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Dangerous Diagnosis

The Rev. Joseph Winston

August 10, 2008

Sermon

Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.1
A search on Google quickly revealed the fact that many people are very con-
cerned about the misdiagnosis of illnesses. On Saturday, Google found over three
hundred news stories that discussed how medical professionals miss different dis-
eases. This figure is insignificant when compared to the number of web sites that
discuss this specific topic. Yesterday afternoon, more than 2.75 million pages in-
dexed by Google contained the word “misdiagnosis.”
It is completely understandable why this issue troubles us so. A mistake in the
diagnosis of a disease might be painful or it even could be worse. We want the
best health care possible for those that we love.
Unfortunately, hard science confirms our hunch that doctors make mistakes
1
Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians
1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3

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just like everyone else. Autopsies show misdiagnosis in one out of five fatal ill-
nesses.2 It is even more frightening when you know the next fact. This number
of errors has not changed significantly in the past seventy years even though we
currently spend one-seventh of our economy on health care.3
Health care is not the only arena where we make mistakes of judgment. To-
day’s Gospel lesson provides us with at least one classical case of misdiagnosis.
Our lesson today starts immediately after last week’s Gsopel. The disciples
have just finished picking up the leftover food from the feeding of the five thou-
sand (Matthew 14:20). It really seems that they do not even have a moment’s rest.
Jesus orders the disciples into their boat and then sends them out toward the land
of the unclean Gentiles (Matthew 14:22; 14:34).4
It is not a particularly long trip from one side of the lake to the other because
distance to Gennesaret is only four and one-half miles.5 But it is getting late since
Jesus had spent such a long time with the crowd (Matthew 14:14-15). And surely
by now, everyone must be bone tired from all the excitement of the meal and effort
that was expended by everyone.
It does not take long for trouble to set in. The weather takes a dramatic turn for
the worse (Matthew 14:24). The boat is tortured by the swells.6 And all forward
2
David Leonhardt, Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong, (http://www.nytimes.com/
2006/06/22/business/22/leonhardt.html, February 2006).
3
Ibid.
4
The Greek has καὶ εὐθέως ἠνάγκασεν τοὺς μαθητὰς ἐμβῆναι εἰς τὸ πλοῖον which is trans-
lated as, “and immediately He forced the disciples to board the boat.”
5
S.J. Daniel J. Harrington; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, Sacra Pagina Se-
ries, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 224.
6
The Greek has (βασανιζόμενον ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων), which is translated as “tortured by the
swells” because βασανίζω means to torture.

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motion seems to stop because the wind turned has against them.7
As they fight the weather, the minutes slowly turn into hours. Finally, a new
day starts to break.8
Something strange then appears in their view. Unbeknownst to them, Jesus has
finished His prayers and He has started to walk toward them on the lake (Matthew
14:23; 14:25). Of course, when the disciples see this unexpected sight, they are
frightened to death (Matthew 14:26). Yelling out to no one in particular, they
scream out that they are seeing a terrible phantasm.9
Responding to their commotion, Jesus commands all of them to take courage
(Matthew 14:27).10 Now our English translation really fails us at this point. Jesus
does not simply state the phrase, “It is I.” What He actually says here is God’s
name. This is the name that God speaks at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). This is
the One who kills and makes alive, the One who wounds and heals, and the only
One who can deliver us from the captivity that we find ourselves in (Deuteronomy
32:39).
Immediately after stating that He is God, Jesus then orders all of them stop
being afraid.
It is now time for Peter to put his foot into his mouth. Peter misdiagnosis the
situation and He responds to Christ’s commands to stay calm with, “Lord, if it is
7
The Greek reads γὰρ ἐναντίος ὁ ἄνεμος and should say, “for the wind was opposing them.”
8
The NRSV changes the time from “the fourth watch of the night” (τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς
νυκτὸς) into “early in the morning.” The fourth watch is between 3:00 and 6:00 in the morning.
Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 224.
9
The Greek literally reads “It is a phantasm” (φάντασμά ἐστιν).
10
The verb (θαρσεῖτε is present active imperative second person plural and it is a command for
all to have courage.

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you, call me out on the water. (Matthew 14:28)”
You have to acknowledge that Peter got one thing right in his analysis. This is
no normal situation that he finds himself in.
Everyone would agree that it is very confusing to see someone walking water.
Perhaps this is why the narrator has been using different words for water. Rather
than saying that Jesus was walking on water, the author used the word that means
seawater (jˆlassa). The text tells us that Jesus is walking on the Sea of Galilee.
The narrator also says swells (kumˆtwn rather than water hit the boat during the
night at sea.
But to make his diagnosis, Peter should have been putting two and two to-
gether about who this fellow is out in the middle of the storm calmly standing on
the water.
The Bible is full of accounts of who walks on water. God does. It is the Lord
God who tells Job twice that He walks on water (Job 9:8; Job 38:16). The psalmist
tells us that God walks through the waters but we cannot see His footprints (Psalm
77:19). God Himself tells Isaiah that He walks on the sea (Isaiah 43:16).
There is something much more important than the ability to walk on water. It
is making something out of it. That is what God does in Creation. He takes the
water and He makes it does His will. That is what is happening right before all the
disciples. Jesus is forcing the water to do what He wants it to.
However, this type of water found at Creation is very dangerous to people like
you or I because this water is unpredictable and it is shapeless. These unexpected
behaviors confuse us and their meanings are found in the Hebrew word that was

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originally used by the narrator of Genesis.
There is another piece of information that Peter should have remembered in
his diagnosis. Jesus commanded him along with the other twelve disciples to go
to the other shore. This was their primary task. In fact, it was so important that
Jesus stayed behind to dismiss the crowd (Matthew 14:23).
With a storm raging around them, the loss of one hand could be fatal. As
a fisherman who spent his life on the water, Peter certainly knows this. Peter’s
action of asking Jesus to call him into the water jeopardized the rest of the crew
and threatened the success of the entire journey.
Jesus then tells Peter, “You Come (Matthew 14:29).” Now out of the boat,
Peter realizes something else about this water (Matthew 14:29-30). It is pure chaos
and this is no place for a man. He cries out, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus does exactly that. He saves Peter (Matthew 14:31).
Jesus then critiques Peter’s actions (Matthew 13:32). He first tells Peter that
he had little faith.
There are only a couple of reasons for Christ’s comments on Peter’s small
faith.
A possibility considered by many would be that Jesus is telling Peter that with
a greater faith, Peter could walk on water. Despite the fact that this is a common
diagnosis of Peter’s faith it makes little sense in this specific case. Consider the
following argument. If you approve of this assertion that with a bit more faith
Peter could have walked on water then you would have to agree that everyone
who has ever drowned in any type of water either wanted to die in this manner

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or their faith was too small. This horrid logic could be expanded in other areas.
Only those people with a sufficiently large faith would survive illnesses. Those
people who died because of sickness wanted to or their faith was defective. The
final terrible judgment of this idea would be as follows. Only those with enough
faith would live forever. Those people who died did so because it was their wish
or their faith was too small.
This solution cannot be what Jesus is referring to.
The final answer would be that Jesus wanted Peter to stay in the boat and
follow His commands to go with the rest of the disciples to the other shore, to
have courage in the face of danger, and to stop being afraid because Jesus was
with them. This reason appears even more likely, when we look at the rest of
sentence where it seems as if Jesus asks Peter, “Why did you doubt?”
In the original language, Jesus actually asks Peter, “Why did you change your
mind?”11 Or this might be better translated today using a phrase made popular by
the politician and their spin-meisters. “Why did you flip-flop?” “Peter, when the
weather was good you were ready to go to the other side. Now that is it difficult,
you changed your mind. Why did you do that Peter?”
We often act like Peter. We frequently forget the Lord’s command to finish the
tasks we have been given.
This begins when we become discouraged by what is happening all around us.
We then call out to Jesus for a sure sign. “Lord, if it is really you, take this situation
11
The word translated as doubt (διστάζω) means indecisive. The only other use of διστάζω in
the New Testament is in Matthew 28:17.

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from me.” Others of us might say, “I’ll believe in you if you call me away from
this difficult place.”
Earlier in the Gospel according to Matthew, the scribes and the Pharisees did
the same thing. They demanded a sign from Jesus (Matthew 12:38-41). These two
groups wanted to know who was responsible for Christ’s power. In other words,
who gave Jesus the authority to heal the sick, to forgive sin, and to raise the dead.
Jesus refused to give them any sign. He also called them “the evil and adulter-
ous generation (Matthew 12:39).” This description of the scribes and the Pharisees
is appropriate because they are trying to take advantage of God for their own good.
They want to force God to respond to their demands.
Once we have God doing what we want, we can finally achieve our ultimate
goal. We can get ride of God and replace Him with ourselves.
The message of Today’s Gospel lesson is not, “If Peter had enough faith then
he could have overcome the adversity that he faced.” We know that trials and
tribulations come to us no matter how much or how little faith we have. We see
this in Christ’s life. His work was often rejected. If this happens to the One with
perfect faith then it will certainly occur to us that have little faith.
The Good News is that even when we take matters into our own hands, Christ
is right there to pick us up out of the chaos that we find ourselves in and place us
back into the boat.
The name of the boat is the Church. Our architecture here at Tree of Life
reminds us of this basic fact. Look up. The ceiling high above us comes together
along a single axis. It is as if you are looking at a ship’s keel from inside the ship’s

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hold. Look around. The walls soar up from the foundation until they finally reach
the roof. They could be forming the insides of a hull. Look down. Imagine how
much a wood floor would look like a deck. When you go outside and look at the
building, these visual clues about the real nature of this building continue. The
roof looks like the outer part of a hull.
What we worship in is really a ship that has been flipped upside down. The
name of this area of the building really gives it away. It is the nave and it comes
from the Latin word that means ship. This great boat, operated by all of you with
the Holy Spirit’s help, has brought us safely across the stormy sea of life. We
have dragged it with God’s assistance out of the lake and onto the shore. There we
rolled the great ship onto its deck. Now that it has served its purpose of bringing us
here, it has been transformed. No longer is it a boat. It now is a house of worship
that protects us from the tempests that this life brings.
In the world of medicine, we need to be continually concerned about the pos-
sibility of misdiagnosis. One former intensive care doctor summarized his under-
standing of the problems found in the medical profession in the following manner,
“Unlike pilots, doctors don’t go down with their planes.”12 This doctor’s harsh
statement about physicians accurately reflects the fact that doctors normally do
not have their patient’s illness. From all appearances, this detachment from the
disease is hurting patients.
Our great physician, Jesus, has both diagnosed the disease that we all carry
and provided us with the cure. He knows that we want to be god and that goal is
12
Leonhardt, ‘Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong’.

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going to kill each and everyone of us. The remedy that He has given us is quite
simple. Believe in Him and live.
“The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and
minds through Christ Jesus.”13

References

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, Sacra
Pagina Series, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991).

Leonhardt, David, Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong, (http://www.


nytimes.com/2006/06/22/business/22/leonhardt.html,
February 2006).

13
Philippians 4:7.