Many Christians find the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water difficult to believe. It’s difficult because it describes something which seems to defy the laws of nature. Everyone knows it’s not physically possible to walk on water without sinking! And yet, that’s what the Gospels tell us that Jesus, and even Peter for a moment, did.
Shortly after I became a candidate for the ministry, at the end of my second year in an Arts Degree programme at McMaster University, I was sent to my first summer mission field.
I’d always been interested in boats and the water, and when I learned that the United Church had marine mission fields, I applied for a placement on one of the Church’s boats. And although I’d had no previous boating experience and lived far from either the Atlantic or Pacific ocean, I was delighted to be chosen to serve on the Melvin Swartout, the largest of the Church’s mission boats; this one stationed on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The Swartout was a 70 foot yacht, which during WWII was used as a coastal petrol boat, but now was own by the United Church to serve the tiny outposts and villages along the west side of Vancouver Island.
I spent 4 wonderful months on the Swartout, and had many adventures both on the ocean, and while ministering to the people in those distant out-ports. One experience, however, brings us back to this morning’s text.
On a calm, sunny morning in August, (while Swartout was docked in the inner harbour at Tofino), Dick, the Swartout’s engineer, (a crusty seaman, who had learned his skills on the ocean off Newfoundland), asked me to bring my camera and accompany him in one of our ship’s lifeboats, out into the harbour.
We motored out into the center of the bay, some distance from shore to a narrow sand bar, which at low tide was barely covered by water. We beached on the sand bar, and Dick got out of the boat. He then instructed me to back off a little ways in the dory, and then take a picture of him, as he walked along the sand bar. What resulted, of course, was a picture of Dick appearing as though he was walking on water!
The picture I took was deceptive because; it involved an illusion . But I strongly doubt that deception was involved on that day long ago when the disciples were caught in a violent storm out on the Sea of Galilee. For them the sight they witnessed was very real but also mystifying. Jesus was walking on the surface of the water!
Today, because we are so geared to thinking scientifically, this story leaves us with some awkward questions:-
Did Jesus really have control over the forces of nature?
Could he actually defy the laws of gravity and walk on the surface of the water?
Or was this story meant to be a parable, illustrating one of the great truths of faith? Personally, I have no problem believing that Jesus had the power to do anything he wanted.
That this event was important to the early Christian Church is obvious. We know this because it’s recorded, not just in Matthew’s Gospel, but in Mark’s and John’s as well. So we can’t simply gloss over the story, even if it does contain things we find hard to understand.
So let’s take some time this morning to examine the event and see what we can learn from it.
Let’s begin by picturing the scene.
There they were, (those 12 disciples) in a small fishing boat, out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Now the word ‘sea’, used to describe this body of water, is a bit confusing for modern readers, because, if you’ve never been to Israel, what you might picture a much larger body of water than it really is. Although it’s called a sea in the bible, it’s actually just a small lake, (small that is by Canadian standards). Standing on the shore, you can easily see clear across to the other side; and it you are on a hill looking down at it, you can see both ends. So how then could such a small body of water present a threat to the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen?
The answer is to be found in the geography of the area. The Sea of Galilee is almost completely surrounded by mountains and high hills. From time to time, strong winds blow down from those hills churning up the water on the Sea. And so, for anyone in a small boat, this possess a serious threat, because, it happens so quickly and the water becomes so choppy.
So there they were, the 12 disciples all together in this small boat, without Jesus. He’d stayed behind in order to find a quite place on a mountain for prayer. Now it was midnight, when suddenly a storm blew down from the hills. The waves grew high and higher, eventually threatening to swamp the boat. The men feared for their lives. But the worst part was that Jesus wasn’t with them! And as far as the disciples knew, He was totally unaware of their plight.
Although I’m confident that this story describes an actual event; let’s set aside for the moment any question about whether this was real event or not. And instead, let’s focus on the lessons we can learn from this experience.
The situation in which the disciples found themselves is one we can all identify with, if we concentrate upon the emotional aspects of the story. Most of us have experienced times when we feel tossed about by the storms of life; and out of touch with God.
So If we approach this story as if it were a parable, we can learn a lot from it. After all, who hasn’t experienced moments in life when we feel totally stressed out and terribly anxious - about the future, and the direction our lives are taking. These are times when we feel that the storms of life are overwhelming us; and the world around us seems totally black and threatening. In times like this, we’re apt to feel as though there is no divine guidance; and we may be tempted to moan, ‘If only Christ were here with me, things would be better!’
As I was preparing this message, the news was full of stories about the latest suicide bombing that had taken the lives of many, leaving a host of families grieving, and filling many others with fear and worry.
In the face of such senseless wickedness, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the darkness and evil of this world; and to be filled with feelings of hopeless and dread. ‘If only Christ were with us!’.
That’s how the disciples were feeling as the waves grew higher, threatening their lives. They felt abandoned! All alone in the midst of peril!
Surely the message of this story is this: Christ is always nearer to us than we may think!
Alone on the hill side praying, Jesus became aware of His disciple’s peril. And, as the Gospel writers record: “He came to them, walking on the sea.”
This experience of Christ coming to believers in times of crisis, is one that has been duplicated time and time again. It’s one of the great truths of our faith, that in times of our greatest need, if we call out to Him, Christ’s spirit comes to us. When the whole world seems in turmoil; when troubles rage; that’s when the Lord’s presence is most clearly demonstrated. All we need to do is open our eyes of faith and we will see Him.
I’m sure there are those here today who can vouch for this because they’ve experienced the presence of Christ, when their lives were in turmoil.
The problem for many, however, is the failure to recognize our Lord when He does appear. That was the disciples first reaction.. They cried out in terror saying: “It’s a ghost!.” They never expected Jesus to come to them in this way, so when He did, they thought it was a mirage; it couldn’t be Jesus because no one can walk on water!
But why should they have recognized Him, you might say? The night was dark; the ship was tossing; their hearts were gripped in fear. How could they have known that amidst such chaos, Jesus could come to them?
Common sense would say it was impossible.
But there was a much deeper reason why the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus. It was their lack of faith. ‘No living person can walk on water! It’s demonic! And the unspoken thought was ‘Not even Jesus could do it’.
I wonder how often we respond like that? - When the Gospel speaks of a living Lord who comes to us and is present with us, are we tempted to disbelieve? Is that how we respond, when we read the words of Jesus saying: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matt. 28:20) Do we doubt?
That night on the Sea of Galilee, as Jesus heard the cries of His disciples, He reassured them saying:- “Take heart, it is I; have no fear!”
It’s not imagination or wishful thinking that reveals the presence of God with us in times of trouble. Nor is it hallucination. It’s Christ Himself who comes to us in the midst of our need! All we have to do is open our eyes and recognize Him.
So you see, the reason this story of Jesus walking on the water is recorded in three Gospels is because it is a story about faith. So let’s see what it teaches us about faith!
I IMPULSIVE FAITH
The first clue is provided by Peter.
With the reckless impulsiveness of his character, Peter immediately puts his faith to the test. “Lord, if it’s really you,” he said, “bid me come to you on the water.” It was so characteristic of Peter. He was impulsive; often reckless. But at least he was willing to test his faith. Mind you, Peter was the only one of the 12 willing to risk it. None of the other disciples were willing to follow. They were far too practical for that. They probably thought Peter was out of his mind, venturing out into that wild sea.
I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to follow Peter’s example; what about you?
But let’s look again at the man climbing out of the boat and walking to Jesus. Peter may have been impulsive and reckless. And surely there’s a place for impulsiveness in our response to Christ? That’s what Mary demonstrated when she shattered her lovely alabaster jar at Jesus’ feet in order to anoint him; impulsiveness. Or what about those four men who tore open the roof of a house where Jesus was preaching in order to lower their paralytic friend down in front of Him. They were certainly impulsive.
Albert Schweitzer was impulsive when he abandoned his prospects for a lucrative medical career in England, in order to bury himself in Central Africa.
And so also were Detrick Bonhõffer, (the Germany Lutheran pastor who was with the German resistance movement seeking to bring down Hitler; a venture that cost him his life), and
Martin Luther King (who had the courage to take a stand for Christ), and
thousands of other Christians who have thrown caution to the wind to follow Jesus.
So there was Peter, with the storm blowing in his face, and the waves lashing against the little boat, saying: “Lord, bid me come to you.” This is the kind of person Christ wants in His company; people who are not afraid to step out in faith, even when it seems irrational. And surely that’s what the Christian Church needs today. Christians who will impulsively respond to the urging of their faith.
II INSIGHTFUL FAITH
But there was something more than blind impulsiveness in Peter’s response to Jesus. There was also an insightful faith at work here. Peter looked out at the figure of Jesus walking on the water, and the daring thought occurred to him. “If Jesus can do this, why not me? Is there any reason why I shouldn’t attempt to do what He is doing?”
This insight was born not out of irreverence, but from a strong belief and trust in Jesus. Peter was willing to follow Jesus’ example. But that isn’t how most of us react. We look at Jesus walking on the water, mastering the troubles of life, and resisting temptations and we say: ‘That’s okay for Him, after all, He’s the Son of God, but don’t expect that kind of performance from me!’
We have a tendency to see Jesus as unlike us; as someone who is superior to the rest of humanity. And we use this as an excuse for not following Christ’s example. We thwart God’s plan for our lives, by concluding we’re inferior, and thus, incapable of following Him. But it isn’t true.
Look at how Jesus responded to Peter. He didn’t say, ‘Don’t be silly Peter, you can’t do what I am doing.’ No, He didn’t discourage Peter. Instead, He said: “Come! Take heart! It is I; don’t be afraid.” These aren’t the words of someone who thinks it’s impossible. Jesus knew, that if Peter trusted in Him, he too could walk on the water.
And that’s exactly why Christ calls many Christians into extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances even today. Christ knows, those who have a strong faith, can accomplish virtually anything. It’s strong faith that sends missionaries into dreadful, dangerous situations, risking their lives, for the sake of the Gospel.
But this same principle applies to us as well. It applies to our daily lives, as we seek to do God’s will. Christ sets a high standard for lives, a standard which many may assume is impossible. But Christ knows that if we keep our eyes of Him, we will succeed.
The history of Christianity is one of fulfilling the impossible; lifting of standards beyond what’s generally considered possible. Christ challenges us to break away from the dull mediocrity of conventional religion. He calls us to walk where He walks; to love as He loves; to sacrifice ourselves for others, as He sacrificed Himself.
Peter had the insight to realize that Jesus wouldn’t expect him to do what wasn’t possible through faith. That’s why he called out to Jesus: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water.” And Jesus responded with “Come!” And so Peter began to walk on the water.
III FOCUSED FAITH
But then something happened. Peter became distracted by the storm; and fear overcame him; and he began to sink.
This failure; this sinking into the water, reveals another of the secrets of faith. You see, as long as Peter kept his eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, he had no problem walking on the water. But the second he allowed the noise and confusion of the world around him to distract him, he began to sink. Faith, if it is to be effective, has to be focus upon Christ.
This is an extremely important lesson for us all. It means we have to consciously take steps to focus our faith. We have to repeatedly reset our spiritual compass, through daily meditation and prayer. We have to come to know Jesus, personally, through reading His words; associating with His people; and doing His work. You can’t expect to accomplish the impossible in your life, if you’re not willing to focus upon Christ.
Consider how Olympic athletes train. In preparation for a big race, runners don’t simply run. It’s not just the repetition of their basic skills that achieves perfection. They have to focus their minds upon winning. They have to see themselves, running the perfect race; crossing the finish line in first place. And they rehearse this - mentally, over and over again until running the perfect race becomes the norm for them. That’s how athletes become champions.
When failure crept into Peter’s mind, it’s worth noting how Scripture recorded the fact. It says: “When Peter saw the strength of the gale, he was seized by fear; and beginning to sink, he cried out.”
‘Beginning to sink’, those are the key words. It hadn’t actually happened. He hadn’t sunk into the water. He was only beginning to sink! The other disciples probably hadn’t noticed his plight, but Peter did. And he did the right thing, he called to Jesus for help. You see, instead of panicking, when we begin to get into trouble; we need to reach out to Christ. Because, it’s at that critical moment, that the difference between success or failure is determined.
The second he found himself in trouble, Peter called out for help. It would have been just as easy to blame Jesus. He could have said: ‘Why did You get me into this trouble, You knew I couldn’t do it!’ But no, he continued to believe in Jesus. And as soon as Jesus’ out-stretched hand touched Peter, he was once again lifted up.
“Why did you hesitate, Peter?” asks Jesus. “How little faith you have,” He scolded. But His words were not intended to belittle Peter; but simply to teach him the importance of keeping his eyes on his Master. “Did you think Peter, that I would ask you to come out of the safety of the boat, into the tempests, without reinforcing you with God’s power?”
Christ doesn’t call us to do the impossible without providing the power to achieve. That’s the function of the Holy Spirit; to guide, to strengthen, and to ensure our success in God’s work. But in order to take advantage of this power, our faith must be centered on Christ.
This episode ends almost anti-climatically.
Peter and Jesus climb into the boat. The wind drops, and the disciples fall down at the feet of Jesus, exclaiming: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” But in a sense, the other disciples miss the point! This story isn’t really about Jesus’ power over the forces of nature; it’s about the faith of a believer. Yes, Jesus demonstrated power. Yes, the forces of nature were quelled. But that’s not the central point. It’s the struggle of Peter’s faith, that’s the real message.
We learn more by looking at how Peter responded, than by anything else in this story. We learn that Peter’s faith was: ‘impulsive’ and ‘spontaneous’; but it wasn’t blind impulsiveness, Peter trusted that Jesus wouldn’t ask him to do what wasn’t possible through faith.
A momentary distraction almost defeated him, but in the end, Peter’s faith remained strong. Impulsive, insightful, focused; that’s a model for any Christian who wishes to take up Jesus’ challenge, and follow Him.
Now there’s only one question left to complete the story; are we willing to step out, to risk all, in response to Christ’s call? The answer, of course, is for you alone to make.