A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil of 1525.
Text: Matthew 8:23-27. And when he was entered into a boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the boat was covered with the waves; but he was asleep. And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Save, Lord; we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, 0 ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?
I. OF FAITH AND UNBELIEF
1. This Gospel, as a narrative, gives us an example of faith and unbelief, in order that we may learn how mighty the power of faith is, and that it of necessity has to do with great and terrible things and that it accomplishes nothing but wonders; and that on the other hand unbelief is so fainthearted, shamefaced and trembling with fear that it can do nothing whatever. An illustration of this we see in this experience of the disciples, which shows the real state of their hearts. First, as they in company with Christ entered the ship, all was calm and they experienced nothing unusual, and had any one asked them then if they believed, they would have answered, Yes. But they were not conscious of how their hearts trusted in the calm sea and the signs for fair weather, and that thus their faith was founded upon what their natural eyes saw. But when the tempest comes and the waves fill the boat, their faith vanishes; because the calm and peace in which they trusted took wings and flew away, therefore they fly with the calm and peace, and nothing is left but unbelief.
2. But what is this unbelief able to do? It sees nothing but what it experiences. It does not experience life, salvation and safety; but instead the waves coming into the boat and the sea threatening them with death and every danger. And because they experience these things and give heed to them and turn not their fear from them, trembling and despair can not be suppressed. Yea, the more they see and experience it the harder death and despair torment them and every moment threatens to devour them. But unbelief cannot avoid such experiences and cannot think otherwise even for a second. For it has nothing besides to which it can hold and comfort itself, and therefore it has no peace or rest for a single minute. And thus will it also be in perdition, where there will be nothing but despair, trembling and fear, and that without end.
3. But had they had faith, it would have driven the wind and the waves of the sea out of their minds, and pictured before their eyes in place of the wind and tempest the power and grace of God, promised in his Word; and it would have relied upon that Word, as though anchored to an immovable rock and would not float on the water, and as though the sun shined brightly and all was calm and no storm was raging. For it is the great characteristic and power of faith to see what is not visible, and not to see what is visible, yea, that which at the time drives and oppresses us; just as unbelief can see only what is visible and can not in the least cleave to what is invisible.
4. Therefore God bestows faith to the end that it should deal not with ordinary things, but with things no human being can master as death, sin, the world and Satan. For the whole world united is unable to stand before death, but flees from and is terrified by it, and is also conquered by it; but faith stands firm, opposes death that devours everything, and triumphs over it and even swallows the unsatiable devourer of life. In like manner no one can control or subdue the flesh, but it reigns everywhere in the world, and what it wills must be done, so that the whole world thereby is carnal; but faith lays hold of the flesh and subdues and bridles it, so that it must become a servant. And in like manner no one can endure the rage, persecution, and blasphemy, infamy, hatred and envy of the world; every one retreats and falls back exhausted before it, it gets the upper hand over all and triumphs; and if they are without faith it mocks them besides and treads all under its feet, and takes pleasure and delight in doing so.
5. Further, who could conquer Satan with his innumerable, subtle suggestions and temptations, by which he hinders the truth and God’s Word, faith and hope, and starts so many false doctrines, sects, seductions, heresies, doubts, superstitions and innumerable abominations? The whole world compared with him is like a spark of fire compared with a fountain of water. All must be here subject to him; as we also see, hear and understand. But it is faith that keeps him busy, and it not only stands before him invulnerable, but also reveals his roguery and puts him to shame, so that his deception fails and he faints and falls; as now takes place with his indulgences and his papacy. Just so no one can allay and quiet the least sin, but it bites and devours the conscience, so that nothing avails even if the whole world were to comfort and support such a person, he must be cast down into perdition. Here faith is a hero, it appeases all sins, even if they were as many as the whole world had committed.
6. Is there now not something almighty and inexpressible about faith that it can withstand all our powerful enemies and gain the victory, so that St. John says in his first Epistle 1 John 5:4: “This is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith?” Not that this is done in peace and by quietly resting; for it is a battle that is carried on not with out wounds and shedding of blood. Yea, the heart so severely experiences in this battle sin and death, the flesh, Satan and the world, that it has no other thought than that it is lost, that sin and death have triumphed, and that Satan holds the field of battle. The power of faith however experiences but little of that. This is set forth in our narrative, when the waves not only dashed into the boat, but even covered it, so that it was about to go under and sink, and Christ was lying asleep. Just then there was no hope of life, death had the upper hand and had triumphed; life was lying prostrate and was lost.
7. As it went here, so it goes and must go in all other temptations of sin, Satan, etc. We must experience how sin has taken captive the conscience and nothing but wrath and perdition wish to reign, and how we must be eternally lost. Satan must start so many things by his error and false teaching that it appears God’s Word must fall to the ground and the world must glory in falsehood. Likewise the world must rage and persecute to such an extent that it appears no one can stand or be saved, or even confess his faith; but Cain will rule alone and will not rest until his brother is dead, so that he may never be in his way. But we must not judge and act according to appearance and our experience, but according to our faith.
8. Therefore this Gospel is a comforting example and doctrine, how we should conduct ourselves, so that we may not despair in the agony of sin, in the peril of death, and in the tumult of the world; but be assured that we are not lost, although the waves at once overwhelm our little boat; that we will not perish, although we experience in our evil conscience sin, wrath, and the lack of grace; that we will not die, although the whole world hates and persecutes us, although it opens its jaws as wide as the rosy dawn of the morning. These are all waves that fall over your little bark, cause to despair, and force you to cry out: “Save, Lord; we perish”. Thus you have here the first part of this Gospel, faith, how it should thrive and succeed, and besides, how incapable and fainthearted unbelief is.
II. OF LOVE
9. The second part of our text, treating of love, shows forth Christ in that he rises, breaks his sleep for their sake, takes to heart their need as though it were his own, and ministers to them help out of free love without any merit on their part. He neither receives nor seeks any reward for his help, but permits them to enjoy and use his power and resources. For as we have often heard it is characteristic of Christian love to do all freely and gratuitously, to the praise and honor of God, that a Christian lives upon the earth for the sake of such love, just as Christ lived solely for the purpose of doing good; as he himself says: “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” Matthew 20:28.
III. THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF THIS NARRATIVE
10. Christ pictured to us in this narrative the Christian life, especially the office of the ministry. The ship signifies Christendom; the sea, the world; the wind, Satan; his disciples are the preachers and pious Christians; Christ is the truth, the Gospel, and faith.
11. Now, before Christ entered the ship with his disciples the sea and the wind were calm; but when Christ with his disciples entered, then the storm began, as he himself says, Matthew 10:34: “Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace but a sword.” So, if Christ had left the world in peace and never punished its works, then it would indeed have been quiet. But since he preaches that the wise are fools, the saints are sinners and the rich are lost, they become wild and raging; just as at present some critics think it would be fine if we merely preached the Gospel and allowed the office of the ministry to continue in its old way. This they would indeed tolerate; but that all their doings should be rebuked and avail nothing, that they call preaching discontent and revolution, and is not Christian teaching.
12. But what does this Gospel say? There was a violent tempest on the lake when Christ and his disciples were in the ship. The sea and the wind allowed the other ships to sail in calm weather; but this ship had to suffer distress because of Christ being in it. The world can indeed tolerate all kinds of preaching except the preaching of Christ. Hence whenever he comes and wherever he is, there he preaches that he only is right and reproves all others; as he says in Matthew 12:30: “He that is not with me is against me”, and again, John 16:8: “The spirit will convict the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness and of judgment;” he says that he will not only preach, but that he will convict the whole world and what is in the world. But it is this convicting that causes such tempests and dangers to this ship. Should he preach that he would allow the world to go unpunished and to continue in its old ways, he would have kept quiet before and never have entered the world; for if the world is good and is not to be convicted then there would never have been any need of him coming into the world.
13. Now it is the consolation of Christians, and especially of preachers, to be sure and ponder well that when they present and preach Christ, that they must suffer persecution, and nothing can prevent it; and that it is a very good sign of the preaching being truly Christian, when they are thus persecuted, especially by the great, the saintly, the learned and the wise. And on the other hand that their preaching is not right, when it is praised and honored, as Christ says in Luke 6:22-26: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you; for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake; in the same manner did their fathers to the prophets.” Behold our preachers, how their teachings are esteemed; the wealth, honor and power of the world have them fully under their control, and still they wish to be Christian teachers, and whosoever praises and preaches their ideas, lives in honor and luxury.
14. Hence, people have here an example where they are to seek their comfort and help, not in the world; they are not to guard the wisdom and power of men, but Christ himself and him alone; they are to cleave to him and depend on him in every need with all faithfulness and confidence as the disciples, do in our text. For had they not believed that he would help them, they would not have awakened him and called upon him. True their faith was weak and was mingled with much unbelief, so that they did not perfectly and freely surrender themselves to Christ and risk their life with him, nor did they believe he could rescue them in the midst of the sea and save them from death. Thus it is ordained that the Word of God has no master nor judge, no protector or patron can be given it besides God himself. It is his Word. Therefore, as he left it go forth without any merit or counsel of men, so will he himself without any human help and strength administer and defend it. And whoever seeks protection and comfort in these things among men, will both fall and fail, and be forsaken by both God and man.
15. That Jesus slept indicates the condition of their hearts, namely, that they had a weak, sleepy faith, but especially that at the time of persecution Christ withdraws and acts as though he were asleep, and gives neither strength nor power, neither peace nor rest, but lets us worry and labor in our weakness, and permits us to experience that we are nothing at all and that all depends upon his grace and power, as Paul confesses in 2 Corinthians 1:9, that he had to suffer great affliction, so as to learn to trust not in himself but in God, who raised the dead. Such a sleeping on the part of God David often experienced and refers to it in many places, as when he says in Psalm 44:23: “Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? Arise, cast us not off forever.”
16. The summary of this Gospel is this, it gives us two comforting, defying proverbs, that when persecution for the sake of God’s Word arises, we may say: I indeed thought Christ was in the ship, therefore the sea and wind rage, and the waves dash over us and threaten to sink us; but let them rage, it is ordained that the wind and sea obey his will. The persecutions will not continue longer than is his pleasure; and although they overwhelm us, yet they must be subject to him; he is Lord over all, therefore nothing will harm us. May he only give us his help that we may not despair in unbelief. Amen.
17. That the people marveled and praised the Lord that the wind and sea were subject to him, signifies that the Gospel, God’s Word, spreads farther through persecution, it thus becomes stronger and faith increases; and this is also a paradoxical characteristic of the Gospel compared with all worldly things which decrease through every misfortune and opposition, and increase through prosperity and peace. Christ’s kingdom grows through tribulations and declines in times of peace, ease and luxury, as St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My power is made perfect in weakness, etc.” To this end help us God! Amen.