Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:25-32)
Peter walked on water. If it had been me in Peter’s sandals–a fisherman on a wave-tossed sea, trying to bend my mind around the idea that my master teacher is somehow standing on the water and this really is not an apparition–I think I would have stayed in the boat with the other fellas. I’ve heard several sermons on this passage in the bible, all pointing out that Peter’s faith was pretty amazing, even if he began to sink. After all, there are few other accounts throughout history of anyone walking on water. A cursory Google search reveals a young dude named Maurus who was a monk under St. Benedict, and a Photoshopped image of Drew Brees strolling on a New Orleans river. Well, he is a Saint.
Since others have already said quite a bit about it, I’d like to approach this passage from a little different angle, focusing on Peter’s lack of faith. Why I am picking on the poor guy and focusing on his failure will be beneficial, so bear with me. Even Jesus did not praise Peter here, but asked, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
As a matter of fact, the phrase “you of little faith” was one of Jesus’s favorite ways to address his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. There are five passages in Matthew that use this exact phrase or very close to it, and one in the Gospel of Luke. In each case, the disciples were worried about their lives in some way. In Matthew 8:26 in particular, Jesus added, “why are you so afraid?”
Current world political tensions coupled with our own election drama at home is creating an uneasy feeling about an uncertain future. There is a palpable sense of fear on both fronts. To make matters worse, some media outlets report either absolute falsehood or focus on the absolute worst of the opposing candidate. Still, after you sift fact from fiction, scary things are being said. But Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31).
Am I saying we shouldn’t feel apprehension? No. That would be inhuman. God knows we get afraid. The phrase “do not be afraid” appears 81 times throughout the bible. It’s not a command. It’s a reassurance! The key is to not let fear overwhelm us to inaction and to not act out of fear. In our passage, Peter became afraid. Why? He was looking at the wind heaving the waves about. He probably thought, “Oh, man, what if I’ve been tricked by a ghost and I’m standing in the middle of the sea? This was a really BAD idea.” The moment he took his eyes off Jesus, Peter began to sink. At this point, Peter is completely helpless. So he cries out, “Lord, save me!”
This reminds me of my own spiritual helplessness when it comes to saving myself. I will never be good enough to go to heaven in my own strength or merit. I have done and said stupid things all my life, even after I became a Christian, because like any child of God I need to learn and grow spiritually. I will continue to make mistakes, too (hopefully not on purpose). That’s why Jesus stressed the importance of forgiveness, both giving and asking for it. It’s called grace. God’s grace is his gift to us received in faith. All we need is a modicum of faith. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
Well, that’s just ludicrous, you say. Not even Jesus rearranged Israel’s landscape. You’re right. Jesus used hyperbole here to make a point. If faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move something as big as Mount Everest, how little we truly need for life’s problems. It’s not the size of my faith that moves the mountain, but the immeasurable goodness of God. To the extent that I trust he will act in my best interest and everyone’s best interest, even if the situation is bad or looks bleak, I will have peace. I need to trust him that he is somehow, beyond my current understanding, working good for me or someone else. That’s part of spiritual dependence on God, of keeping our eyes on Jesus.
I think about Aleppo. I don’t claim to understand why innocent infants and children are dying by the hundreds, or are left traumatized, or are orphaned. I don’t claim to know why the horror of Hitler happened. I don’t claim to know the whys of many things. But I can recognize faith when I see it. I read a recent article about how the missionaries in the city of Aleppo are going out and evangelizing even amid the bombs and bullets. Not only do they face this danger, but the missionaries who stay to help with humanitarian aid and to share the gospel also risk torture, rape, and execution at the hands of the jihadists. Talk about faith under fire. Talk about things looking bleak. Talk about focus on Jesus.
Notice when Peter cried out to be saved that Jesus’ response was immediate. Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. They climbed back in the boat, the wind died down, and all the disciples worshiped Jesus: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” It’s faith in Jesus that allays fear, gives us assurance that there’s more than this life only, and moves the proverbial mountain.
If you disagree, consider this. Peter was a man of little faith in this instance, and also when Jesus was arrested. He said he would follow Jesus to death if he had to, but when his faith was tested, he denied knowing Jesus three times, one time even vehemently calling down curses. This same man became the leader of the church, a “pillar” in the faith. The other disciples had abandoned Jesus at his arrest, but all of them were later martyred for their faith with the exception of the Apostle John. Since that time, their work for the gospel has spread down through the ages and around the world to untold billions of people.
So, why did they all fail the first time? Well, a few things occurred to me. If they hadn’t, the early church would have been without first-hand accounts of Jesus, two gospels, end times prophecy, authoritative teaching, and all the myriads of influences the apostles had on individual lives. God, who always works good, had a better plan. That is why, no matter what happens on the world stage, in this election, or in my own life, I will trust God to answer my prayers only if they align with his perfect will. After all, just before his crucifixion, even Jesus prayed “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (John 14:36). We can be thankful, for the sake of all believers, that this is the one prayer his Father did not answer according to the desired request.