Summertime in Canada is special. Special in a way you can understand only if you’ve grown up here, I think. For one thing, the water isn’t frozen. Depending on where you live, you may have a lake nearby—or at least a river to float on. Or, if you live on one of the coasts, the great ocean is at your doorstep.
You can have a lot of fun on, in, or under the water. Maybe you like to swim. Maybe you enjoy water-skiing. Perhaps you even have the courage and coordination to catch a mighty wave and surf it. You may dive from a cliff and plunge into the water far below. You might even go scuba-diving, and explore the world beneath the waves. Or maybe, like me, you feel safest in a boat.
Of course, sometimes—even in a boat—you don’t feel all that safe.
In chapter 14 of his gospel (vv. 22-33), Matthew tells a story about a boat. It begins with Jesus sending his disciples off in one. They’ve already had a most eventful day. First, they received the shocking news of John the Baptist’s death in Herod’s prison. Then they found themselves surrounded by a huge crowd, inundated with urgent pleas and requests for healing. Finally, at the evening meal, they watched in amazement as Jesus stretched five loaves and two fish to feed an immense multitude: “5,000 men” plus women and children (so, perhaps as many as 15,000 people).
Yes, they’d been busy. Yet Jesus had come there looking for solitude in which to collect his thoughts and mourn for his cousin John. And now he intends to do exactly that. So he sends his disciples across the lake, telling them to go on ahead to the other side.
“You go on ahead. I’ll catch up with you later.”
They did what he said, but there must have been questions running through their minds. Exactly how and when was Jesus going to catch up with them? It’s not like he could send them a text message, after all. Plus, it was getting late—and they were the ones in the boat!
Yes. They are the ones in the boat. Crowded together in a small craft, in the dark on the lake, in the middle of a storm, they are desperately struggling to stay afloat. Then, as they are being tossed about by the waves, in the early hours of the morning, the disciples see Jesus … walking on the water towards them.
Now, like I said before, human beings can do some extraordinary things on the water. But you can’t walk on water, can you? Your body weight and the law of gravity make that a physical impossibility. We know this.
The disciples surely knew this, as well. No wonder they thought they were seeing a ghost. People can’t walk on water! Except … here comes Jesus, catching up with them, just like he said.
In scripture, God is the One who commands the sea and calms the storm. God is the One who walks on water. Psalm 77 recalls the awesome power of God as he led the Israelites through the parted sea: “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled … Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen” (PS. 77:16, 19).
“Take heart, it is I,” Jesus says. “Do not be afraid.”
On this storm-tossed night on the Sea of Galilee—amidst the chaos of the deep, turbulent waters—the very power of God is revealed in Jesus. Suddenly, the disciples find themselves in the divine presence, experiencing all of its awe and wonder.
But the story doesn’t end there. Peter asks if he can walk on water, too—and Jesus encourages him to try!
So Peter steps out onto the waves. He actually makes some progress—but then Peter loses his nerve. As he plunges down into the water, he cries out, “Lord, save me!”
Then Jesus stretches out his hand and rescues him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
In one of the NOOMA videos that came out a few years ago,* Rob Bell talks about this story—and he asks the question: “Who does Peter doubt?”
Who is it that Peter doubts? Does he doubt Jesus?
No. Peter doubts himself. He’d been in that boat with the others, watching the Lord approach. There was no question about Jesus’ ability to walk on water.
Well, a good disciple wants to do what he sees his rabbi doing. So Peter gives it a try. And he makes quite a few bold strides before he looks around and thinks: “Holy swordfish! What am I doing here?”
This is impossible. I can’t walk on water!
When he begins to doubt, he begins to sink. As Rob Bell has pointed out, it not Jesus, but himself, that Peter doubts.
Here’s another question. What if—in this story—the choppy sea is an allegory for sin?
Yeah. Sin. We post-modern people—we don’t much like that old-fashioned word, “sin.” And yet it’s merely a descriptor for the mess we’re in. We don’t want to use that word—or hear that word, “sin”—even while North Korea aims nuclear missiles at Guam, and hatred devastates lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Even as teen suicide rates climb in our own country, and infants starve in another.
At its deepest level, though, sin is not merely “stuff we do wrong.” Sin is what confronts, condemns, and judges us. Sin makes us condemn and judge ourselves. Sin causes us to doubt ourselves. It tells us we are weak, inadequate, stupid, helpless, and evil. It’s the reason why we throw up our hands in despair because we think we can’t do anything.
Doubt—especially self-doubt—obscures from our eyes the image of God in ourselves. Self-doubt keeps us from believing that we are able to do God’s will—or even capable of making a difference. It keeps us from trusting that God’s power resides in us. Doubt makes us think we cannot walk on water.
Doubt causes us to replace the Spirit’s freedom with a rigid structure of religious and moral laws. The apostle Paul tells us that “one believes with the heart and so is justified” (ROM. 10:10), but we cling to legalisms and precedents, unwilling to act without detailed instructions and firm assurances. Convinced of our own depravity, we depend upon rules and regulations to guide us, and to guarantee our correctness (which we mistake for righteousness).
And so we pass by the wounded stranger in the ditch because we must not defile ourselves with his blood. We permit a neighbour to suffer rather than violate the Sabbath. Thus we fail—as Samaritans and as saviours.
The rules say human beings cannot walk on water. Jesus, however, tells us different. And we want to believe him—this One who has strolled out to meet us on the lake. So we step out of the boat. We start off well, but the wind and the waves draw our attention away from our Lord. That’s when we remember the rules … and the rules try to drown us!
They don’t even have to be religious rules. They can be rules of our own creation—or made by society, science, culture, or the world of business. They may be rules inscribed upon our psyche by life experience. But they are not always grounded in truth. Rules like:
“You can’t trust anybody.”
“Nice guys finish last.”
“Cancer always wins.”
“Addiction always wins.” (I need a drink, a smoke, a needle, in order to deal with life.)
“People never change.”
“I always get the short end of the stick.”
“Nobody could ever really love me.”
None of that stuff is true. It just feels like it is, sometimes. The truth is: we are the Body of Christ. When we forget that truth, we begin to sink.
When, in Matthew’s gospel, we read about Peter stepping out of that boat and starting to walk upon the waves, it’s not just another example of him being impulsive. No. By including this story, Matthew is making a statement. He’s telling us that the divine power revealed in the Nazarene is not confined to God. God wants to share that power with those who follow Jesus.
The witness of Scripture—and, hopefully, our personal experience, also—tells us this: the power of God can sort out the chaos of our lives. Our stormy ups and downs—the demons of disappointment, setback, injustice and evil—all of these can be overcome.
We may feel weak, broken and vulnerable. The dangers we face may be quite real. But the divine power revealed in Jesus is always available for us to draw upon. By tapping into that power, we can do more than we ever thought possible. And if we flounder, help is swiftly available … beyond doubt, that is the promise of God.
* NOOMA 008 (“Dust”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM3qHBAekhg&t=6s