Three of the Gospels tell this story. Each however has a much different conclusion. Mark’s version in chapter 6 gives us this ghostly impression of Jesus coming out of the fog in the early morning hours, which terrified the disciples. According to Mark they are trying to wrap their minds about what had happened with the loaves and fish still don’t have a clue. Mark concludes: ‘Their minds were closed.” John’s version, in chapter 6, has the disciples some four miles out on the water. In the early morning hours, when they see Jesus coming toward the boat walking on the sea they are terrified. He reassures them that it is he and as they prepare to take him onto the boat, miraculously they are at their destination. Matthew’s version ends with those in the boat proclaiming of Jesus: “Truly you are the Son of God”. Another distinction is that only Matthew tells us of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water.
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
The story starts where last week’s story of the loaves and fish ended. Jesus sends the disciples away in the boat and dismisses the crowd. And finally he is able to find some time alone. Before day break Jesus goes to the disciples, after their night of being wind battered on the lake. When they see him walking on the sea, thinking he was some kind of apparition, they were frightened. He reassures them that it is in fact him and he tells them to not be afraid. Peter doesn’t just jump out of the boat to walk toward Jesus – he asks that Jesus call him – and not just call but command him to come. And encouraged by Jesus to step out on the water, Peter gets out of the boat. According to Matthew, contrary to what we would think, Peter doesn’t immediately start to sink but actually starts walking on the water toward Jesus. Things were going great until he notices the strong winds. That’s when he became frightened and crying out to Jesus he begins to sink.
More than a few sermons have been preached on this text and the focus is on bold Peter’s ridiculous plea to join Jesus walking on the water. With Jesus’ encouragement he climbs on the gunwales of the boat, takes a few steps and then, in failing to keep his eyes on Jesus he begins to sink.
I think I understand Peter. While working as a pipe fitter’s helper in a refinery during my summer break from college I was presented with an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. Then it was common for companies to put deadly poisonous tetra ethyl lead in their gasoline. Fortunately, we don’t do that anymore. But one day at the refinery there was a leak in a lead line and the pipe fitter we vacation relief college kids were assigned to was called on the repair it. It required putting on white coveralls, white boots, white gloves and a white hard hat and be fitted with breathing apparatus. The truck from the safety department was there with gadgets to monitor everything you can imagine. He needed just one of the group of his helpers to go with him. I couldn’t help myself. I volunteered. It was exciting. It was an experience none of the others would ever get to have. I think I understand Peter just a bit.
I guess more than just understand him, at least in this incident he’s my hero. Even being scared like all the other disciples, he still sees this unmatched opportunity to experience something no one other than Jesus has known. And he does it. He actually walks on water.
But what happens to him happens to us all. He gets distracted by the storm raging around him. The truth of the matter is that the human body is buoyant. Peter’s a fisher man – he knows that. He’s a swimmer. He’s had to dive in to the water many times to free a net, to get a line that dropped over board or even to help a friend in trouble. Here, walking out on the sea he gets afraid. If reason had been functioning he wouldn’t have been afraid at all, he would have just sunk down into the water and begun to swim.
While at Yearly Meeting I had a conversation with a man who had two college age sons. He told me that the world of these kids today changes every six weeks. I had a hard time of really grasping what he was saying. You know about Facebook. Well it is passé for young people – it has been left to middle aged moms and grandmothers. The kids have long since gone on to other things. But as I had a chance to consider what this man was saying from his intimate relationship with the younger generation what came to me was that it wasn’t their world that changed every six weeks – it was what distracts them that changes so rapidly.
Bold and impetuous Peter fails. And sermons from untold numbers of pulpits will beat this idea like a drum: keep your eyes on Jesus; focus on the Lord; keep your eyes on Jesus; the worse things all the more you need to look steadfastly to the one who can save; keep your eyes on Jesus; don’t be led to doubt and fear by your circumstances no matter how dire; keep your eyes on Jesus, fasten your gaze on the master of the wind and waves; keep your eyes on Jesus. And maybe that’s not all bad, that good advice imploring us to a more trusting faith.
But you know that already. You don’t need me to tell you that. We all know better than we do. It’s my experience that no matter how hard I try, I still get distracted, even over whelmed by all the chaos around me. And while I know I should trust God, it isn’t easy and to have someone tell me what I should be doing, when I already know what that is, just seems to make things worse. And the point of that is, you don’t need my advice.
I’m going to make this assertion. The real story here isn’t to remind us again to look to Jesus – I think that there is really good news in looking at what Jesus does for Peter. Let’s go back to the text. So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him….” For Peter and for us that was really good news. Jesus didn’t abandon him to the storm which distracted him. He reached out his hand and caught him.
Isn’t that the real Gospel. Jesus isn’t just one on which we focus our attention amid the storms of our lives – as important as that may be. Matthew wants us to know that even when we fail, Christ is there to reach out and catch us and lift us to safety. So imagine for a minute that you are Peter. That boldly and maybe even foolishly you have climbed over the side of the boat and placed your feet atop the water that is foaming around you and for a moment things are great – you see Jesus and you are walking but then you catch sight of the storm around you, the waves that threaten to pull you under – and as you feel yourself sinking a loving hand catches you and lifts you up and saves you from destruction. I like the idea that Jesus didn’t wait – Matthew tells us that his salvation was immediate, even as Peter began to cry out “Lord, save me!”