Peter Walks on Water … not the story you thought it was
Matthew 14:22-33

Evolving over the past hundred years or so, a new image of Jesus has influenced much of American Christianity: A fusion of Jesus and John Wayne.

Historian Kristin Kobes DuMez traces that evolution from Jesus the model of compassion and reconciliation, to warrior Jesus leading us into battle against what is considered society’s unraveling as evidenced by things like the growth of feminism and gay rights, and the weakening of patriotism.

This form of muscular Gospel swagger is expressed in some churches’ responses to the COVID pandemic where masks and vaccines are declared as signs of weak faith.

We’ve seen this right here in the Valley where some churches have defied public health regulations, in part because they believe their faith will protect them.

But isn’t standing on bold faith just what today’s scripture teaches?

The disciples’ boat was getting nowhere because the waves and wind were slamming against them.

But then, squinting through the fog, they faintly saw the outline of someone – or some thing – walking toward them.

As Jesus came into view, an emboldened Peter, alone, stepped out of the boat.

Not the others … they remained huddled together in fear.

As long as his faith remained unflinchingly strong, Peter could do the extraordinary thing of walking on water.

It was only when his faith faltered that he started to drown.

Who is the central character in this common interpretation of this passage?

Peter.

Peter is the hero for having faith bold enough to step into the raging sea, and then Peter is the failure because he couldn’t sustain his faith.

So, Matthew 14 becomes a simple Christian morality lesson:  Peter’s initial faith is to be emulated, his subsequent doubt is to be avoided.

If you sink in your next endeavor, well, your bad.

Next time, pray harder, be more faithful.

Okay.

Solid faith is good – and sometimes we are called to bold actions, but more is going on in this passage than just that.

To understand, we have to step back and put this passage into context.

Jesus had been traveling throughout Galilee teaching, healing, and exorcising demons.

This same day he had learned that his cousin John had been beheaded by the arrogant Herod and he had tried to find some private time to pray and grieve.

But before he could get much time alone, someone learned where he was secluded and soon the crowd followed.

Jesus rose to the occasion and continued to heal their sick until evening when his disciples pointed out that the crowd was hungry.

That’s when he fed the 5,000 men – and we assume a larger number of women and children – from just five loaves of bread and two fish.

This is a Lord’s Supper kind of story that has remained close to the heart of the church.

Even though the food and drink we offer to the world may look modest, in the hands of Jesus it becomes abundant and satisfying.

It is on the heels of Jesus demonstrating his Lordship as the Bread of Life that he came to the aid of his disciples huddled in their thrashing boat.

At first, they thought this was too good to be true.

In their desperation they feared it was just a figment of their imagination – like a ghost – but over the roar of the storm Jesus quickly proclaimed a theological triple-play:

Matthew 14:27 “Take courage! I AM! Fear not!”

That often gets translated as “It is I”; better English grammar, but it misses the point.

Those six words powerfully connect Jesus to God as revealed in the Old Testament.

Remember how God first came to Moses?

God spoke from a burning bush saying that His name is “I AM”.

Well now, as the disciples were most desperate, Jesus announced himself as I AM.

God had come to their aid which meant that they now could take courage and not be afraid.

Maybe Peter just got caught up in the moment, maybe he was grandstanding, maybe he was testing if this really was Jesus coming – we aren’t told why but before Jesus could get in the boat Peter intervened.

“Lord, if it is you, then command me to come to you on the water.”

Sound familiar?

Peter was asking the same question as Satan during his wilderness testing of Jesus, the high priest conspiring to send Jesus to the cross, and the mockers at the foot of the cross.

If you are Lord, then prove it by doing a little miracle here for me.

Unlike other times, Jesus grants the request – but is there any doubt that it’s not going to go well for Peter?

“Alright. Give it a whirl!” Jesus replied, and so Peter did.

We don’t know how far Peter got but maybe a gust of wind knocked him off balance, or maybe logic suddenly hit him and so he yielded to the inevitable tug of gravity.

Matthew 14:30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Whatever Peter’s motive and however long his success, Jesus saved him – maybe with a friendly chide about his doubt.

Then they both climbed into the boat, the storm stopped as quickly as it had started, and the grateful and relieved disciples were struck by the realization of who Jesus really is.

Jesus saved and Jesus loved all those men – whether they had stepped out of the boat or not, whether they had succeeded in their test of faith or not, and their response was just what it should have been to finding themselves in the presence of God:

Matthew 14:33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

So now we have back-to-back incidents in which Jesus’ Lordship over creation was abundantly displayed.

Jesus is Lord of creation who can manipulate the sustaining things of life like bread and fish to feed people.

And Jesus is Lord of creation having control over the water, winds, and waves.

In the storm Jesus said, I AM so don’t fear.

And if you think back to the beginning of Matthew, we are told that baby Jesus is to be called Immanuel, God is with us.

Then the ascending Jesus’ final words in Matthew’s gospel remind us,

Matthew 28:20 “… surely I AM with you always, to the very end of the age.”

You see?

This gospel passage is not primarily about Peter’s faith, lack of faith, success or failure – it is about God being with us through Jesus and the mercy for all of us whoever we are and wherever he finds us.

It’s all about Jesus and the grace he brings us all.

Oh, and one more thing.

For the early church from where Matthew was writing, the boat was often understood as a metaphor for the church.

The church sometimes felt adrift in the sea, sometimes battered by storms, sometimes pulled by powerful currents.

But when Jesus is in the boat they can head to where Jesus had intended all along.

And where is that?

Well, we’ll see that in a couple of weeks when they land on the other side of the sea to continue Jesus’ ministry with the people over there.

All of which is to say that when thinking of this scripture don’t confuse good advice with gospel.

Yes, keeping your eyes on Jesus is the right thing to do in all circumstances … and things certainly go better when we do … but we will never measure up to unfaltering faith, and to insist we can or should is just another form of the Law that Christ’s grace frees us from.

Even when we fall short, or get distracted and end up in a mess, Jesus will be right there to save us.