Lectionary Passage – Matthew 14 vv 22 – 33
It is also helpful to read John’s account of this event – John 6 vv 16 – 21
Jesus walking on water
When the phrase ‘walking on water’ is used we think either of some incredible, almost impossible action or – with tongue slightly in cheek, of a person of great charisma and enormous and unusual gifts and abilities. Our Biblical passage, set for this Sunday, fits both ideas and is just that with Jesus and his appearance to the disciples. In honesty, it is an unusual if not strange story and, at first reading, seems a million miles from our experience.
Matthew, Mark and John all have the account of Jesus walking on water (I wonder why Luke chose to leave it out of his Gospel?) and in all three Gospels it is placed immediately after the feeding of the great crowd. What is in it for us?
It is a focus on Jesus. While to our twenty-first century minds it is a miraculous event that raises all sorts of questions, that would not have been the case to the disciples themselves, or to those in the early church who heard about it. They expected and accepted accounts of God in action in all sorts of ways and would not have raised the sorts of issues that we do. There is a hint of at least a question in John’s mind as he records the event. Matthew tells us that the disciple’s boat was far out on the lake, whereas in John “immediately the boat reached land” – as if he is seeking some explanation.
We see Jesus taking decisive action. There are strong verbs – “He made the disciples get into the boat” and “after sending the people away”. At the very end of John’s account of the feeding he tells us that Jesus knew that the crowd wanted “to make him king by force”. John 6 v15. Jesus wanted none of it. The feeding had been deeply impressive, but Jesus was protective of himself and the disciples and removed the disciples from the scene and its temptations, and banished the crowd before it got out of hand. He himself went off into the hills to pray. Then, responding to the crisis, he came to the storm-tossed disciples in the boat. The wind died down.
Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords in close relationship with his heavenly Father and this is part of the divine revelation of God himself. He is in control. He commands the disciples and the crowd. His Lordship extends to the material world – bread and fish – and even to the wind and the waves. He can and does walk on water! He invites us to allow ourselves to be subject to his command.
It is about fear. Some of the disciples were strong armed and experienced fishermen, entirely accustomed to the sudden squalls of wind and rain that are characteristic of Lake Galilee. Some were not. There must have been some fear as the boat was “tossed about by the waves” v24. But then the figure – completely unexpected and startling, and at first sight ghostly. “they were terrified…and screamed with fear” v26. Then Peter, bold as brass, stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus. That is until “he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid” v30.
Fear is real. There is much to make us afraid. The obvious and immediate example is Covid 19. We fear for members of our own family, for friends, for ourselves. Like you, I have read of the Black Death that devastated European populations in the second half of the fourteenth century, and of the Plague of the seventeenth century, and of Spanish Flue a hundred years ago. Interesting, if chilling reading, but remote. Now this pandemic, on a world scale, is ravaging populations, wreaking havoc on livelihoods and economies and bringing unimaginable suffering and death. And it is close, very close to each one of us. In that wonderful hymn ‘I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship,’ we sing the line “and calms our lurking fear.” As to those disciples in the wave-tossed boat, Jesus says to us with our real, lurking fears “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” V27.
It is about failure. Of the three Gospel versions, it is only Matthew who tells us about Peter’s attempt to walk on water. Unsurprisingly, it is Peter who attempts to walk to Jesus. Throughout the Gospel story, it is Peter who is the prominent one. Peter is the one who seems to speak first on a number of occasions. Peter is the one who seems to have a modicum of understanding and of faith. However, we know of the early hours of that fateful Friday morning when Peter, in spite of vehement protestation at the supper table, is equally vehement in his denial of even knowing Jesus. The same Peter who, at the glance of Jesus, slinks away and weeps bitterly. Here in this account, Peter started to sink and there are words of regret from Jesus to Peter “How little faith you have! Why did you doubt?” Again and again, the gospels are brutally honest and give us the picture of Peter the failure.
In honesty, isn’t the reality of discipleship – our discipleship, about failure? Failure to believe, failure to trust, failure to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus – even in the most fearful of situations?
It is about the saving power and presence of Jesus. Noticing the strong wind, Peter started to sink. He cried out “Save me, Lord” v30. “At once, Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him” v31. As we have already noted, Jesus called to the fearful disciple “Courage. It is I.” v27. Then “The wind died down.” v32. The response of the disciples is their worship and their faith “Truly you are the Son of God”! v32.
When we are overwhelmed by the storms of life, when the waves bring us to the point of being most fearful, when we are acutely aware of our fallibility and our failure, and when, in our need, we have nowhere to turn, nowhere else to go and we cry out ‘Save me, Lord’, it is then that Jesus reaches out and grabs us and holds us in divine security. In Jesus, come hell or high water, God is powerfully at work.
Charles Wesley based a hymn on this passage. It is StF 461 or HP 434 – ‘Come, O thou Traveller unknown’. He, of course, makes the transition to Jesus – “thy nature and thy name is Love”.