the Jesus he knew. In fairness to Thomas, he also gets a bit of a bad rap- after all he wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them, and he simply wasn’t willing to take them at their word. But when Jesus returns a week hence, we find Him tender and patient with Thomas. And when Thomas’ doubt turns to belief, to trust, his words are wonderful indeed- “My Lord and My God!” I don’t know about you, but I admire Thomas for the courage to speak his doubts out loud and even more importantly to ask for what he needs. Some might have needed just a word from Jesus, a simple reassurance, but Jesus knows that Thomas needs to actually feel as well as see, before he can believe.
There is also another way of considering doubt that suggests it is actually a part of faith, and not it’s opposite at all! Hear what Benedictine nun Joan Chittister has to say on that score: It is doubt, not certitude, that enables us to believe, because it requires us to think deeply about an entire subject, …. Only when we look beyond absolutes to understand every level of life can we possibly live life to the fullest, with the deepest kind of insight, with the greatest degree of compassion for others. She actually feels so strongly about this, that she wrote a book titled “Called to Question”!
It is not uncommon for me to hear, in my spiritual direction practice the words “I don’t know what I can believe anymore.” And there is often considerable distress attached to those words- including shame, bewilderment, and confusion. It is a hard thing to admit to ourselves, much less to someone else that the solid ground on which we thought we stood has shifted, that the faith we had has been shaken. And while I have great empathy for the pain attached to those words (I have been there myself more than once), I am also convinced that our doubt, our God-given capacity to question, more than any certainty, contributes to our growth as people and as Christians. Why? Because our doubts make us explorers- explorers of our own lives, our own beliefs, and our own pain, and through that process, if we stick with our searching, and can be patient with ourselves (and with God) it is that very search that can lead us to new meaning, new truth that we can now claim as our own. But to get to that point we need to trust ourselves enough, and trust God enough to let our questions, as frightening as they may be, be our guide.
In both our texts this morning we have evidence that God is indeed with us, in these times. After all, when Peter became frightened and began to sank, he cried out “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him- then, and only then, does Jesus challenged him with his “why question” Why did you doubt? He was encouraging Peter to work out his feelings, to live deeply in this experience of fear and doubt…. and He made his presence known so that Peter made that journey searching for new understanding, in the company of his beloved Jesus.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that what ultimately made Peter the rock of the church was his compassion and his empathy for his flock, for after all, out of his own experience he could say “I know what you mean, I have been afraid, I have doubted, I have struggled to know and understand God’s ways”.
And in the Thomas story, we are also reminded that the resurrected Christ, still bears the wounds of his crucifixion, still retains his humanity, and is still connected to us through his humanity.
So, I believe that our doubts can take us to a richer, more nuanced, more mature faith, and that if we just hang in there long enough, we will find new ways of understanding who God is for us, and what She is calling us towards. And that if we wrestle honestly, we will eventually feel free to shed old beliefs, images and creeds that no longer serve us, and in the doing, grow more intimately into the heart of God. In fact this is a very contemporary part of theology and even more of spirituality, that suggests that our own experience of Spirit is our most important guide, and that it is often that very Spirit at work when we lose a sense of solid ground, and are compelled to look more closely at who we are, who God is, and how we are summoned to live out our faith. And that I believe speaks to the importance of developing our spiritual lives, through prayer, through silence, through being in nature or whatever else brings us deeply into relationship with the Holy. In one of Mary Oliver’s poems she says:
Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
She is actually inviting us to wonder, to look toward our own experience. Those of you who already know her work, know that she rises before dawn each day, rain or shine, to walk, to be in the outdoors, and that she finds the Divine presence there, and that presence in turn, becomes the springboard for her writing, and more importantly for her living. So, in seasons of doubt, in addition to chewing on our questions, applying our minds to them, I encourage us all to become more aware of what brings us to a place of awe, of quietness, of joy. It may be gazing down at the face of a sleeping child, it may be the sheer energy and delight of being in a crowd of people of all ages enjoying themselves- I am thinking of something like Symphony Splash last weekend- or it may be a moment of feeling profoundly loved. If we pay more attention to such moments, and take time to reflect on them, we will begin to see the Spirit’s presence there. These are all, when we search for the meaning in them, spiritual practices, and they can give us a new orientation and perspective so that when the winds blow and the waters churn, we have something stronger, more profound to hold fast to.
So, whether you work out your doubts in prayer, in talking out your questions, or in those special moments that give you pause and make you think there is much more to life, know that that is God’s spirit is inviting you to go deeper, to find new meaning and new ways to be in relationship. And I invite you when those doubts, those questions arise, to take some time each day to visualize in your mind’s eye Jesus reaching out to Peter, to keep him from sinking, or to reflect on Jesus love and understanding for Thomas. And remember the courage of these two disciples- after all, Peter was the only one ready to jump out of that boat on that stormy lake; Thomas was the only one who dared to say “not so fast, I need to see with my own eyes and feel with my own hands”, and Jesus honored the risks they took, the fears they shared and supported them. Lastly, remember that the disciples were “not models of perfection but followers “on the way”.  And trust that you and God can work through whatever your doubts may be, and that a stronger, more mature faith, can take root in your soul and in your heart not in spite of your doubts, but because of them. And when each of us does that, we are in fact, drawing the circle of our faith wider, and becoming more the people God hopes for us to be. And at the same time, that very expansiveness will help us find new purpose, and new ways to love God, and to love and care for one another. So let us close now, with an invitation and a blessing:
That we will risk
by which we
toward the voice
that calls us,
that catches us,
that carries us
beyond the wind,
 Joan Chittister, taken from Between the Dark and the Daylight.
 Mary Oliver, I Wake Close to Morning, in Felicity, p. 19.
 Russell Pregeant, Engaging the New Testament, 210.
 Jan Richardson, © Jan Richardson.