Matthew 14. 22-33 – Jesus and Peter walk on the water
Those of you who have enjoyed the Corona Chronicle will be aware that a small crisis took place at the Rectory during the darkest days of the Lockdown. The Rector’s wife suddenly started digging a great big hole on the Rectory lawn. This, I have to tell you, was no mean feat. After getting through 8 inches of top soil, Clare was confronted by a solid concrete slab, and a buried gate post, made of reinforced concrete. But she was determined – and for many days she hacked and bashed and gradually made progress into the hole.
I watched all this activity with some bemusement. I had just had an operation on my ticker, so I was forbidden from doing any heavy work. So I watched the hole gradually enlarging from a distance through the lounge window.
What really worried me was the size. It was about six feet long…and the way she was going, it was going to be six feet deep as well. Could it be that Clare had finally had enough of living under lockdown with me? Was this hole meant for a dark and sinister purpose?
When she had finally reached her required depth, Clare set about filling the hole with water. Perhaps, I thought, she doesn’t intend to bury me there. Perhaps she simply intends to drown me? ‘Well!’ I thought ‘I’ll show her. This will be an excellent time to try out the notion of walking on water!’
The stories of Jesus walking on the water – across three of the Gospels - come out of a long Jewish tradition. In the ancient Scriptures, water is often seen as a metaphor for chaos and death. ‘In the beginning’, says the writer of Genesis, ‘the earth was formless and void…and the Spirit of God brooded upon the face of the deep’. Into that chaos and formlessness, God speaks his words of creation – words of life and hope and potential.
So, through these stories of Jesus walking on the water, or stilling the storm, the Gospel writers wanted us to understand that God, and his Way, brings order to chaos, it brings life over death, and hope over fear. Those of you who are interested in biblical literature in general might be interested to know that the ability to ‘walk on water’ was ascribed to other great leaders, before Jesus, such as the great King Xerxes and to Alexander the Great.
It is only in Matthew’s Gospel, however, that we have a delicious detail added to the story…and that’s the detail of how Peter got out of the boat to also walk on the water. He then got scared, and Jesus had to raise him back to the surface, while ticking Peter off for his lack of faith. The most obvious point of this story is, clearly, an encouragement to have faith. The Gospel writers want us to put our trust in God, and to keep it there…never wavering, even when we get scared or confused by what is going on around us. The waves may crash and roll, but Jesus always reaches out his hand to us, to steady us against the storms of life.
There’s something else too. Something I think we shouldn’t miss. And that is that the question of why Peter steps out of the boat in the first place. I think the answer to that question is that Peter sees what Jesus is doing…and then he wants to do it to.
Throughout the Gospels, Peter is depicted as ‘Everyman’. He is the archetypal human being, who yearns to be a better man, but who often fails and gets things wrong. Peter is you and me. He dreams and hopes, he’s often a ‘man of action’, but he also gets things wrong – like when he denies Jesus, or cuts off a soldier’s ear, fails to understand why Jesus is washing feet, or fails to actually walk on the water.
But through all his failings, Peter consistently tries to do what he sees Jesus doing. And whilst he fails, time and again, eventually he rises above his nature, and becomes the premier voice for God in the years following Jesus’ ascension. He finds he has the power to heal, the power to speak powerfully, and the power to shape and lead the entire movement called Christianity. With all his failings, he becomes the Rock – the Petros – on which Jesus builds his church.
But he only achieves this by first watching what Jesus does, and then doing it, himself. He lives alongside Jesus as Jesus heals the sick and preaches powerfully, and sets up the basic structures of the church. Then, after Jesus ascends, Peter copies Jesus. He does the same things. He becomes the healing hands, the preaching voice, and the organising force for God’s mission on earth.
And, if Peter is an archetypal Everyman – this is our task too. We, like Peter, are called to see what Jesus does, and then to do that. We must not be deflected by the priorities of the world around us, but rather we must focus our entire energies on doing what Jesus did.
This, ultimately, is what it means to be a Christian – or a ‘Christ-ian’. A follower of Jesus. We are called to bring healing to the world. We are called to preach as powerfully as we can, each in our own way, the good news of the coming Kingdom. And we are called to organise ourselves to be God’s hands and voice to a dying world.
It’s scary, sometimes. We have to be prepared to step out of the boat and into the chaos. But Jesus offers his steadying hand to all who have the courage to follow him…and to do what Jesus does.