I am very happy in a car. I love trains. Despite the contribution it makes to my carbon footprint I enjoy flying. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. When I last came to Tallinn in the Easter of 2005, I went to Helsinki by ferry. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.
As we arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately reassured by all those wonderful shiny, big, classy ferries. Only we didn’t get one of those. No, we got one of their smaller older, tattier predecessors. In due course the ferry left the safety of the harbour and began its slow ride across the Baltic. The ship struggled with the ice for most of the journey so violently that even usually seasoned seafarers were struggling with sea-sickness and hastened to find places to sit and nurse their misery. Several times the front of the vessel seemed to hit a particularly impacted stretch of ice and it felt as if the ferry had come to a juddering and jarring halt. My travel companions and I couldn’t escape to the outer decks because of the intense cold. I know you folk are used to it, but that Easter I was convinced I had never before been anywhere as cold in my entire life. We finally found a place in the bar – no we didn’t drink, we didn’t think that would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns. So we sat there in the most surreal setting imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin-American to a live five piece band. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expect my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!
In Estonia the fate of the ferry “Estonia” is still fresh in people’s minds as in Britain is the fate of the ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”. Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear I felt in that moment. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.
I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. In order to calm their fears, Jesus immediately tells them to “take heart,” and he identifies himself. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his three-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I”?
“Take heart,” of course, recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Reed Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in the fourth Gospel.
Now, something changes in this exchange, at least for Peter. Everyone but Peter appears struck dumb by the situation. And Peter takes a novel approach: rather than respond, he decides to test Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Peter evidently prefers the role of tester to the role of being tested. He seems to see and hear more in Jesus’ action on the water than the other disciples because he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat, to join Jesus on the water. I can’t help but wonder, though what possessed Peter to want to leave the boat in the first place? Were things so desperate in that boat so far from shore that he was willing to get out? Was the boat filling with water? Was Peter trying to show off? Was Jesus’ personal presence so calming and so reassuring that Peter needed to be where Jesus was? Why would Peter request such a task?
We can’t know the answers to most of our questions. We just know that Peter suddenly found himself out of the boat and walking on the water towards Jesus. He had no choice: his challenge to Jesus is met with one in return. Not, however, without the necessary rebuke, “You have so little faith…” When Jesus says, “Come,” we have to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages.
We also know that when his attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus.
As we struggle to understand the meaning of this story for our lives today, my guess is that we really don’t expect to find ourselves in such a situation although most of us know someone who “thinks they walk on water”. But the question remains: is this a morality tale about our faith and the extremes that we should be willing to go for Jesus? Or is there more to discover in this text.
One of the first places that some of the earliest Christians went for understanding this tale was to the boat itself. They understood that the boat was a symbol for the Church, the very body of Christ. They understood the boat as a place of safety in the midst of life’s storms, and with the hostility they experienced from a variety of places we know their storms could be severe. But this understanding only makes Peter’s response to Jesus all the more puzzling. Peter, “the rock,” a key leader of the early Christians surely would not abandon the Church?
Perhaps the early Christians were comforted with the knowledge that their first leader was so human, so vulnerable, that he was not the Lord and could not face the water and the storm without Jesus’ help. Perhaps the early Church knew that if Jesus were not in the boat (in other words was not with the Church) then there was no refuge there. There may be a dozen other “perhaps” and questions most of which make great Sunday School morality tales, but not such great preaching. This will be true so long as we keep our attention on Peter and through Peter on ourselves, rather than on Jesus.
When we turn our attention back to Jesus, then we have a better chance of seeing what God is up to. Where the story starts to get strange is at the point where Jesus identifies himself to the disciples to calm their fears. “It’s me,” he says. But the phrase that Matthew uses here is more than a mere greeting. Jesus uses a phrase that in the Greek Scriptures, both old and new means so much more than “Look, it’s only me!” The Greek phrase here is Ego Eimi, which is the same identifying phrase that God uses in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, when Moses asks for God’s name.
Now, at this point, there are a couple of ways of looking at Peter’s response. One seems to indicate that he understood Jesus to say, “It’s me” and he responds, “if it is you...” Alternatively, if we look at Peter’s actions as well as his words, and his unusual request, perhaps it is that Jesus’ self identification is exactly what sets Peter off on his wild water adventure. Peter is basically asking something like this. “If you really are the ‘I AM’ here with us, then give me a command that I couldn’t possibly obey and I’ll know it is true.”
When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.
I did wonder why Jesus could not have found something to praise in Peter for his noble effort. But then this story is not about cultivating self-esteem; it is about the grace of the Son of God who saved a disciple from death before his faith could qualify him for anything. Jesus’ rebuke told the truth in love and gave Peter yet another lesson in discipleship.
This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. This presence does not show us that God has supernatural powers so much as it give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that the storms of this life cannot hurt us, even when we are outside of the safety and relative comfort of the Church.
In a recent movie, several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Lets Go!” This is, I suppose the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go!”
The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. Only fools pretend otherwise.
Then we will see as Peter does that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We discover, at times to our relief and at times to our annoyance, that we are not the heroes of this story. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern. This is important. For even when we are back inside the boat of the Church, when the waters about us appear to be calm, we find that we are still in the midst of a storm.
Sometimes I feel that the church is very much like a boat being tossed about on a sea of controversy as it negotiates its way through the competing sandbanks of theology, contemporary culture, dogma, modern society and discipleship.
It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. We will see the “I AM” coming to bring healing life to all. Will our fears be calmed long enough to bid him command us out of our boat, our safe places, and into the storm with all of our being? When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too graspJesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the safe and comfortable boxes in which we have always existed (both Liberal and Conservative voices take note!). The choice is ever before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out in the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?