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June 27 lesson: Rescued from Doubt

June 19, 2021
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Rescued from Doubt

Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 1: Jesus Teaches About Faith

Sunday school lesson for the week of June 27, 2021
By Dr.
Jay Harris

Lesson Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33

The focus for today’s lesson is being rescued from doubt. Circa 1978, I was 14, and felt very confident purchasing a stark white three-piece suit. Being made of polyester, it was not as expensive as other suits. I was confident I had made a shrewd purchase. I felt cool and confident looking in the department store mirror with the permed hairdo I sported back then. When I wore it to the youth Sunday school assembly that following Sunday, I looked around and took in what the other youth were wearing. I realized how much I stuck out. Doubt began to overwhelm me. I had a sinking feeling that maybe I had paid good money for the wrong suit. I wanted to leave and change clothes. I remember that feeling. The doubt felt pretty intense, but the stakes were not really that high in the great scheme of things. In other life situations, the stakes are often much higher. Doubt holds us back from the confidence we want to experience in our faith and hope. Our scripture lesson will help us explore the role of doubt in the undoing of our confidence. What brings about doubt? How can we grow in our faith so that doubt doesn’t gain a foothold and take over our lives?

Jesus Walked on Water

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

If you think about it, the miracle of walking on water would never have happened, at least in this instance, if Jesus had not chosen to stay back while the disciples made their way across the lake to the next destination. Jesus chose to stay back in order to spend a significant amount of time praying. The first part of this scripture lesson highlights the place of prayer in Jesus’ life and ministry. Being the Son of God did not make spending time alone with God unnecessary. Likewise, having the ability to perform miracles did not make prayer unnecessary. What we see is that being the Son of God made Jesus want to spend time with his Father in prayer. What we are being shown is how prayer gave Jesus the power, strength, compassion, tenderness, sense of mission, and focus that Jesus relied upon every day of his life and ministry. We should have that same desire to spend time alone with God in prayer and see prayer as the foundation and source of our own life and ministry.

But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Although they were seeing Jesus walk on water with their own eyes, there was no precedent for what the disciples were seeing. No wonder they would think they were seeing a ghost. Jesus seemed to understand their initial confusion and told them to take heart and not be afraid.

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

It is important to note that Jesus had not asked the disciples to join him on the water. Much less had Jesus singled out Peter to be tested. Peter volunteered. Ever since Jesus told Peter to follow him, Peter believed that what Jesus did, the disciples were to follow suit. Indeed, Jesus said, “Come,” and for a moment at least, Peter walked on water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Peter’s faith had allowed him to walk on water for a moment, but the strong wind brought a challenge into the situation that overwhelmed his faith, and he became frightened. It was when he became frightened that he began to sink. In panic and desperation, he cried out for Jesus to save him.

Jesus Teaches About Faith and Doubt

It is here that Jesus teaches about faith. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’Notice that Jesus did not ask why Peter became afraid like Jesus asked all the disciples on an earlier occasion when they were caught in a storm. Jesus said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Doubt is the theme that Jesus identified in this encounter between Peter and Jesus. This is also the third time in this unit that Jesus uses the term “little faith.” We said before that “little faith” could also mean “immature faith.” We cannot deny that Peter demonstrated faith by getting out of the boat. Jesus, however, has identified a pattern present in the life of Peter. Peter’s faith at this point is an immature faith that is prone to doubt.

Peter’s Development

This story is really important to our understanding of Peter. It lays out a pattern that we encounter more than once in Peter’s development. When given the opportunity, Peter wants to portray himself as being the boldest one in the group. And so he commits to a bold action, but then doubt, in some form, overtakes him. His faith does not stand up to challenges. There is something holding Peter back from a more mature faith.

Another story of Peter that fits this pattern unfolded when Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And when the disciples started offering answers, Jesus asked more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus then commended Peter and said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter’s response was a seemingly bold pronouncement. It was a high point, on the same level as walking on water. Right after this, however, Jesus foretold his suffering and death at the hands of the religious leaders, and Peter went to a low point. Peter took Jesus aside started rebuking Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord, this must never happen to you!” That’s when Jesus had to put Peter in his place, saying “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things.” (Matthew 16:13-23) I think we would all agree that this is a low moment for Peter. It’s as if Peter is sinking and taking in water all over again. One moment, Peter’s faith recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah. In the next moment, Peter doubts that Jesus knows how his role as Messiah will unfold.

This pattern in Peter’s faith reaches its culmination when Jesus and the disciples had just finished the Last Supper and were headed to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would be arrested. Jesus shared that all the disciples would desert him that night, but Peter boldly proclaimed that although the other disciples might desert Jesus, he would never desert him. Peter might have felt for a brief moment that he was living a high moment, boldly proclaiming his undying allegiance to Jesus. Jesus, however, knew what was really in Peter and told Peter that before the rooster announced the next morning, Peter would deny any association with Jesus, not once, but three times. (Matthew 26:31-35) When Peter said he would never desert Jesus, I imagine Peter never felt bolder in his faith, but feelings are not the same as faith. When Peter felt so bold as to refute Jesus, he had more faith in himself than he did in Jesus. Peter’s faith in himself was his downfall. Peter confidence was, in reality, overconfidence in himself.

Peter makes me think of Jesus’ parable of the seed that fell on rocky ground, which sprang up quickly, but then withered away just as quickly when the sun rose and scorched the immature plants, because there was no depth of soil. Jesus said this represents those who receive the word with joy, but then that initial enthusiasm wanes quickly when trouble comes. (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21)

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story with Peter. Peter would become one of the most influential leaders of the New Testament Church, taking the lead on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down and filled believers. The stories of Peter and the disciples in the Book of Acts focus on the authentic boldness that developed within them: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.” (Acts 4:13) What accounts for the difference? Perhaps it is because Peter’s faith had appropriated the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When the disciples came to understand God’s faithfulness to bring Jesus through suffering and death to resurrection, victory, and eternal life, they had a whole new basis for their faith in God.

This kind of faith that does not give way to doubt when challenged is of a different order altogether than mere self-confidence. We need to be able to distinguish between confidence in ourselves and confident hope because of our faith in Jesus Christ. We need to be able to discern the difference between mere feelings and our faith if we are to weather the challenges that come our way.

I love the bold expression of faith at the end of Habakkuk (3:17-19): “Though the fig tree does not blossom,/ and no fruit is on the vines;/ though the produce of the olive fails,/ and the fields yield no food;/ though the flock is cut off from the fold,/ and there is no herd in the stalls,/ yet I will rejoice in the Lord;/ and I will exult in the God of my salvation./ God, the Lord, is my strength;/ he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,/ and makes me tread upon the heights.” All of the circumstances described would drown the confident feelings of a person without faith, but belief, faith, and trust in God’s faithfulness over time has the power to transform doubt into hope.

Moving Toward a More Doubt-Proof Faith

How do we apply what we have learned? The road to a more doubt-proof, confident hope is the road from a “little faith” to a more mature faith. A more mature faith comes from using the means of grace available to us contemplate God’s faithfulness. We need to feed our minds on the words of scripture so we understand all the ways God has been faithful to God’s people in the past. We need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ by feeding our minds on the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. As a student of the Bible for 43 years, I can testify to the way God continues to teach me about God’s faithfulness through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Spending time with God, bringing our requests and our anxious concerns to God, and contemplating how God is answering our prayers all help us grow in our understanding of God’s faithfulness over time. If we know God to be faithful because of how we have experienced his faithfulness in the past, then we will be able to trust in God’s faithfulness in the present and in the future. We learn perhaps the most through God’s faithfulness to us during the trials of life, including the trials that happen to us not of our choosing, and the trials we create for ourselves when we sin and are brought to our knees seeking God’s forgiveness and restoration through God’s grace. All of this increases our conscious contact with Jesus and our personal knowledge of him. How are you availing yourself of these means of God’s grace? How deep is your soil? How doubt-proof is your faith and hope?

Prayer

O God, whose Son Jesus bids us to get out of the boat and follow him; deliver us from doubt, by leading us to the means of your grace, that we may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy confident hope; through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com.

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