As the three of us, me, Kim and my mom, returned to the dock in our pontoon boat, I jumped out and secured the ropes on both bow and stern, but it was a loosely configured arrangement, and the boat readily drifted away a few feet, making the step from boat to dock, a rather large one. “Hang on to my glass, while I get off, my mom said.” But as I looked down at the water, I feared there was a danger lurking there, even greater than the deep waters we had just traveled over around the lake! It was a step just big enough to miss, like there needed to be a little bridge across. “I’ll be alright, just hang on to this,” my mother insisted. But my reaction was to jump to the dock and pull the boat closer, so that, even with glass in hand, on her 83rd birthday, she could walk easily from one to the other. Fear of falling in, was on my mind, for sure! While my mom, despite a bum knee, seemed to have complete confidence, and faith, in her ability.
There was no storm that night. In fact the lake was like glass, not a ripple to be seen. I could easily imagine Jesus walking across the lake to us. A Hollywood set with stepping stones just beneath the surface would have done the trick - for any of us! But walking on the water for Jesus is not a question of a trick. And for the gospel writers, it’s clearly a symbol of his divinity: The Son of God came to conquer the chaos of the seas, and the place where the sea monster, that great Leviathan lived, and continually threatened to wreak havoc on the world. Jesus, the Word made flesh, can and does, command the seas, which God has made, through him.
For the disciples, it’s either “Jesus walking toward them on the sea” that they see in the storm, or, “it is a ghost!” But either way, they are justly “terrified” and “call out in fear!” The storm was raging, and the wind was against them all night long, as they had tried to cross Lake Galilee. But they couldn’t bridge the impediment keeping them from the other side. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus reassures them. “It is I,” not a ghost! Stay in the boat. I’m coming to you!
Peter, as usual, gets all excited! ‘He’s like the kid who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand, hops up and down in his seat, and shouts, “Me! Me! Pick me!” to every question the teacher asks.’ [CC: Living Word Blog: http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-08/why-faith-so-difficult] “Command me to come to you on the water.” ‘If it’s truly you, I know I can follow you,’ says Peter! ‘I want to be your brightest and best Disciple!’ So, at Jesus’ call, Peter is off into the stormy waters, eyes on the prize, focusing on his master. But also like us, easily distracted, and, to be fair, not without reason: it’s a big step into the wind and the waves, and there he loses his mojo, and just as quickly begins to succumb to all the challenges none of us ever want to consider in our own lives: challenges that Jesus calls us to; all the naysayers who seek to pull us down; and all the mistakes we inevitably make. And with his attention averted, his eyes off the prize, Peter panics, and finds himself at the end of his rope, a drowning man. All he can do is call out to the one who is the Living Word, who was with God from the beginning at creation, the commander of sea and land: “Lord, save me!”
And so, Jesus, bridges the gap, and “immediately he reached out his hand and caught him.” Jesus is the repairer of the breech, the one who holds us, the bridg-er of the gap of our faith and doubt. Jesus brings Peter safely back into the boat again, another symbol not lost on Matthew’s original readers, for the boat or ship was the universal symbol for the church, and not just the building. Like Noah’s ark, it was thought to be a symbol of bringing the people through the rough waters raging all around, and into salvation. But for Jesus and the disciples, of course, the church was the people, not a building. So it is not strange at all that Peter wanted to get out of the boat as an extension of his life of faith.
And like Peter, our faith is tested in the stormy seas that surround us every day, or else it is not faith. For faith is, by definition, dynamic: living and growing, changing us, taking us to depths we hadn’t known possible before. Jesus never meant that our entire faith experience would be contained within the walls of a church building. Just the opposite! Hear we worship Jesus, in our little boat, just as the disciples did in theirs. But Monday through Friday we get out of the boat, risking our lives in the world where storms blow up, often when we least expect it. If our faith is not connected to the mission Jesus is calling us to, it becomes static and lifeless. “Faith is the bridge that connects us to Jesus,” says Teri McDowell Ott …Faith is our “hope in the face of despair; love in the face of hatred; peace in the face of violence; beauty in the face of ugliness; … and courage in the face of fear. Faith is the spirited force that moves us from the place where we are, to the place where we ought to be.” [CC: Living Word Blog:]
How much faith do we need to be successful at it? I prefer to see Jesus instruction to Peter as playful, rather than scolding. “You of little faith, why did you doubt,” Jesus asks Peter, still dripping, shocked and shaking in the boat? Jesus knows that none of us is greater in faith than the daring of Peter. But why should that worry Jesus, the one who said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move.” Our doubt and “little faith” is just an opportunity in waiting! We can go from fear to confident “walking on water” in a moment. We can be transformed and changed over night! Faith multiplies!
How? Not by our own volition, but by the power of God. And, if we take a queue from Jesus, by prayer, and a life of gratitude for the grace and love of God. Whereas Peter, and all of us, tend to wait till we’re drowning, at the end of our ropes, and then call out to God for help, Jesus intentionally goes to a life of prayer before striking out into the world. “Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray,” Matthew tells us, before the storm.
And likewise, Jesus is there for Peter, and graciously reaches out a helping hand to catch him. He doesn’t demand that Peter increase his faith first, but saves him, no questions asked, then, together, they can begin to work out his faith life. Jesus bridges the gap, grasping the hand of the wild-eyed and coughing-up-water disciple. Then lovingly, but truthfully, Jesus says: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus saves us first, then invites us to greater faith. Grace is a gift, freely given, despite the size of our faith in following our teacher. Jesus gives us wide steps in which to confidently find a place to stand, even in rough waters, and invites us to keep our eyes on the prize; to focus on Jesus as the Word of God, the Spirit and Creator of all, who was there in the beginning, and walks with us still, bringing us to salvation every day. We are strengthened in the boat we’re in, each of us empowered to be church, part of a saving boat for others, out on the rough waters of the world.