Matthew 14: 22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[d] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[e] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
The story in our gospel reading about Jesus walking across the waters of Lake Galilee comes in two parts, firstly about Jesus himself and then Matthew includes an extra episode about Peter and his attempt to join Jesus on the sea.
Both episodes are rich in symbolism. In the Hebrew scriptures the waters speak of chaos, darkness and death - and the evil spiritual forces which inhabit them. We find this in the story of Noah and again in the exodus from Egypt. The writer of Psalm 19 expresses these ideas vividly:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
And then later:
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help 14 rescue me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
Some have suggested that early Christians would have seen evil spirits in those sudden squalls which assailed Jesus and the disciples on the lake. Even Satan himself, who, after departing from Jesus in the desert, had promised to return at an opportune time.
Against these dark forces, Jesus is portrayed as God in human form, ruling over the elements. This is clearest when he calls out: “It is I” – understood as the great “I am” of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.
So the story gives us a powerful picture of the divine Jesus, master of all creation, the heavens and the earth, a shining figure coming to us in our troubled little boat, to save us. The disciples speak for us when they say, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
In Matthew’s telling, the story then moves to Peter. He responds to the sight of Jesus on the lake with a burst of enthusiasm, a desire to be like him: he jumps out of the boat to join him. But then as he realises what he is doing, he is suddenly afraid, he begins to sink, before Jesus reaches out and rescues him.
Just as with the story of the Prodigal Son, have we not imagined ourselves, like Peter, suddenly finding we have over-reached, calling out to God to save us?
As well as the personal story, Peter here is also symbolic. He represents the twelve, so the tribes of Israel, translated later as the Christian community, the church. Jesus calls him, “you of little faith”, a phase which he uses again and again in the gospels about his followers. Not great faith, not none, but little.
Here I reflect on the fragility of our faith, the faith of the church. Peter is later described by Jesus, this time by the lakeside, as “the rock on which I will build my church.” It seems to me, as others have said, that “rock” here is a play on words and a joke – for who could be less rock-like, more unreliable, more fragile than Peter?
Here, in this story, is I feel a true picture of Peter – hopeful yet floundering in the waves, reaching out to Jesus. This is for me the experience of the presence of God, which seems so fragile and yet which opens the way to eternal life. This is the foundation on which the church is built.
Like the story we heard of Elijah: No earthquake, wind or fire, but the still small voice.
It seems to me that there are times when we forget this, surrounded by great buildings, traditions, clothes, doctrines, an outward confidence in the aesthetics of words and music: that the beating heart at the centre of all of this is something so fragile, a spark, a rumour, and that if ever we were ever to lose it, or if God were to abandon us, all that would be left, would be vain, empty form.
And so we are invited to follow in the hopeful footsteps of Peter, each of us, this church, the church as a whole. Let us each day step out bravely, from the provisional safety of our little boats, into that unknown, reaching out to Christ for our salvation.