[Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian. I’m just a Bible-reader.]
This spring with God has been a time of waiting—a waiting I do not entirely understand, but in this lovingly enforced cloister my time with Him has grown and expanded as the clock has become mostly meaningless. My Bible has become a chamber of secrets, mysteries unlocking in an amazing fashion.
But it is not without pain, this waiting. It is not without pain and some days, hope is hard to come by, in spite of intimacy and revelation.
I won’t bore you with the details, but there are the days I go back to God, angry and confused—the days I look up David’s Psalms, the ones that reflect my heart cry: “Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?” (… a mangling of Psalm 22.)
And still, He is there. In every storm of doubt, fear, temptation, He is there. When I begin to sink like Peter, Jesus grabs me.
Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone.
Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”
But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”
Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.”
“Yes, come,” Jesus said.
So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.
Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”
When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed. —Matthew 14:22–33, NLT
So often we see this passage as an indictment of Peter’s lack of faith: “Ohhh, he took his eyes off of Jesus.”
But to me, what’s interesting about this whole episode is that it never would’ve happened if Peter had been a rational man. I mean, look at what he says to Jesus: “If it’s really You, tell me to come.”
Now, I’m sorry, but this statement makes me think that Peter just wasn’t the sharpest fishhook in the tackle box. This was not a peaceful moment on a placid day (which is the only reasonable time to consider taking lessons in walking on water). This event happened at night, during some nasty weather: wind, high waves, no running lights, no Coast Guard, no life jacket. Peter was taking his life in his hands, getting out of the boat—there was no guarantee that his buddies would’ve been able to pull him back in. This would be a bit like saying, “Okay, Jesus, if that is you, I’m going to get in this barrel and have the guys here push me into the river, and if I go over Niagara Falls and smash on the rocks and die, we’ll all know it wasn’t you, right? Okay, here I come!”
So I’m reading this and I’m thinking, This is not rational. Yet Peter says, “Lord, if it’s You, tell me to come!”
Me, I’d’ve said something like, “Lord, if it’s You, ah…tell Thaddeus to come!”
And I have to wonder what the other disciples were thinking of all this. Or the angels. Was there some heavenly commentary going on, some spiritual equivalent of an Olympic competition’s play-by-play?
“Wow, this is a bold move on the part of Peter, Gabriel. I mean, we all know he is one brave and rash disciple, but this is extreme, even for him.”
“True enough, Michael. But you know, if anyone can pull it off, Peter can. Is his brashness going to be enough in this case?”
“Whoa! I think we have a problem here. Peter appears to be sinking. His faith is going down and so is he. This could be it for our brave disciple!”
“Wait—wait, Michael, here comes Jesus! And…yes…he’s got him. He’s got him and Peter has stopped sinking. It’s okay. Whew! That was a close one. But what will that lapse cost him? Okay…they’re getting back into the boat…and here come the scores.”
“Not bad, Gabriel…but uh-oh! A 9.4 from the Russian judge. That could cost Peter the gold, Gabe.”
And there’s no indication that this was some prearranged, good cop/bad cop scenario. Like, “Lord, the disciples’ faith is failing…why don’t you stay behind tonight and then come out walking on the water and I’ll jump overboard to join you. That should shore ‘em up, don’t you think?”
No, by all accounts this is just what it looks like: Jesus does something mind-blowing, and Peter puts everything on the line, believing it’s Him.
Have you ever watched somebody who’s rock climbing? Not hiking—but rock climbing, using the ropes and the shoes and the quickdraws and the whole rack. When a climber gets to the top of the route and must rappel back down, she puts the rope through her rappel device and hooks it into her harness and steps backward, down over the edge of the cliff. There is a moment in every rappel when you go from vertical to horizontal—one second, your body is fully supported by the rock under your feet, and then suddenly it is fully supported by the rope. This transition is never easy…precisely, I think, because it is so sudden. It involves a level of trust that I see paralleled in this story. When Peter shifted his weight from one foot to the other while getting out of the boat, there was a moment of commitment. There was no going back. If something didn’t hold him up, he was going down.
And I have to ask myself: why?
Why did Peter get out of the boat? He didn’t have to. This wasn’t some spiritual test that Jesus had set up for him. He could have just waited for Jesus to walk on over and get into the boat. But Peter walked straight into this challenge of his own volition.
The only answer I can find comes from what we see of Peter’s nature throughout the gospels.
Peter was a fisherman. He was no wimp. He didn’t back down from confrontations or fights–witness his argument with Jesus over Jesus’ impending death, and Peter’s angry attack on the high priest’s servant when the mob came to arrest Jesus. When Peter, James and John witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, Peter was the only one to say anything (not that he was terribly rational, but then we can hardly blame him).
I suspect that, when he saw Jesus walking on the water, Peter was just as frightened as the other disciples. But unlike the other disciples, he wasn’t one to cower in fear. Peter confronted fear—he had to know who was out there. So he called out a challenge.
And the moment Peter stepped out of the boat, he knew it was Christ. Peter obeyed. Peter braved. And Peter failed—right in the middle of the miracle, Peter failed! So Peter yelled. And God grabbed.
Christ didn’t tell Peter to have stronger faith—he knew Peter had “a little strength” and had used every ounce of his faith to take that first step over the gunwale. He didn’t tell Peter to read the latest religious books or to increase his daily prayer time or to sing more worship songs. He grabbed Peter—at his moment of greatest need—and held him up.
And only then did Christ lovingly chide: “Why did you doubt?” And my rational mind laughs, “Seriously? Because no one in the history of the world who ever tried to walk on water didn’t end up taking swimming lessons! Because this is not our natural environment, walking on water!”
But God takes us out of our default environment and he does it so cleverly—He first shows us that it can be done. And then Christ asks us to join Him in His adventure. He extends His hand to us and says, “Come.” He doesn’t ask us to look at the impossibility of what He’s asking; He doesn’t wait until the conditions are perfect; He doesn’t ask us to hold a vote with the rest of the disciples before we take that step; He doesn’t even ask for faultless faith! What He asks for is our willingness. And He does not say it will be easy, or that it will look rational.
He just asks us to get out of the boat.
So today I’m just going to give you something to ponder: Is Jesus inviting you to get out of the boat?