When I was a teenager in youth group, I loved to hang out with the adult counsellors. I hung around them so much… that they’d occasionally tell me they were having a private “staff meeting,” no youth allowed. You’ve already guessed what took me years to realize: there were no “staff meetings,” just adults who needed a break from a clingy teenager.
Maybe the story of Jesus walking on water begins in the same spirit. Jesus sends the disciples on ahead after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. It had likely been an exhausting teaching moment for Jesus, who had to coax his disciples into participation. So he makes them leave: “Hey, guys – you get started crossing the sea. I’ll be right behind you, I promise.”
And Jesus goes and sits on a mountain and prays, blissfully alone with his Father God while the disciples travel ahead by boat.
Waves come. Big waves.
The way Matthew tells it, it’s as though we can see it all in an aerial view: Jesus on his big mountain over here, the disciples in their little boat over there. It feels like Jesus can see it all, too. He intuits that they’re struggling and his “me time” has come to an end.
So Jesus leaves sweet, sweet isolation and goes to catch up with the twelve.
He goes directly to catch up to the twelve.
The disciples are surprised and confused when they see him – and with good reason. Not only are they expecting to reunite with Jesus on the other side… they are most certainly not expecting him to catch up with them in the middle of the sea without a boat.
You’ve had a taste of what they felt. Think of being in a room thinking you’re completely alone, absorbed in some task like folding bulletins (that was my most recent time). Then you turn around and – AAAHHH! – someone is there where you thought no one was. That must have been the terror that the disciples felt at seeing Jesus – that, except like times ten.
Jesus understands their fear. “It’s me,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.”
Peter – always the first to speak up – answers back. “If it’s you, let me come to you on the water.” This isn’t a test he makes out of doubt; it’s a request he makes out of faith. Peter is willing to put his life in Jesus’ hands.
“Alright, Peter – come to me,” Jesus says.
So Peter gets out of the boat. He puts a foot down on the swirling chaos of the churning waves. He pulls his other leg out of the boat and onto the water. He walks to Jesus.
He’s doing it. Peter is walking on water!
Dark, deep water.
Dark, deep water that is being violently pushed around by severe wind.
The wind whips his hair in his face. His heart begins to race. Peter begins to panic. Then he makes another statement that shows he’s put his whole life in Jesus’ hands:
“LORD, SAVE ME!”
Jesus acts “immediately,” Matthew says. No toying around, no letting Peter try to catch his footing again. This water is chaos, this sea is deep and dangerous. Like a parent who springs out of his seat before his child even hits the ground, Jesus reaches out his hand “immediately” and catches Peter.
“Oh man of little faith,” Jesus says to Peter.
But Peter had so much faith. He alone stepped out of the boat. He alone walked on water. He alone knew Jesus would take care of him, whatever happened. Peter had great faith.
Fear, though, has a way of draining our faith. Fear can work like a garbage disposal on a sink full of water: flip the switch, and instantly it all goes rushing out. Fear does this to Peter, and it does it to us.
Haven’t you felt that? When the airplane descends without warning… or your beloved gets a cancer scare… or one slip-up puts your job on the line… and a wave of terror overrides all the faith you have.
Fear has had that effect on us. We have felt what Peter felt.
Thankfully, when it does, Jesus also responds to us with speedy grace. Yes, perhaps he will still say those same words to us: “Oh man, oh woman of little faith.” But maybe he delivers them with compassion; maybe he says them as he holds us and rocks us.
“Oh man, oh woman of little faith. Don’t be afraid. It’s me. I’m here.”
When terror threatens to drop us into the chaos of our own fears, through Christ, we aren’t doomed to sink to the bottom of the sea. Through Christ, we are saved again – not by the power of our own mustard-seed-size faith, but by the power of Jesus’ galaxy-size grace.
There is a way, though, to lessen the chances of fear breaking our faith.
We can stay in the boat.
By that I don’t mean that we avoid scary situations. That’s not possible. Life has a way of thrusting scary situations upon us. What I mean is, this:
In early Christianity, a boat was often a symbol for the church. As Eugene Boring has pointed out, Jesus sending the disciples ahead of him on their own in a boat has a connection with the way the church will be sent on without Christ after Jesus’ death. When Peter steps out of this boat, he is stepping out of Christian community. He is stepping out on his own.
God has designed us, from the beginning, to need each other. Hanging out with God wasn’t enough for Adam; there needed to be an Eve. When we come together as followers of Christ, we can combat fear with love. When we come together as followers of Christ, we remind each other: “if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Romans 8:31-32).
Haven’t you felt that? Maybe you haven’t – so let me tell you that I have. When one of my beloveds got terminal news, my church family surrounded me with encouragement and love. When I slipped up at work, my church family loved me anyway. When I have felt life drop out from underneath me, I have been grateful to be in this boat with other followers of Christ. Together, we don’t avoid the storms… but together, we stay afloat.
Like when I was in that youth group. When I looked around at school and knew I wasn’t pretty enough or thin enough or cool enough. I wasn’t valedictorian or class president. I didn’t get into the cool club or make the tennis team. Fear of rejection loomed on all sides. It threatened me with self-rejection. It tempted me to judge and hate those more popular.
But I was in a boat – a group of teenagers and patient adults from my church. That boat was solid. When fear threatened, I knew where I belonged and to whom I belonged.
A place where you belong, too.
And thank God, because we need it.
Fear is dangerous. It causes us to cast aside our faith in ways we think we never would. Just look at what’s happened this week in Virginia… Fear of the other has caused a most un-faith-filled response of hate. Fear of violence has caused a most un-faith-filled response of more violence.
May Christ reach out to us and save us again.
May Christ heal our fear with the comfort of his presence.
May we all find our place in the boat of genuine Christian community, a place where love casts out fear.