Is this a story about faith? Perhaps. Is this a story about Peter? Most likely. Peter is the disciple with whom Jesus most often engages when he is trying to teach the twelve about faith.
Throughout the gospels Peter continues to take risks (although not when he denies Jesus three times when fear of the authorities scares him into denial of his Lord). But normally, he constantly rushes in to show his devotion and faith without always considering the outcome.
We on the other hand are often so prudent that faith for some is in danger of becoming a dead noun – unless you are a persecuted Christian driven from your home or bombed in your church. There you have to be a risk taker.
To emulate Peter’s risk taking is perhaps to regain the faith that is life transforming. A very godly priest I admired as a child once described faith as that which takes you outside of your comfort zone. This could be said to be the perfect description of Peter’s act in this week’s lesson.
Why does Peter make this request? Jesus has spoken to them, told them to take heart. But that’s not enough for Peter. He puts himself out front as a kind of dare, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” he says.
What is Peter really saying – make me do something extraordinary, set me apart from these other disciples, grant me exemption from the laws of nature that bind ordinary people and I will believe you are who you say you are.
It sounds as if Peter is being rather pompous, but in this story like most of the other stories when Peter is a bit embarrassing, he is speaking for us. All of us, at one time or another, has asked God for an exemption. Jesus probably had to think for a minute before he decided how to respond to Peter. He could have said, Who do you think you are, Simon Peter, sit down and find your oar and get rowing. But that wasn’t what Peter needed. He needed a couple of steps on water to cure his doubt and then a nose full of water to cure his pomposity.
Sometimes this story is interpreted as commending Peter’s faith for getting out of the boat and walking on the water, the problem comes when he takes his eye off Jesus, his faith falters but Jesus is there to save him. So it can be seen as encouraging us to put our faith into action.
But I think what we are meant to be looking at here is this story in parallel with the account of the Stilling of the Storm in Matthew 8, and to notice how the disciples’ relationship with Jesus has developed.
In the earlier story the disciples are in fear of their lives, they wake Jesus, he stills the waves and the wind, rebukes them for their lack of faith, the disciples are amazed and wonder what sort of person Jesus is that even the winds and sea obey him.
In contrast here, the disciples are not in fear for their lives. There is no storm just the disciples’ fear when they see Jesus walking on the water and do not recognise him. When Peter’s challenge goes wrong and he sinks calling out “Lord, Save me!” Jesus grabs him and it’s only Peter who is called ‘one of little faith’ and questioned for doubting.
And the wind simply ceases once Jesus gets into the boat and this time, the disciples worship him as the Son of God. So what are we to learn from the development of this story?
Perhaps this is an enactment of the truth that we are not intended to walk on water either actually or metaphorically and when we find ourselves in deep over our heads and unable to save ourselves the right response is that of Peter – “Lord, save me!” As I write that line, I realise that this is one of my constant prayers, throughout the day – Lord, save me, help me, be with me!
In both accounts, Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord of the wind, waves, water and sea all of which are characteristic of chaotic elements of nature. So at the end of this account, the disciples are not just wondering what kind of person Jesus is, but they worship him as the Son of God. Matthew next records the disciples worshipping Jesus when he appears to them after his resurrection.
In both the story of the Stilling of the Storm and that of Jesus walking on the water, Jesus ends up in the boat with the disciples. A ship was one of the earliest symbols for Christianity and these accounts show us why – when surrounded by adversity, chaos and violence, safety and salvation are experienced in the Church with Jesus in our midst.
This story of Jesus walking on the water has inspired poets and artists. Longfellow, in particular, in his long poem, ‘Christus, A mystery’, has a section in which Mary Magdalene remembers the story of Christ walking on the water.
“This morning, when the first gleam of the dawn made Lebanon a glory in the air,
And all below was darkness, I beheld an angel or a spirit glorified
With wind tossed garments walking on the lake.
The face I could not see, but I distinguished the attitude and gesture,
And I knew t’was He that healed me.
And the gusty wind brought to mine ears a voice which seemed to say:
“Be of good cheer! T’is I! Be not afraid!
And from the darkness, scarcely heard, the answer:
“If it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the water!”
And the voice said, “Come!”
And then I heard a cry of fear:
“Lord, save me! I am a drowning man”
And then the voice: “Why didst thou doubt,
O thou of little faith?”
At this all vanished, and the wind was hushed,
and the great sun came up above the hills.
And the swift-flying vapours
hid themselves in caverns among the rocks.
Oh, I must find him and follow him, and be with him for ever!
Thou box of alabaster, in whose walls the souls of flowers lie pent,
the precious balm and spikenard of Arabian farms,
the spirits of aromatic herbs, ethereal natures nursed by sun and dew,
not all unworthy to bathe his consecrated feet,
whose steps make every threshold holy that he crosses.
Let us go upon our pilgrimage, Thou and I only.
Let us search for him until we find him and
pour out our souls before his feet til all that’s left of us
shall be the broken caskets that once held us.”
Father, grant that we may continually search for you, and, finding you, pour out our souls and become one with you.