If I Keep My Eyes on Jesus…
Have you ever heard the expression, “Whatever you do, don’t look down?” This is a picture of my brother Todd and his girlfriend Andrea on the Skydeck of the Willis Tower – once known as the Sears Tower – in Chicago. The view is pretty impressive, isn’t it? But if you’re afraid of heights, it might be a little much. Not long before their visit to the Skydeck, some other folks were visiting this attraction and standing on the Skydeck when they heard a loud cracking noise. Needless to say, they scurried off rather quickly. It turned out the cracking noise was from a crack in the protective plastic over the actual glass – the glass was never in danger of giving way. But I can imagine how unsettling it would be to hear the cracking as you are standing so far above the ground. “Whatever you do, don’t look down.” I hear this phrase often enough in movies, and of course, as soon as those words are uttered, the person to whom they’re said – looks down! They may have been doing just fine – conquering their fears, traversing some great height – but somehow, as soon as they look down – they’re paralyzed in fear. They aren’t any higher or more unsafe than they were before they looked – but somehow looking, realizing, makes it so much worse.
I had this phrase in mind this week as I thought about our gospel text and about Peter, trying to walk on the water, stepping out of the boat and heading toward Jesus. Our gospel lesson from Matthew is a story that appears in some variation in all of the gospels – Jesus either calming the storm after having fallen asleep in the boat with the disciples, or Jesus walking on the water and inviting Peter to walk on the water as well, or a combination of similar events. Walking on water, calming the winds. In Matthew’s gospel, this story appears right after the story we know as the feeding of the five thousand. We read that immediately after the meal is finished, Jesus gets his disciples into a boat and sends them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he remains to dismiss the crowd, and to spend some time in prayer by himself. Immediately is always a word to pay attention to in the gospels. It tells us that things are connected. It’s important that these events unfold immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. They’re related in some way.
After praying, Jesus looks out onto the lake and sees that the disciples are having a hard time navigating the windy weather. He begins to walk out onto the water towards them. The disciples see Jesus, and they think it is a ghost walking towards them. I’m not sure if this is because the storm makes it hard to see Jesus, or they are so thrown by his walking on water that they assume he must be a ghost, or what. But they see him, and are not calmed by his presence, but terrified. Note, it isn’t the wind that causes them to cry out in fear – after all, several of the disciples are fishermen, who are familiar with the sea. It isn’t the storm that causes them fear, but the sight of Jesus walking on the water that fills them with terror.
Immediately, we read again, Jesus speaks to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Those are words we hear frequently in the scriptures – upwards of 80 times, more than a dozen of which are spoken by Jesus. Do not be afraid. Peter says to Jesus, boldly, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says to him simply, “Come.” And Peter does – he gets out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus. But then, it’s as if one of the disciples yells out to him, “Whatever you do Peter, don’t look down! Don’t pay attention to the fact that you are walking on the water in the middle of a huge storm!” Peter looks around him, and terror seizes him, and he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls. Immediately, Jesus reaches out and rescues Peter. He doesn’t praise Peter’s courage, but instead says, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” When they get into the boat, the storm stops, apparently an act of Jesus which causes those in the boat to worship him, saying, “Truly you are God’s son.” Just after this, after the passage we read today, the disciples and Jesus finish crossing the sea. People recognize Jesus right away, and people come from all around to be healed by his touch.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always a little surprised, reading this text, by Jesus’ reaction to Peter. Ok, Peter got scared, and starting sinking. But he got out of the boat, right? I think that’s more than I’d be ready to do. Why is Jesus so hard on him? What does Jesus expect of us? So let’s zero in on what Peter says and does for a minute. He’s in the boat. He sees Jesus walking toward him. He thinks it might be a ghost, and is afraid, whether Jesus is too far away to see clearly, or the image of him on the water is just too shocking, we don’t know. But Jesus tells them, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” And Peter says, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you.” And Jesus says, “Come.” But here’s the thing. Peter and the other had just come from watching Jesus feed 5000 men plus women and children. And beyond that, so far, in Peter’s time with Jesus, he’s witnessed him cleanse a leper, heal people’s paralysis, cast out demons, still a storm – before this storm, restore the sight of the blind, restore speech to a mute person, and even raise a child from the dead. Peter has seen a lot. And his words here suggests he knows very well that this “ghost” is Jesus. He says to him, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out to you.” Every word that Peter says is infused with the knowledge that who he’s seeing is Jesus, and Jesus, his Lord and master, a person whose commands he will follow since he is a disciple, a student of this teacher, this Jesus is calling him to get out of the boat, to step out in faith. Peter knows already, as do the other disciples, that this is Jesus, son of God, the Christ, who he’s been following, and who he’s certainly talking to now, amazing as it is.
Peter knows this. And yet, he sinks. And I think that’s what causes Jesus to say, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” Because Peter and the disciples know who Jesus is – and that is what fills them with fear – not the storm. It is knowing that the person they are following is exactly who they think he is – the messiah – that fills them with terror. And so, like the religious leaders of the day who are constantly asking Jesus to answer questions and prove himself to them, Jesus’ very own disciples are doing the same thing, in their own way. They’re seeking proof after proof, sign after sign that Jesus is the One. And then, then, when they’re convinced, they pledge, they’ll be all in. They’ll follow without hesitation. But they’ve had sign after sign after sign. How many more do they need?
Here’s what I think: the disciples don’t need more signs. The signs are an excuse for inaction. The confirmation they seek that Jesus is really Jesus is an expression of fear. They’re not afraid that Jesus isn’t the right one to follow. They’re afraid that he is the one to follow. Because if they have to admit that they’re 100% sure that Jesus is the messiah, then they’ll have to be 100% committed to following him. And as much as they’ve seen Jesus’s miracles, they’ve also heard Jesus’ teachings. And so they know that committing to following Jesus doesn’t mean Jesus lets up on you. Goes easy on you. Focuses on getting others to commit instead. No, committing to following Jesus means that Jesus just keeps expecting more. Jesus wants it all. I think the disciples know that if they let go of their fear and just follow Jesus, he’ll keep asking more of them. To the point where Jesus says things like, “take up the cross and follow me.” And “if you want save your life you have to lose it.” And “the road is narrow.” And so if they admit they believe already, totally, they’ll have to move beyond looking for signs, and on to following the one they know to be God’s son. And so Peter tries ask for another proof: Lord, if it’s you… Who else would it be?! No wonder Jesus seems so exasperated that Peter sinks!
Friends, we may be telling ourselves that we’re waiting to be more sure, to be more confident in our faith. We might say we need a sign, a proof, a burning bush, a storm to be stilled in our sight, and then, then, we’ll put our whole selves in to this discipleship thing. We’ll really follow Jesus 100%, when we’re 100% sure. But Jesus called Peter’s bluff. And eventually, though certainly after many more attempts at playing the, “if it’s you, Lord,” card, Peter committed his whole life. And I think Jesus is ready to call us out too. If you already know it’s me, then what are you waiting for? Step out of the boat already! What will it be? Do we need another sign to tell us what we already know? Or are we ready to step out on to the water? Whatever you do, keep your eyes on Jesus.