This morning we have read two of the best known stories of the Bible – two miracles of Jesus. The Feeding of the 500 and Jesus walking on water. It’s a double feature. It’s like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, back to back. It’s like The Sound of Music and West Side Story. It’s like Caddyshack and Animal House – take your pick.
In the verses preceding today’s scripture, we read about the death of John the Baptist. Herod had thrown a big birthday party, everybody had too much to drink, his daughter had danced to Herod’s delight, and he said he would give her anything she asked for. Prompted by her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and Herod felt that he had no choice but to oblige.
News of Herod’s death reached Jesus. And immediately, Jesus goes off in a boat to a quiet place by himself. He is mourning. He gets away by himself to grieve. But the crowds hear of it and when he gets to the shore, there they are. A mass of humanity. But rather than being aggravated that the crowds have found him, we read that Jesus had compassion on them, and he healed those who were sick.
But by now it is getting to be late in the day. The disciples advise Jesus to shut it down and send the crowds home or to neighboring towns for supper. But Jesus says, “No, you give them something to eat.” He asks them what they have. And they say, “We got nothing.”
We got nothing. Just a little bread and a a couple of fish.
Did I mention how many people were there? How many? 5000 men. Not counting women and children. I don’t know how they figured that out; I don’t think they passed around attendance pads like we do here. If there were 5000 men, maybe there were 20,000 all told. The point is that this was a massive number of people who had come from various towns to see Jesus at the height of his popularity.
“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus. So the disciples bring what they have: 5 loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses it, they distribute it, and there is more than enough, in fact there are 12 baskets of leftovers.
The disciples offered what they had and it was enough. Because with God, there is abundance. Jesus takes what we have, and it is enough.
Jesus practiced proactive compassion here. He didn’t wait for people to start asking where the food trucks were. He anticipated the need. Compassion can actually form a community. People are drawn in by compassion, and as we practice compassion in real, tangible ways – by offering what we have, even if it doesn’t seem like that much – God can do amazing things.
So Jesus did not dismiss the crowds to go find something to eat. First he fed them, and afterwards he dismissed the crowds. He sent his disciples on ahead in the boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Remember, Jesus had come here wanting some time alone. His cousin John, the one who had prepared the way for Jesus, had been killed. Jesus needed to pray. He needed time with God.
But in the early morning hours, a storm rolls in. There is a strong wind and waves batter the boat. The disciples are soaked. And they are scared. They are all watching the horizon, looking for land, when a shadowy figure comes walking across the water. They are terrified. “It’s a ghost,” someone cries out.
It might be useful to know that in that day, the sea was seen as the home of demonic forces, the place on earth where chaos reigned. (Kind of the way we today would think of Iowa City). The depths of the sea were considered a scary place, and this makes Jesus’ walk across the water that much more significant. As he walks across the waves he literally beats down Satan under his feet, proving he has power not only over the wind and waves but over the evil lurking below.
Now this story is reported in three of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. The three accounts agree on the details. It was immediately after the feeding of the 5000. But Matthew’s version is our favorite because of Peter. Only Matthew includes Peter walking on water.
It is hard not to like Peter. He is the brash, overly confident disciple who rushes into things without a lot of thought. He says what the others are only thinking and does what the others would not dare. He is the first to answer Jesus’ questions, and occasionally he even gets it right, but even then he doesn’t fully understand what he is saying. He swore he would never deny Jesus, and then he did just that, three times. Jesus asked him to come with him to Gethsemane to pray, and Peter promptly falls asleep. Jesus called him the Rock on which he would build the church, and a minute later, after Peter’s cluelessness is apparent, called him Satan. Peter is excitable and impulsive. But he is also completely authentic. He is completely himself. You’ve got to love Peter.
The disciples are scared to death when the figure walking across the water speaks. But they hear words of comfort. “It’s me,” says Jesus. “Take heart. Do not be afraid.” And then Peter opens his mouth, as he is prone to do. “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
This is the only time I recall someone asking Jesus to command them to do something, which seems kind of odd. What a weird way to prove it was really Jesus. Why not, “If it is you, tell us what town Bartholomew is from.” Or “Tell us what we all had for supper last night.” Or better yet and more to the point, “If it is you, make this storm stop!” Given the circumstances, that is the only request that would really make sense.
But no, Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter swings a leg over the boat, and then the other. He puts his feet on the surface of the water and with the waves beating against the boat, and him, he takes a few tentative steps across the water.
The others watch, speechless. For a brief moment, Peter is walking, like Jesus was. He is doing it. But then a gust of wind nearly knocks him over, and he gets scared. Peter means “Rock,” and like a rock he dropped in the water until Jesus reaches out and saves him.
I have always thought of this as being really odd and kind of funny. Gravity didn’t scare him. The laws of physics didn’t bother him. But the wind did. How much harder is it really to have faith that he can walk on the water in the wind than to have faith that he could walk on water at all?
Think about Peter’s words to Jesus. “If it is you.” Where have we heard that before? It was several weeks ago. It was the temptation of Jesus. What did the devil say? If you are the son of God, command these stones to become bread… If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the top of the temple and the angels will save you.
Peter says, “If it is you, command me to walk to you.”
Similar words. Satan sought to set the terms for how Jesus should operate. And Peter did as well. “Command me to come to you.” Jesus obliges him, and says, “OK, let’s see how well that works.” Peter walks – but just for an instant. He found that it wasn’t so easy. It took great faith.
When we set the terms for how Jesus is to work, it doesn’t work so well. Instead, Jesus sets the terms for the way that we encounter God. So often, it is a different way than we would expect.
This is not to blame Peter. And you have to applaud Peter’s faith, as tentative and impulsive as it was. Peter, taking a step on the water, is exactly where many of us find ourselves. Somewhere between faith and doubt. Somewhere between confidence and fear. Somewhere between having it all together and being completely clueless. Trying to move forward but feeling like we are sinking fast.
I have watched people speak in front of a large crowd and do a fine job until they realize that they are speaking to hundreds of people, and anxiety kicks in, and their mind goes blank, and their face turns red, and they lose their way. I once judged at a high school debate meet where a poor kid in the round I was judging was doing just fine but then couldn’t figure out what to say next and he just stood silently, like a statue, for literally 2 or 3 minutes. Which is a long, long time when you are supposed to be giving a speech.
Or it’s like a child learning to ride a bike, trying and trying, until they finally get the hang of it and off they go riding down the street – until they remember that they don’t know how to ride a bike, and they look down, and they fall.
I haven’t actually seen anyone walk on water, but I think about something like the balance beam. I have watched gymnasts do a routine on that beam, 4 inches across. It can be like they are walking across the water, turning and flipping and cartwheeling across the beam and doing just fine, until they make an error or two, and they lose confidence. Suddenly that 4 inch beam seems more like ¾ of an inch wide, and they are likely to fall.
Peter fell because of a fear of sinking, a fear of failure. It was a lack of faith.
Or maybe it was something else. Perhaps it was not a fear of failure. Maybe it was actually the opposite. Maybe it was fear of success. Maybe he was afraid that through Jesus’ power, he really could walk across the water. Maybe the implications started to sink in (pardon the pun).
Maybe our fear is not that we will fail, not that we don’t have what it takes. Maybe we are afraid that we do have what it takes. Maybe we are afraid that we can succeed.
As long as we anticipate failure, life is a lot easier. We are saved from having to try new things. We are saved from worrying about falling. We don’t have to be very creative because when you start getting creative, there is a chance of falling. If we anticipate failure, then we don’t have to take risks.
Marianne Williamson once wrote,
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?Maybe Peter was afraid of falling. Maybe he was afraid of the storm. Maybe he realized that he was doing what he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. But maybe, he was afraid of succeeding. Maybe he was frightened not because he might fall but because he was actually walking on water. And if by God’s power he could walk on water, what else could he do?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Maybe it was a little of both. I expect that all kinds of things would go through a person’s mind when one walks on water. It was heady and thrilling and scary and surreal, all at the same time.
Again, that is a lot like us. Whether it is fear of failure or maybe even fear of success, we can be somewhere between faith and doubt, faith and fear.
Truth be told, for some of us, it is not a question of choosing whether to get up out of the boat. Some of us have been caught in the storm and the boat has tossed and turned and we have been thrown out. It may feel like the boat has capsized, and we are in the water in the midst of the storm.
The image of walking on water is a great image. But it is important not to get so caught up in the spectacular elements of the story that we miss the deeper meaning.
St. Augustine understood all of this metaphorically, though he did go a bit overboard (pardon the pun again) with the nautical images. He wrote:
The boat carrying the disciples – that is, the church – is rocking and shaking amid the storms and temptations while the adverse wind rages on. That is to say, its enemy strives to keep the wind from calming down. But greater is he who is persistent on our behalf, for amid the vicissitudes of our life he gives us confidence.Our church leaders, board and committee members, met yesterday to talk about both the strengths of our church, the ways God has blessed us, and the challenges we face. Sometimes those challenges can feel like being caught in a storm, like waves battering the ship of the church. Where do we turn in the midst of the storms? As is the case for each one of us, Jesus reaches out and grabs hold of us, and keeps us from sinking, and calms the storms that surround us.
What if Peter didn’t sink? What if he just strolled right across the water and maybe did a little break dancing for an encore? What if James and John and Andrew and Thomas followed? What if all the disciples got out of the boat and walked across the water? It would have been a good story, a great story – but it would not have been our story. Peter is just like us, faithful yet lacking in faith. Someplace between faith and doubt.
But even with our imperfect faith, we can face the storms knowing that Jesus is always there, even – and maybe especially - when we feel we are sinking. Amen.