Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Jesus, on hearing of John the Baptist’s death, tried to get away to mourn. Because the crowds followed him and he had compassion for them, he delayed his period of grief and began to heal their sick.
Now, after feeding the 5000+, he tries again to go off by himself. He not only sends the crowds on their way, but he makes his disciples leave too. He orders them to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He was finally able to spend some time alone.
The disciples, however, didn’t have such a refreshing night. A storm came up and kept them from reaching land. Fighting all night long against the wind and the waves, they couldn’t get to the other side of the sea. Even though Jesus told them to go, the storm kept them from obeying him.
Frightened and exhausted, in the midst of the storm they see someone walking across the water toward them. It was still dark, and I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be on top of everything else. Of course they think it’s a ghost. What else would they think?
So even though Jesus tries to reassure them, Peter makes a really stupid suggestion, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I can just hear Jesus thinking to himself, “Peter, just stay in boat with the others like I told you.” But I envision Jesus heaving a big sigh and saying, “Alright, Peter. Go ahead.”
I get being terrified, and I get wanting to be near Jesus. But I’m not sure why Peter would think walking on the water would be the best way to deal with his fear. Why not ask for the storm to stop? Or to be transported to land? Or a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich?
Because here’s how I see Peter’s attempt to walk on water. Not an act of faith, but of selfishness. He not only forgets Jesus’ command to the disciples, but he abandons them in order to ease his own panic. He’s going to do whatever it takes to be comforted in his fear, even if it means leaving the relative safety of the boat and the team effort of his friends. He’s striking out on his own so that he can be with Jesus, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. In the face of his own panic, this is an act of cowardice and selfishness, hardly one of faith.
I keep coming back to one of Jesus’ primary themes in Matthew. You are all in this life together, so you better hang in there together. Quit creating divisions. The parable of the different soils—he seed will still come to you. The parable of the weeds and the wheat—hang in there together. If we abandon others just so we can get closer to Jesus on our own, we wind up sinking.
Now, hear what I’m saying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t turn to Jesus when we’re afraid. But I am saying that sometimes “faith” means sticking it out with the other disciples in the boat. Sometimes “faith” means holding to what Jesus tells us to do even if that means heading into the storm. Sometimes “faith” means supporting each other when we’re afraid and trusting that Jesus will meet us there. Sometimes “faith” means recognizing that God is God, Jesus is Jesus, and we are not. Jesus walks on water, we don’t. Sometimes “faith” means staying in the boat together, which, by the way, is where Jesus told Peter to be in the first place.
I’m afraid that sometimes, in order to seek our own personal comfort with Jesus, we abandon the others in the boat. And I think that is the lack of faith—the doubting—that Jesus confronts Peter with. If we are forsaking others for our own sense of spiritual righteousness, we’ll sink. If we want Jesus to save us while ignoring others in the boat, we’ll sink. If we are so terrified of the wind and the waves that we bail on our community with the excuse of getting closer to Jesus, we’ll sink.
Sure, Jesus reaches out and saves the sinking Peter. But the point of the story isn’t that Peter is a good example. Rather, that even if we panic, even if we abandon others in the boat, even if we are so terrified that we do ridiculous things, Jesus still comes to us and reaches out to us. But Jesus is coming to us whether we’re afraid or not.
We all get terrified at some points in our lives and can’t see Jesus there, right? We all have points at which we want to abandon others for our own safety and comfort.
When we face the first holiday without a loved one, we can be filled with dread.
When the symptoms of a disease we thought was gone begin to re-emerge, we can sense the panic.
As we foolishly tinker with the possibility of nuclear war, we can begin to feel the nervousness.
As we look on, aghast, at the hatred and violence and the evil of racism so boldly displayed in Charlotsville, Virginia, and we begin to get concerned about where this will lead.
As we watch our Muslim siblings, our immigrant siblings, our transgender siblings face very real discrimination and even persecution, we can begin to give in to our fear of what’s coming next. And it can take over our actions. We might simply want to abandon everything and everyone else and run to Jesus. We want to escape our fear and be held in his comfort. Even if that means doing something dumb like abandoning those in the boat and trying to walk on water on our own. Fear can do that to us.
But Jesus is coming to us. Just stay in the boat together.
We may not recognize him, but he’s walking across the fear to us. Just stay in the boat together.
At first, his approach may cause even more fear. But he’s there. Just stay in the boat together.
We’re in a boat together. And we sink or are saved together. And Jesus comes to us across the chaos, through the fear, together. And when we’re all together in the boat, and the storm is stilled, we worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”