The last time my husband and I were on a boat, I thought we were going to have to be rescued by the Coast Guard. We were halfway across Puget Sound out in Washington State, on a whale watching tour, when the small vessel we were on developed engine trouble.
One minute we were speeding along on top of the swells, and then, suddenly, we were bobbing up and down like a cork, where massive quantities of water flow together, making it rough sailing even on nice days. We were 45 minutes out, with no land in sight, and the captain was still below, trying to assess the situation, when the little girl behind us asked her daddy, “Are we going to sink?” The daddy said, “I don’t know honey. Let’s wait and see what the captain says.”
The disciples were out in the boat, and Jesus was still praying on the mountain, when a storm came up. It was the middle of the night, and there they were, far away from shore, where Jesus had sent them. It’s the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus has sent the disciples out on their own. The early Christian community would have resonated with this story. Jesus had promised them he would be with them always, but there they were, in the boat they called a church, battling choppy waters and facing into the fierce winds of persecution as they tried to spread the Gospel as Jesus had told them to do. And the question they asked themselves when they heard the story of Jesus walking across the water was whether they would recognize Jesus coming to them, in whatever dark storm they found themselves in, and be renewed and reinvigorated in their faith.
That doesn’t happen when Mark tells the story. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples don’t yet understand who Jesus is, and why it is that he can walk on the water. Their hearts, Mark tells us, are hardened. The way Matthew tells the story all the disciples fall down and worship Jesus when he gets into the boat. Matthew has added the story about Peter to his account—Peter, who represents all of the disciples in that boat, and all of us in every generation who have asked Jesus, “is that really you?” and have stepped out of our boats when he has said, “Come.”
Matthew’s account encourages us to keep looking for Jesus and not to give up on ourselves when it feels like our faith is faltering.
One of the things you realize when you’re in a boat that is in trouble, and you are far away from shore, is how mighty the elements are, and how little control you have over them. Wind and water have a way of reminding us of our vulnerability. We are not as smart or as wise as we might think. No matter how prepared we think we are, when things go wrong, being on the water is just about the most dangerous place to be.
In the ancient world, water represented the powers of chaos. In many creation stories, a large body of water had to be dammed up so that life could start. If that dam didn’t hold, chaos would descend and all would be lost. Water was scary. Water could escape its boundaries in fierce floods and tsunamis. Water could sink boats and destroy crops. Water could wipe out entire fishing villages. Put wind with water and you have storms, storms that awaken our primordial fears of chaos and disaster.
So when Matthew has Peter getting out of the boat to walk toward Jesus, Matthew is taking Peter out of a scary place into an even scarier one, where no boat could protect him, where none of the other disciples could hold on to him and pull him back in if he started to sink.
Matthew takes Peter and every disciple of Jesus through what we fear the most directly toward what we desire the most, and that is Jesus.
Many of us like this story because of what Peter does when he gets out of the boat. He takes his eyes off of Jesus. He looks at all he’s up against, and he starts to sink. And he cries out to Jesus, save me, and Jesus pulls him up out of the water and helps him back into the boat.
Johnny Cash has a wonderful song, “Keep Your Eyes on Jesus.” It’s helped me a lot when I’ve been overwhelmed and afraid I wouldn’t make it through the storm. A lot of us have been taught that our faith should be strong enough to keep us from sinking. If only Peter had faith, he wouldn’t have started to drown. But that’s not what this Gospel is saying. Listen to Johnny Cash: keep your eyes on Jesus. It’s when we worry that we don’t have enough faith that we start losing the faith we have. If you feel like you have lost your faith, or you think you are in danger of losing it, don’t worry about it, just keep your eyes on Jesus. You probably have more faith than you realize.
When Jesus says, “oh ye of little faith” to Peter when he starts sinking, I hear it as an endearment, rather than a rebuke. I imagine Jesus being delighted and maybe even amused when Peter says, “Lord, if it is really you, tell me to get out of the boat, and I’ll come to you.” I imagine Jesus as a master teacher, and this is what master teachers do. They let their students try things that can’t be done. And then they help them back into the boat when they start to sink, not to say, “I told you so” but “what did you learn about yourself and God, and how did it change you?”
Today’s Gospel tells us that there is no storm that can keep us from Jesus, no fear that can destroy our faith except the fear that we might lose it. You can be a person of little faith and be a follower of Jesus. All Jesus asks is that you be willing to lose even the little faith you have for the sake of his love. All Jesus asks is that you take that step into whatever storm you are facing, and keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep your eyes on Jesus, pray for his help, and trust in his power to save.
The last thing I expected to see while we sat in the middle of Puget Sound was Jesus walking toward us. All I could think of was, how are we going to get out of here? I remembered reading somewhere that if you are prone to motion sickness, it helps to keep your eyes on the horizon. I kept looking to the horizon, and I didn’t see Jesus. But when I looked around the boat, I saw something I never thought I would see. The children on the boat, who had been playing and cavorting all the way out from port, had all fallen asleep. They’d all curled up next to their parents when the boat stopped and we didn’t know what was going to happen. But then the captain came up and told us we weren’t going to sink, but that it was going to be a long time getting back to port on only one engine—and it was going to be pretty rough. The children weren’t afraid, anymore. They just fell asleep. A spirit of calm came over all us. It was as though Jesus had passed through, maybe on his way to see the whales, and said to us, and he says to us today, “Take heart. It is I. Be not afraid.”