Sunday Spotlight: Walking on Water
Words matter: particularly gospel words. Jesus doesn’t “suggest” that the disciples go for a boat ride. He doesn’t “ask” them. He doesn’t even “tell” them. Rather, as Matthew tells us: Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go to the other side. Why the insistence? Were the disciples reluctant for some reason? We know there were a number of old salts among them. Could those fishermen smell a storm coming? And what is Jesus up to making them get into that boat and head out onto the lake?
This summer we have been feasting on parables. So this week’s reading is a change of pace. It is a life lesson for the disciples and for us. It is a parable writ large and in real time. It illustrates the requisite underpinnings of a life in Christ… our faith, our hope, our embrace of God’s grace. None of us volunteered to be born. We were not asked. We were not told. We were made. God launched us out onto life’s troubled sea without a by your leave.
And that is where the disciples find themselves… wet and cold, frightened and alone. Jesus is giving them a dose of some pretty tough love… a lesson in faith that will last their lifetimes and resound down through the centuries. In this gospel Jesus is telling us that when we are struggling, when we are adrift and far from shore, when the wind is against us… he is with us. Have faith. We are never alone. In a troubled marriage, with a career in shambles, in illness, bereavement, depression, despair … Jesus comes to us through the storm. And if we have the faith, or at least have the courage to suspend our nagging disbelief, he will come to us cutting through every trouble you can imagine.
Significantly, in this gospel, Jesus does not join the disciples in the boat. Instead, he calls to them and Peter goes to meet him half-way. Blessed, bumbling, betraying Peter really shines in this gospel. As usual, he is “every man,” the perfect foil to illustrate the power of faith. While instinct and experience tell Peter to hold back, when Jesus calls Peter, he immediately answers: Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. Jesus says: Come. And Peter jumps out of the boat and onto the water… not into the water. Then he walks across the waves to meet Jesus. But the way is not easy. Peter is storm tossed and terrified. His initial enthusiasm is overwhelmed by a sudden realization of his surroundings. He panics, starts to sink and calls out: Lord, save me.
How like our own journey of faith. How like our own doubts and fears. Christ calls to us across life’s waters. And our self-serving instincts shout back: “Take a chance on faith? Are you crazy? Play it safe. Stay in the boat.” Even when we are able to take our first faltering steps, we quickly learn that a journey of faith is not a day at the beach. It is a whole lifetime of obstacles and doubt, frustrations and persecutions… some petty, some perilous. To be an open, active, faithful Christian today can truly feel like walking on stormy waters. And we have more than gravity to pull us down. We have a secular undertow that tells us: “You’re a chump to believe.” We have worse than wind and wave to smack us about. In the bloody streets of Mosul and Cairo, in the cynical suites of Hollywood and Washington, Christ is not welcome. We are told his day has come and gone. History has kicked us to the curb. But we know better.
Like the disciples, we are clearly being put to the test. But in a sea of turmoil, like Peter we can walk safely to him on faith’s firm footing. In our fear, our doubt, our disappointment, he is only a prayer away. We have only to cry out: Lord save me. And Jesus will take us up in his saving, healing hands. And if we listen closely with our hearts, we will hear him say: Don’t be afraid. Have faith and we’ll walk together across these waters… all the way home to the Father.