Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. – Matthew 14:22-36 (NRSV)
The passage above is one of the most famous passages in the whole New Testament. Even if you have never read the Bible, you most likely have at least heard the reference to “walking on water” and know that it is a reference to Jesus. The version of the story that appears in the Gospel of Matthew (above) is the only one that also tells us about Peter’s attempt to do the same amazing feat.
Recently, the text study group that I attend, had a long discussion about this passage. And really, all of us (myself included), at one point or another have focused on the idea that this passage encourages us to “get out of the boat”. That is, we have all seen this passage as a story about faith and keeping your eyes on Jesus in the midst of the storms of life so that we can do the impossible and step out of the proverbial boat and onto the waves of the sea, doing amazing things in the name of Jesus.
This is a very attractive interpretation. But, as our discussion went on, I had to confess to the group that I was having a hard time making the case for that interpretation. In fact, it would seem that the details of the text demand that we not interpret it that way.
Take note of the very first verse. Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side” of the lake. And take note to where the story concludes: on the other side, where they continue Jesus’ ministry to the sick. In other words, the story begins with Jesus telling his followers where to go and it ends with them in the place where Jesus told them to go.
Also, after Jesus saves Peter from drowning, Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This statement to Peter, about his doubts, is often understood to refer to the fear that he felt while out on the water. Even though that could be the reference, there is a much more obvious reference to doubt earlier in the text. Why did Peter come out on the water to begin with? Isn’t it because Peter doubted Jesus’ words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”? When Peter hears Jesus words, his reaction is to test Jesus saying, “Lord, if it is you…” Also, note that it is not Jesus’ idea for Peter to get out of the boat, it is Peter’s. Jesus, more or less, just allows him to give it a try.
As attractive an interpretation as it is, to say that we should be like Peter and get out of the boat but just have better will power to focus on Jesus, may actually be missing the point of the passage. I think that for many years, I have missed the point of this passage.
Getting out of the boat doesn’t get Peter or the disciples anywhere or anything. Peter has an experience, to be sure. He also gets a mild rebuke from Jesus. But, note that Jesus and Peter end up in the boat. Once in the boat, the wind ceases, they worship and they end up on the other side of the lake (where Jesus directed them to go in the first place) so that they could continue their ministry of caring for others in need.
What does this have to do with us right now? For starters, it is clear that we are in difficult (stormy) times and it feels like we cannot get to where we should be. As a church, we have not opened our building since the middle of March. It feels as if we are standing still and the waves can overtake us at any time. Some are certainly in favor of “taking a leap of faith” and getting out of the proverbial boat. We want to be like Peter, put safety aside and test to see if Jesus will let us meet him on the water (or test that he is even there with us). For some, that means going back to church like we did in the pre-pandemic days.
However, in paying attention to some of the details of this passage, it seems to me that we would do well to take the words of Jesus to heart. Specifically, Jesus has called us to do ministry, to care for those in need, to share the comfort of his love and presence. In this passage, Jesus tells his disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds them, and us, that he is with us always (Matthew 28:20). In order for his disciples to do the ministry he wanted them to do, he “made” them get into the boat. When Jesus saved Peter from drowning, they got back into the boat where it was safer. Then, the disciples and Peter went together to the other side where Jesus wanted them to go to begin with.
In this difficult time, I think that Jesus wants us to trust him. We don’t need to take unnecessary risks, testing if Jesus is really with us or not. Our church will weather this storm and will come out on the other side because Jesus is really with us. The faithful thing to do is not to simply try to do “what we want” or “what we are used to”. Being faithful is to discern what it is Jesus has called us to do: to love God and to love our neighbors. That means, in the simplest of terms, to do no harm to our neighbor. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” – Romans 13:10 (NRSV).
So, we will continue to do our best to love one another and our community by working to do whatever we do safely, with the well-being of others foremost in our minds. And, we will continue to try to feed people with our parking lot food pantry and by volunteering at the Harvest of Hope food bank. We will continue to do online worship and to offer things like drive-thru communion as safety permits.
It is important for us to understand that the church is not “closed”. We are simply weathering the storm in the presence of Jesus and learning to carry out his commands in a new and difficult situation. We will eventually get to other side. And I pray that when we do, we are stronger in faith, wiser in our understanding of scripture, and more loving towards our neighbors.