Walk on Water or Stay in the Boat?
Deacon Ken Powell, Grace Memorial, August 13, 2017
Some years ago, while my wife Karen and I were in Rome we spent a lot of time visiting the magnificent churches that seemed to be just around every corner. On one occasion, we happened to enter as a worship service was beginning so we took a seat and tried to participate as best we could. The liturgy was familiar enough to us to have a general idea about what was happening but the language was a barrier- Latin in some places I think and Italian in others. So, I suppose it was natural to begin looking about at the enormous and exquisite paintings that adorned the walls of the church and it occurred to me that perhaps that was their very purpose- when the language is foreign or incomprehensible try experiencing the biblical story in another way.
As it happened, the image that I still recall is that of Peter leaping out of the boat one or two steps from Jesus. His feet just beginning to slip beneath the waters, his hands reaching out to grasp Jesus’ hand, his ardent desire to be with Jesus evident as he launched his whole body and being forward…and a look of panic and fear on his face as he realizes the risk he has taken.
Sometimes today’s gospel lesson has been interpreted as if to say- “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” The thinking is that Peter had the right idea when he stepped out in faith to be with Jesus amid the turbulent waters of life and that if we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus on him we will not sink despite the battering we might take from the wind and waves.
No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt he wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt he wants us to have the gift of faith but I am not so sure we have to walk on water to do so especially if it means leaving behind the only friends and support we have.
So, I wonder when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt” the meaning isn’t simply “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith”’ but also asks him, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”
From the earliest days of the Christian community the boat has been a symbol of the church and the seas a symbol of chaos- and it is upon those waters and in the safety of that vessel that Jesus sent his disciples “to the other side”- yet another deeply meaningful symbol of our hope in the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. But when a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to arrive at the other side before he came to their aid. Like the holy ghost he moved over the face of the waters to come to them in their distress saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”.
Most of this scene I saw beautifully depicted in the painting in Rome but something was missing I realize now, something a painting can’t say, a small word that weighed so heavily on Peter body and soul that it nearly sank him. A whole universe of possibilities seems to cram itself into Peter’s single, simple word – “if”. “Lord, if it is you…” is an open question for Peter as it is for many of us much of the time. Like Peter in this instance or later like Mary at the tomb we would love to cling to Jesus when we have doubts. It drove Peter to a reckless act of desperate faith that Jesus permitted but thankfully doesn’t require.
There are only a few times in the gospel when anyone addresses Jesus with an “if” statement but they are core statements upon which our understanding of Jesus turns. Three times Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with” if you are the Son of God” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. And during the crucifixion “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
The curious thing is that the statements are meant to elicit proof of an identity that can’t be revealed when we are seeking answers to questions we aren’t ready and willing to receive. It reminds me of Rilke’s advice to a young poet “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were…written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them…and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”.
It is almost a proverbial term in our culture these days to say of someone who has done the seemingly impossible that they can “walk on water”. Someone who has been brought in to save a floundering business, for instance, or maybe the superstar athlete who appears to defy gravity and the laws of motion but it is a rare moment when people are thinking of Peter or Jesus when the phrase is used. For them it is just a trivial “figure of speech” cut off from its biblical foundation. But for us it is a story that shows us something essential to the way of life that Jesus sees for us.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to walk on water…he expects us to stay in the boat! To stay with our companions in the faith, to keep rowing, to trust that he is with us and will even get into the boat himself to save us from our fear and lack of faith. When the wind ceases and we approach the far shore, we will also know Jesus as the Son of God if we ride out the storm together. In the meantime, take heart and do not be afraid but leave the walking on water to him!