Matthew 14: 22 – 33
Throughout the Bible, the sea represents the forces of chaos and destruction – uncharted, unfathomed and treacherous; ‘Yer be sea monsters’!
But, the Bible tells us, God has power over the sea, as demonstrated in Genesis 1, and as celebrated in Job 38:8-11: ‘Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb [saying], “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?’
The Sea of Galilee is, in fact, a large freshwater lake, surrounded by low lying hills. But storms appear out of nowhere from a gap between two of the hills which acts as a funnel for the wind. It would be no surprise to those who fished this lake for a storm to whip up the sea like a cook stirring ingredients in a bowl.
On such night, with the wind against them, the disciples were alone, in a boat, on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had left them on their own for the night.
Having dismissed the 5,000 strong crowd, he’d fed with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, Jesus went off to take some time out alone in the hills to pray. After his experience in Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58) he must have felt that his life was under threat. Yet we hear nothing about Jesus’ personal need at that time, other than that, faced with dilemmas, he needed to pray.
By the crack of dawn, Jesus was called upon to rescue his disciples (so much for time off!) They’d been riding the rough waters of the Lake and would have been exhausted; shaken up by the night’s storm.
And Jesus appeared, as if out of nowhere, displaying a divine stillness in the midst of the storm, walking on the water! It’s not difficult to imagine that the disciples thought he was a ghost!
Peter was, as we know, impetuous! The one likely to open his mouth and put his foot in it and leap before he looked! It’s no surprise then, that Peter wanted to join Jesus, walking on the water. So, when Jesus invited (or commanded?) him, saying ‘Come!’ Peter was straight in there, bold as brass!
Now, in my ‘remembered Bible’, Peter leaps, gung-ho, out of the boat, splash! straight into the swirl of the water. But no – read the text Janine! He actually does walk a few steps, on the water! Perhaps, like a toddler taking a first step or two before losing confidence and balance as they realise that they aren’t holding on to anything, Peter actually did walk on the water’s surface before losing confidence as the wind struck fear into him and he flopped, inelegantly, into the water.
So, Peter was successful! Until, that is, the fear of what the wind could do, and therefore of what might happen, got the better of him. Fear overwhelmed him before the water did. And thus, shouting out ‘Lord, save me!’, he began to drown.
Immediately, at one and the same, time Jesus reached out his hand to save Peter and chastised him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And the two of them got back into the boat. At that very moment the wind ceased and the disciples were left in no doubt that Jesus was (and is) indeed the Son of God! And they worshipped him.
A friend of mine, living with severe heart disease, had to learn to live in faith that God would sustain her. She learned that she could have confidence as she trusted God to save her from the overwhelming waters of illness and live to God’s glory. Sandra wrote a poem to express something of this trusting faith:
I looked for a straight path, a clear path,
Something firm and unequivocal beneath my feet.
But you gave me a boat with a sail;
A boat with no rudder or oars;
A boat at the mercy of the wind of the Spirit
And the tide of your leading;
And you bid me learn to sail in it gloriously, with self-abandon,
Rather than by effort and will to tread a safe but dry and dusty road.
Like Sandra, the 12 in the boat would learn that their discipleship would not always be easy. It would, like the sea, be uncharted, unfathomed and often treacherous. Yet, Jesus bid them to learn to sail gloriously in faith, with the confidence that they would not be overwhelmed by fear.
As the disciples learned to rely on Jesus, follow in his footsteps, and ultimately learned to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, faith proved that it could overcome their fear. It was their faith that sustained them. They could take heart, for the one they served was truly the Son of God.
Perhaps this episode taught the disciples a lesson: discipleship would not be easy, but their faith would sustain them, buoy them up.
The Early Church faced persecution at the time that the Gospels were being written, and these stories of a hostile sea, the danger of perishing, and the fact that Peter did walk on water, when he had the faith, would strengthen the resolve of the Christian community to face their fears with ‘faith-full’ confidence.
Peter was flawed. Peter had doubts. But he’s often considered to be the greatest of ‘the twelve’ (read the accounts of his activities, teaching and travels in Acts)
Peter was saved from drowning. I suspect Peter told many stories about his failings, perhaps to emphasise how much his salvation relied utterly on Jesus? He did nothing in his own strength. He constantly needed to be rescued. His ‘conversion’ wasn’t a single event: Peter was ‘saved’ again and again as the stories in the Gospels and in Acts tell us.
His getting out of the boat was as symbolic as his leaving the life of a fisherman and becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Peter left security behind. Can we? If we are always careful to stay within our comfort zones, what do we fail to do? What do we leave unfulfilled through fear of what might happen? Does fear overwhelm us before we even so much as dip a toe in the uncharted waters of real discipleship? Do we avoid stepping out in faith, for fear?
Perhaps this episode teaches us a lesson. So, how will you respond when Jesus says ‘Come!’?
Rev. Janine Atkinson
Poem: Rev. Sandra Pickard: Used with permission