While this morning’s story has a familiar ring to it, the truth is that Peter walking on the water only appears in the Gospel of Matthew. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus walks across the sea and calms the storm, but no Peter. In Luke, there is no equivalent story. And John’s Gospel is so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke that it hardly makes sense to compare.
What makes this morning’s story even more unusual is the fact that it was a miracle performed for the disciples…and the disciples alone. Elsewhere in the Gospels you can read about miracles Jesus performed for ordinary people. Miracles performed in front of large crowds across the Galilean countryside. Miracles performed in plain view of the religious authorities. But rare is the instance in the Gospels when Jesus does something miraculous for disciples’ eyes only.
It’s also important to understand the setting of this morning’s story. In ancient times, the sea was the place where demonic forces dwelt, where chaos made its home, where mystery and fear and terror took root. When Jesus walks across the surface of the water in today’s passage, the original hearers of the story would have taken that to mean that Jesus was literally stepping on the forces of evil. It would have been convincing proof that Jesus was ruler over all the devils in the deepest blue sea as well as ruler over all the stormy turbulence that occurred on top of the water.
For the sake of this morning’s sermon, however, the one character who makes Matthew’s version of today’s tale singular and unique is Peter. Peter, who as the disciples go is the brashest, the most impulsive, the one who’s quick to speak and act without thinking things fully through. Coupled with the fact that Peter is one of the first disciples Jesus called in the beginning of his ministry, it’s safe to assume that Peter was among Jesus’ favorites.
Peter was not without his warts, though. Read through the Gospels and you’ll find Peter is the one who consistently asks Jesus to explain the parables. Peter is the one who understands the identity of Jesus, although he never quite grasps what that understanding will cost him. Eventually near the end of the Gospels, Peter is the one who falls asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane when all Jesus needs is a companion to stay awake and keep him company. And then a short while later, Peter is the one who swears he will never deny Jesus and then does precisely that three times in a row.
Then there’s today’s story. Where Jesus calls out to Peter to come and walk on the water with him. And Peter sinks. Peter is a risk taker and he’s a leap of faith taker. And even when he messes up, Peter dusts himself off and tries again. There is something so relatable and so lovable about Peter. Despite the fact that he typically talks a better game than he plays.
Maybe it’s Peter’s sincerity. One minute he is riding high and confident in Jesus and the next minute he is face down in the dirt wondering how it went wrong. He is so full of faith in one moment and so crippled by doubt the next. When all is said and done, whether he loves Jesus or lets Jesus down, Peter wears his heart on his sleeve. What you see with Peter is what you get and that can often be refreshing…when it’s not totally exasperating.
No wonder Matthew chooses to highlight Peter. As chronology goes, this morning’s story falls just after the miracle of the loaves and fishes where five thousand people were fed and there was food left over. When the crowd of five thousand dispersed, Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him while he went up a nearby mountain to pray. A short time later, the disciples wound up with their hands full as the winds kicked up on the sea and the waves began to crash over the side of their little boat.
As the twelve disciples tried to steer and wrestle their boat across to the other side, the hour was around three in the morning. It was pitch dark, each of them were likely soaking wet and chilled through, and there was no sign of shore. It was impossible for anyone to fall asleep, no matter how tired they might have been. But as the disciples are watching, straining, scanning the horizon to see if they can spot land, instead they notice a shadowy figure coming toward them on the water.
“It’s a ghost!” one of the disciples blurts out. Then the ghost responds, “Take heart, it is I’ have no fear.” Perhaps his voice is muffled in the middle of the storm. Or he was still too far away. Because Peter is not fully convinced. In his usual fashion, however, Peter is willing to ask the question the others will not.
“Lord, if it is you, bid me to come to you on the water.” Which is a fascinating request. Peter could have said, “Lord, if it is you, where have you been, we’ve been waiting for you?” Or Peter could have said, ”Lord, if it is you, can you do something about this storm?” Instead, Peter proposes a kind of test. “Lord, let me come to you on the water. Show me what you can do and show me what I can do while we’re at it.”
“Come,” Jesus beckons. So Peter swings his feet over the side of the boat and eases himself into the water while the other disciples watch with the kind of expression you have on your face when you pass an accident on the other side of the highway. Fear and intense curiosity all mixed together so much that you can’t take your eyes off it.
Sometimes it’s hard to find your balance on solid ground in the middle of a big storm, but Peter manages to stand up on the water and take a tentative step forward. He can barely see a foot or two in front of him and the wind across his face and through his hair, but Peter takes a few more baby steps. He’s doing remarkably well, in fact, until a massive gust arises and causes him to gasp for breath. In an instant, fear sets in and Peter can feel his feet sinking below the surface of the water. Soon he starts to plunge into the water as fast as a stone.
Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? When you’re climbing a ladder to get somewhere and everything is going fine until you can’t help yourself and you take a quick look down below. And suddenly you are stuck where you are in the middle, unable to go up or down. When you first learned how to ride a bike and just when you got the hang of it and you were building to full speed, you lost confidence and you fell to the ground in a heap.
Or that time you had to speak in front of a crowd of people. Someone told you to picture everyone in the audience in their underwear, but that didn’t actually work. And somewhere in the middle of your speech your palms started to sweat and your brain turned to mush and it felt as though everyone was staring right at you and you lost your nerve. Followed quickly by losing your place in the speech and losing your focus and train of thought. Finally, you had to sit down whether you were done with what you were trying to say or not.
“Lord, save me!” Peter cries out. And Jesus reaches out and hauls Peter out of the water while the disciples help drag him back into the boat. Embarrassing maybe. Humiliating perhaps. But nothing compared to the words Jesus spoke next.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” As much as none of us wants to hear those words out loud, they remain the kinds of words we ask ourselves in private moments. Why don’t I have more faith? Why can’t I trust God? Why can’t I let go and ask God to help me? Why does my fear take over and doubt set in?
When the storms of life rage all around us. Storms that make headlines related to injustice and inhumanity. Storms on a personal level caused by illness and loss of innocence and fears about our own mortality. When the storms of life hit us head on and we pray for the care and reassurance of God but God doesn’t come according to our own specifications or our own timetable. Why do we lose heart and lose faith and begin to sink…?
Yet listen again to the words of Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell Peter he had no faith. He told Peter he had little faith. Just like Peter, you and I do have some faith. Maybe it’s just a little faith. And maybe sometimes we could use more. At the same time, we also have doubt. Some doubt, a little bit of doubt. Maybe sometimes too much doubt.
If Peter had leapt over the side of the boat and started running on top of the water toward Jesus, that would have been some kind of story. And if the disciples had jumped out of the boat as a group and followed suit, running together toward Jesus. Well that would have been ever better.
But then today’s story wouldn’t have been a story about human beings like you and me. The disciples and you and I are more complicated than that. We obey and we fear. We listen and we close our ears. We believe and we question. We walk and we sink. We have opposing impulses within us and sometimes those impulses play out at the same time.
Ultimately, today’s story reminds us why we need Jesus to save us. If you and I could walk on water all the time without any help and we never sank, then we wouldn’t need a Savior. The important thing is that Jesus knows we want to have faith even in our doubt. And that’s enough.
It’s just enough faith for Jesus to haul us out of the water and return us to the boat and to the company of other disciples. Where we wait for the storm to stop and the dawn to appear and our eyes to open in the presence of Jesus once again. Amen.