I don’t like storms. Never did. At the first sign of lightening and thunder, my great aunt Rose would bring out candles that were blessed on Candlemas Day and light them on the dining room table to protect us from the scourge of the foul weather. It always worked. I trusted her. “She must know about these things,” I thought.
I’ve only been at sea once during a storm, a January nor’easter, but it was a huge cruise ship. I can only imagine how terrifying it was for the disciples in that small boat battered by the waves, far from the land, the wind against them. I will tell you this: you would not have found me in that boat. I would have been planted firmly on dry land, safe and sound.
Picture it. The twelve fishermen have been out in these raucous waters all night. They are scarred out of their wits and through the fog and the crashing waves they see this figure coming toward them. They cried out in fear. Who wouldn’t? Then Jesus identifies himself but Peter isn’t convinced. To be fair, when is the last time you saw someone walking on water?
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” says Jesus, and Peter gets out of the boat. I suspect that from behind him Peter heard: “Are you nuts? Don’t do that!” Or maybe, “Look at him sink. Serves him right. He’s always so darned sure of himself.” And perhaps one last voice that said, “Peter, don’t be a damn fool! Get back in the boat.”
We know how this story ends. Between the force of the wind, his fear of drowning, and, no doubt, the disconcerting voices in the background, Peter began to sink…until a hand reached out to rescue him.
Biblical scholars find this water-walking episode a difficult miracle around which to wrap their heads because its sole purpose seems to be establishing that Jesus has mastery over nature in all its wildness and unpredictability. Even Luke was unwilling to record it.
To some respected commentators this Gospel account seems more story than Gospel. We can easily allow that Jesus walks on water to reveal his person and power over the wildest and unmanageable forces in life. But why does Peter attempt to do it if not to totally embarrass himself?
Putting it in context, we might see it as a story told to encourage the small community of believers in the first century who were battered by the waves of persecution. Just as that night when he was off someplace praying, Jesus must have seemed a long way off to those earliest Christians facing imminent torture and death. Did they have doubts?
I wonder how far off God and Jesus seemed to the people who have lost everything they own in the wildfires of Maui or the floods in the south or how close did Jesus seem to the loved ones of those killed in senseless mass shootings? The extensive loss of life in the Ukraine?
That’s why I have a little problem with one line in this Gospel, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” In the face of unimaginable devastation and loss, in those terrifying, dreadful moments one faces, how can one help but have doubts? Doubts about whether or not God really cares? Where is he in this?
It's easy to have faith when life is like a calm sea, when there are no “storms” disrupting our lives. It may not be as easy when we are faced with a life-threatening crisis or are experiencing the loss of our home, every possession we own, or standing before the lifeless body of a child or parent killed in some tragic and horrible way. Yet strange as it may seem, those are the times when God in Jesus is the closest. Those are the times when God meets us where we are in our profound sadness, our misery, and, yes, in our doubts.
Greek is the original language in which the Nicene Creed was written. We recite it weekly. The same word for “I believe…” pistevo (πίστευό) also means “I trust.” It may only be a nuance but there is an important, albeit subtle difference. In our relationships with others, especially those who have in some way offended us, we may not always believe them, but we may trust that they may not offend us again. In our relationship with Jesus, when the storm hits us hard, we may have a tough time accessing our faith, but we may trust in his care and love for us—especially every time we look at the cross.
Maybe when our faith is very shaky, almost not even reachable, we can only trust that God will rescue us, just like the trust of a kid that the candle Aunt Rose lit would protect us from a bad storm.
Jesus does not expect any of us to walk on water. That’s for him to do. He knows that most of us are just trying to keep our head above water. No matter who we are or with what we come here today, we’re all in the same boat. And, in the end, God has control of the oars and the sails.
This week I stumbled upon the anthem by Philp Stopford that I chose as our Communion anthem. It was so appropriate given the text of the Gospel and in the wake of wildfires, storms, tornados and floods. Listen to it as you approach the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation this morning. And listen to these comforting words now:
“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name. You are mine. When you walk through the waters I’ll be with you. You will never sink beneath the waves. When the fire is burning all around you, you will never be consumed by the flames.
When the fear of loneliness is looming, then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of the stranger, remember you are precious in my eyes.
You are mine, O my child, I am your Father and I love you with a perfect love.”