When I was growing up, the story of Peter stepping out of the boat and onto the turbulent water was always used as negative illustration, a lesson in the perils of having too little faith. If Peter had had more faith, he would not have sunk into the waves crashing around him. And I suppose if we only look at Peter’s role in this story, that is a safe conclusion to draw. Matthew is the only gospel writer to include Peter’s experience in this story, so it seems important to understand what his part in it is meant to teach us. The question of faith does seem to be prominent, but I wonder if we come up short by only focusing on Peter.
This is the second storm-at-sea story that we find in Matthew’s gospel. The first, found in chapter 8, describes Jesus with his disciples in a boat crossing the sea when a storm kicks up and terrifies the disciples. Jesus seems oblivious to what is happening and sleeps soundly in the back of the boat. When they finally manage to arouse Jesus from sleep, he questions why they are afraid and then “rebukes the winds and the sea.” The disciples are left in awe, and they ask, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey his command?”
And here, in the narrative of our passage this morning, the disciples inch closer to an answer to that question – Jesus embodies the divine prerogative of command over the seas, walks atop the elemental chaos that in ancient Hebraic thought symbolized the power of evil to thwart God’s divine plan. Jesus’ admonition to not fear and his identification as the great “I AM” ties his identity with the God who spoke to Moses and liberated God’s people by leading them through another sea thousands of years before. This display of power and Jesus’ self-identification with the One true God elicited the confession from the disciples, “Truly you are the Son of God.” This is the One in whom we are to put our trust, in whom we are to have faith. And this seems to be the primary answer to the question about faith – it’s not about how much faith one has or if one has too little faith, but about in whom we have faith.
The disciples certainly didn’t come to this conclusion quickly. Jesus had just given his disciples a lesson in compassion when, after spending the day healing the crowds that sought him out, he then provided food for over 5,000 people. This whole episode had interrupted Jesus’ search for some solitude after learning about his cousin’s death. Now that the crowds had been healed and fed, Jesus sends the disciples out ahead of him in a boat, dismisses the crowd and finally gets his moment of quiet to pray. The disciples set out and not long into their journey to the other side, the storm picks up, battering the boat with waves and wind. At some point in the early morning, exhausted from their labor, they look out and see Jesus walking toward them – through the wind and the waves, untouched by the chaos of the sea and the storm. And this terrifies them.
Somehow, they are unable to recognize Jesus. It seems a little ironic, perhaps, that the disciples who had just witnessed Jesus feeding more than 5,000 people with an insignificant amount of loaves and fish, had healed the sick, forgiven the sins of many, and told them parable after parable to help them understand how the reign of God works in this world, that they who had witnessed all of this could not trust what they saw. Perhaps their hesitation in trusting what they saw was because of the last storm experience they had – where Jesus had rebuked the wind and the waves returning everything to a calm peace. This time, Jesus walks straight into and through the storm. And once again, the disciples’ distorted expectations are exposed as the thing that causes their inability to see Christ for who he really is.
I wonder how many of us have similar experiences – how many of us have trouble recognizing Jesus because we expect him to come to us in a particular way, and when he shows up differently, we question whether he is really there, whether what we see is an apparition, a ghost, or something else entirely. Our present moment in history can easily be described as chaotic; we exist within the context of what some might call the perfect storm – we are facing a global pandemic caused by a microscopic enemy that is infecting millions and has killed hundreds of thousands across the world. We are facing a national crisis in which the sins of our forbearers are being visited upon their children and children’s children as systemic racism is being exposed and we are called to account for the white supremacy that runs through the veins of this land. And we are facing a humanitarian and theological crisis in which the competing ideologies of a non-existent golden age of the past and a myth of some utopian future are dividing the people of this land along lines of allegiance to political and social gods that we pray have the power to save. What do our eyes see when we look out across the chaos of this storm? Do we hear the reassuring voice of Jesus calling to us, saying, “take heart, have courage, do not be afraid?”
The imagery of water and of storms have deep roots in Judaism and Christianity, and we have inherited the beliefs of our Jewish forbearers of the sovereignty of God over the elemental power of water, and for us as Christians, this has translated into a deep and abiding notion of death that leads to life through the waters of baptism. And yet, I wonder how much of the ritualism that has developed around our practice of baptism actually betrays the death dealing power of water– does dribbling water out of a shell convey the power of death conquered by our God? Even for those who have fonts big enough for immersion, does the calm pool of water really convey the womb of rebirth that comes from being buried in the dark depths of the water? I wonder if sometimes we see the baptismal life more like the first storm-at-sea story in Matthew – where Jesus invites us into a peaceful and still bath with no risk of being battered by the waves and terrified of the winds.
And perhaps this is what Peter’s part in this story might help us to see – that perhaps Peter’s experience better captures the risks of baptismal life, the turbulence of the waters through which we must pass to die and rise with Christ. And perhaps Peter’s experience better illustrates the grace by which we are continually saved within that baptismal life. The waters that thrash at Peter’s feet and the winds that rush against his body lead him to the only possible utterance he can make in the face of this storm – “Lord, save me!”
The storm of our present moment is terrifying – as in all storms, so much is out of our control. We are being battered by winds from every direction; the waves of chaos are crashing over the side of our boat, filling it with water. But we are not in this storm alone. Jesus is walking toward us even now – do we have the courage to bid him to call us to him? Will we take the step out of the boat and into the uncertainty of the storm? Will we wade through the depths of this baptismal life – renouncing all the powers of evil and chaos, all the overt and subtle desires that draw us away from the love of God, turning to Christ alone as our savior and trusting that he is already here in this storm, waiting to catch us and empower us to be faithful, to love others, to strive for justice and peace?
Peter’s ability to step out of that boat was not about how much faith he had – rather, it was about the One in whom he had faith. God beckons us to step boldly into the storm, not as a show of how much faith we have but as a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to us,to be in the storm with us, to catch us when the winds and waves batter us from all sides, to pull us into the safety of the divine embrace. So yes, this story is about faith – but it is not about our faith and faithfulness. It is about the faithfulness of God, of God’s steadfast commitment to uphold us, to walk with us into the storms and chaos of this life, beckoning us into deeper trust and love.
May God give each of us eyes to see Christ standing in the storm and ears to hear his call to step out and come to him.