In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus has been having a really long day. We seem to jump into the text mid-story. “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat,” we read. For this to make sense, we need to know immediately after what this takes place. So we need to flip back to the beginning of Matthew 14. At the start of the chapter, we hear about John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus, and perhaps more importantly forerunner and messenger to Jesus, being beheaded by King Herod after a time of imprisonment. John’s disciples make sure Jesus knows what has happened. And when he hears the news, he withdraws by himself in a boat to pray. He needs some time to grieve and reflect. He doesn’t get it, though, because when he gets off the boat at the other side of the lake, he finds that the crowds have already beat him there, and are waiting for him. Jesus doesn’t turn them away though. Instead, he looks on them with deep compassion, heals their sick, and eventually feeds them too, 5000 plus people in a miraculous feast. The disciples had wanted Jesus to send the people away, but Jesus wants to nourish them, body and soul. Finally, after all this, after this long day, finally, Jesus can have some time alone. Instead of sending away the crowds, it is actually the disciples whom Jesus sends away first after the impromptu meal. He has them get back into the boat and head again across to the opposite side. Then Jesus sends the crowds home, and then, he goes up the mountain to pray by himself.
When evening falls, though, the disciples find themselves stuck in the middle of a storm. Their boat is still far from shore, and they’re being tossed around by the waves and wind. They spend an anxious night on the boat, but early in the morning, they see a figure walking toward them on the water. At first, they’re terrified. In fact, the text doesn’t tell us that they’re afraid in the storm - they’re afraid when they see someone walking on the water. Is it because they don’t know who it is? Evidently, at first they think Jesus is a ghost. Are the waves and wind obscuring his identity? Or is it just the sheer impossibility of what is happening - a person walking on water - that they can’t identify him?
Jesus immediately comforts them, though: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” It’s me. You know me. I’m not here to frighten you. I’m someone you can trust. Peter, always quick to act, always bold, always the first to take a risk even if he blunders while doing it, says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I don’t know if Peter says this to test Jesus - is it really him? - or to test himself - if Jesus can do it, I can too! But Jesus responds simply, “Come.” And Peter does! He gets out of the boat, and starts walking on the water toward Jesus.
But suddenly, the absurdity and impossibility of what he’s doing seems to strike Peter, and he starts to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cries. Immediately - notice the repeated theme of the immediacy of Jesus’ response - immediately Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter. He chides Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They walk on water back to the boat, and the wind ceases. Witnessing all this, the rest of the disciples worship Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Just after our text closes, Jesus is back to it: they arrive on the opposite shore, the crowds greet Jesus, and he heals their sick.
I have some questions when I read this text. I’ve often thought of it as an encouragement for us to “step out of the boat,” to be risk-takers in our faith, or as a reminder not to look down, but to keep our eyes on Jesus, as it is only when Peter pays attention to the wind and storm that he starts to sink. (1) But what Peter does is really pretty amazing. He sees Jesus walking on water - miraculous - and decides that he can do what Jesus does. He’s not just full of himself for thinking this - Jesus frequently encourages the disciples - and us to - to understand that we can do what he does. He wants us to do what he does. In fact, part of his reason for being, for coming, for teaching is so that we will imitate him, serve like he serves, care like he cares, love like he loves. Even if Jesus is always the Savior, he’s into power-sharing. He doesn’t lose any authority by empowering us to do what he does. It only shows how strong God is, the way God doesn’t need to control and intimidate and impress. Peter shows that he believes that he can do what Jesus does, just as Jesus taught him to do.
What stands out to me, though, is that Jesus calls Peter, “You of little faith.” Jesus’ tone suggests Peter could have, should have been most trusting, knowing that he could walk on water to Jesus, no problem. And I can’t help but feel like Jesus is being hard on Peter a bit. I mean really: I’m pretty sure I’d be one of the other 11 disciples still in the boat wondering if Jesus was a ghost or not. At least Peter gets out of the boat, right? Shouldn’t Jesus just be telling him, “Awesome job, Peter! I’m so proud of you!”? What do you think - is Jesus too hard on Peter?
Last summer, after some hemming and hawing about their decision, my brother and sister-in-law decided to get a swimming pool. It didn’t get installed until late in the season, and they didn’t get the yard around it landscaped like they wanted, so it was hard for anyone to get in and out of the pool, and then it was September and cooling off and they decided they would just wait until the next summer to actually open it up. They almost started to regret their decision to get a pool - until this summer rolled around, and they and my nephew and niece, 13 year old Sam (yes, he’s 13 now!) and almost-6 year old Siggy are home all the time because of the pandemic, and there have been no vacations, and no hanging out with friends, and other people trying to get pools are on long waiting lists - and suddenly, their decision to get a pool seems like a brilliant idea! And having been spending a lot of time in the pool myself, I have to agree! I think Sam and Siggy (and their parents too, really) have been in the pool everyday that it is remotely nice enough to swim. Sam has had years of swimming lessons at the Y, and he’s like a fish in water, and loves to swim underwater and do somersaults and dive for diving sticks. I remember that as a toddler, he was pretty afraid of even having pool water touch him, so I love seeing how adept he is, how much he’s matured.
Siggy, though, is still learning how to swim. She does just fine with a floaty ring around her waist, but she’s only just learning how to doggy paddle on her own. She’s pretty anxious still about getting her face wet, getting water in her nose, accidentally going under water. She can make it about 1/2 way across the pool with a doggy paddle though. I love watching her learn. Between her parents and her grandma (before her shoulder surgery) and her big brother and her uncle and her Aunt Beth, she’s got lots of folks around who are willing to help her. I’ve noticed, though, that she’s sort of figured out our different teaching personalities, and lets us help her according to whatever learning mood she’s in. On one end, my mom, Grandma to Siggy, is the most likely to make it easy for Siggy, hold her close, and give her extra support. On the other end, my brother Jim, Siggy’s dad, is the most likely to push her, making her swim a little farther than she intended, and challenge her to push outside her comfort zone. Sometimes what Siggy seems to need is the unwavering assurance that no one will let go of her, that we’ll hang on to her every second, that she’s never in one second of danger in the pool, that she can relax and we’ll keep her safe. But if she just had that, I’m not sure she’d ever learn to be a strong swimmer. She also needs to know that she can do more, that she can learn, that it can be hard but if she practices and practices, she’ll be able to swim on her own, and be a strong swimmer at that. We’d never let Siggy truly struggle in the water if she needed help, ever. But we’ll teach her how to swim, and sometimes that means making her do what she doubts she can do. Really swimming will be so much more rewarding for her than hanging out in her ring float forever!
I had that image of Siggy learning to swim in mind as I thought of Peter walking on water. Take heart - Jesus is not going to let you drown. Again and again and again Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” He’s with us. That’s kind of his thing - God with us is Jesus. Take heart. But we’ve had ample opportunity to know that, to trust that. The other disciples in the boat? They’d just come from seeing Jesus make a small amount of loaves and fish into a meal for thousands, and they’re surprised he can walk on water? Already, he’s sent them out to heal and preach on their own, given them authority and power to do that. Already, in fact, they’ve been there when Jesus calmed a raging storm. They know they can trust Jesus, and they know that with Jesus, who does amazing things, they can do amazing things too, in God’s name, in God’s serve. We know it too. And still Jesus will remind us: Take heart, don’t be afraid!
And so even though Jesus will remind us, he’ll also challenge us, just like Siggy needs encouragement to swim farther than she thinks she can. Jesus is going to entrust everything to the disciples and to us. The folks responsible for welcoming the reign of God on earth are us. We’re the messengers entrusted with the good news of grace. We’re the ones commissioned to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. And so when we start sinking, despite all that we know about who Jesus is, about how God loves us, about what Jesus empowers us to do, then, yes, I think Jesus will scold us too with a “you know better” like he offered to Peter. He’ll challenge us to go deeper in our discipleship than we thought possible. He’ll challenge us to be more fully committed and more fully committed until we’ve given our whole selves to God. Jesus wants us to do what he does: Love with compassion. Serve all. Put ourselves last and others first. Champion the oppressed. And do what seems impossible, until God’s ways are our ways on earth and in eternity. Even as we’ve stepped out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus, he’ll be giving us yet another challenge. Take heart - don’t be afraid. Jesus won’t let you sink. And in fact, he thinks you can walk on water.
Disciples, students, do what their teacher does. Jesus is a challenging teacher. And he’s a teacher we can trust with our lives. Take heart, and do what he does. Amen.