August 13, 2023
My heart still quickens when I think about it. The water was high that season on the Arkansas River in Southwestern Colorado. We were working our way through small rapids, me as a college-aged camp counselor, along with a raft guide, and a boat full of middle school boys. We bumped up against some small rocks as our raft sloshed from side to side in the fast moving water. There were lots of adrenaline-fueled squeals of delight. And then we saw the huge rapids ahead of us. Our eyes widened as the boat picked up speed, and then went crashing through the white waves. The kids in the boat panicked, pulling their oars up out of the water. The water surged and our boat bounced up and flipped over.
This is what comes to my mind when I think about a boat being battered by waves and wind.
But it’s actually not the waves and wind that create fear for the disciples on this particular boat trip. It’s Jesus! The text tells us it’s early morning. The Greek says “fourth watch,” meaning about 3-6am. Meaning it’s still dark out. Meaning those disciples have been up all night, tired and bleary eyed, sloshed about by waves. Maybe they thought they were hallucinating. It is a ghost, they cry out! Jesus quickly responds, Take heart (or another translation is take courage), it is I; do not be afraid. There’s the famous “do not be afraid,” a phrase that occurs some 60-70 times in the bible. Usually before something scary!
Like, don’t be afraid, Israelites, but we’re about to go against Pharaoh and make a run for it, into the wilderness, says Moses. Or, don’t be afraid, widow on the verge of starvation, Elijah says, trust me, your food won’t run out. And, don’t be afraid Mary, but you’re about to have a baby that will be the son of God, says the angel Gabriel. A biblical Do not be afraid should perk up our ears and pique our curiosity, even as we might also feel the urge to brace ourselves for what’s next.
Maybe what Peter thinks is that although he is afraid of drowning, it would be courageous to try what Jesus is trying. He’s been hanging with Jesus long enough to understand the general idea of discipling is to try to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And this morning Jesus’ footsteps are leading him across the surface of the water. But Peter’s not a total fool. He does a quick check in – Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. Jesus says Come, so Peter does.
Over the years many have attributed Peter’s sinking to him being distracted by the strong wind and becoming frightened. I think probably the main reason he sinks is because humans. cannot. walk. on water. Even when focused. Even in calm conditions. I mean, I guess miracles happen, but I don’t think the point of this text is that if we were faithful disciples we too would be courageous enough to defy physics and gravity.
I read a book this summer about the “comfort crisis”. The premise is that many of us are overly comfortable, prioritizing convenience and ease. And this obsession with comfort negatively impacts our physical and mental health because we’re actually hardwired for more challenge. The book begins with the author being helicopter-dropped into the Alaskan wilderness with 2 other guys with just the packs on their back for 30 days. To overly simplify the message of the book, the author posits that we are designed to take more risks, to challenge ourselves, to push to the extreme at times, that we’re capable of more than we think and that these challenges are vital for healthy bodies and brains. The book is a little high on the dude-bro energy for me, but to be honest, I’m somewhat drawn to this kind of narrative, at least in the sense that I think being uncomfortable and challenging ourselves is often where learning and growth happen. And comfort that lulls us into complacency is not only bad for us individually, but also collectively. Part of the climate crisis is that many of us fuel our own comfort through overuse of resources and in ways that exacerbate pollution and harm for others. And some of us can create communities with more police and other surveillance for our safety and comfort, to the detriment of those overly impacted by bias and violence as a result of these systems. Seeking our own comfort and ease is not neutral.
That’s mostly not what this author talks about though. His extreme-challenge genre feels so individualistic, so testosterone-driven, so privileged, so American. These are the guys who would have cheered Peter on – Dude, you got this. You can do it. Go get out on that water and walk to Jesus!
So although courage is a virtue, and maybe many of us could stand to push beyond our comfort zones more often, I’m just not sure that’s the main teaching of this story in Matthew’s gospel. I don’t think this is about having more extreme goals, like – I will walk on water by the end of 2023. Peter cannot walk on water. Even with training. Even with great faith. Even with a courageous, outside your comfort zone risk-taking mindset.
So it’s no surprise to anyone (although I am kind of rooting for him) that Peter the Rock starts to sink when he tries.
When our rafting boat flipped over in the midst of those rapids, we all flew out. Some folks were pulled into the current leading them downstream. But when I popped my head out from under water it was dark. Disoriented, but trying to remember the safety lesson that discussed this exact scenario, I realized I was actually underneath our flipped boat, with a tiny air pocket for breathing. The boat continued to surge down the river and banged against a nearby rock. There was no pausing or getting off this ride. So, I grabbed the side of the boat and pulled myself up and out from underneath. I didn’t even have time to yell Lord, save me! before two hands grabbed my life jacket and pulled me on top of the boat. And now I joined other hands catching those still in the water, one by one, until we were all on top of the boat (which was still flipped over), still careening down the river.
Is this what it felt like for Peter as quick-reflexes-Jesus reached out his hand to catch him?
After Jesus catches Peter, he doesn’t coach him, pumping him up with an encouraging C’mon, try again! He doesn’t push him to move beyond his comfort zone, or enlist the other disciples to take courage by getting out of the boat to try it for themselves. Rather, Jesus just grabs Peter, and then takes Peter and himself back into the boat. When Peter stepped out of the boat he left the community with one less rower, one less person to tend to the sails. I guess he wasn’t listening to the raft guide safety talk which included explicit instructions that when things got rough that everyone should keep paddling together through the rapids, as that was the best way to control the boat. Good advice. But as evidenced by my experience with that group of campers, it’s really hard advice to follow when you’re feeling overwhelmed, panicked, and afraid. Which is why I wonder, is staying in the boat, paddling together through the rapids, in community, what actually takes courage?
Most days, faith is not an extreme sport. And it’s definitely not a solo adventure. It’s the day to day paddling, in community. It feels important to remember why the disciples are in the boat at all. They aren’t just taking a joy-ride or getting some exercise. They are on their way across the water for a purpose – to continue with Jesus the ministry of healing and sharing good news for all. And following Jesus, well that certainly takes courage, even without the battered waves and winds of life.
When Peter and Jesus get in the boat, back with the community, then the wind calms. And the bleary-eyed-up-all-night-battered-in-the-waves disciples stop paddling long enough to declare an expression of deep faith, Truly you are the Son of God. And in that moment they refocus their and our eyes on Jesus and worship him.
Which is good because our faith is not about Peter, or the disciples, and what they or even we can or cannot do; it’s about Jesus. Recall that in the water this story begins with Jesus coming toward Peter and the others, and then ends with Jesus getting into the boat with them. So ultimately, it’s not really about their faith or doubt or even courage, it’s about Jesus as the one who draws near to our fear, draws near to us. It’s about Jesus who joins us in this boat called life, taking up a paddle next to us, lending us some courage to stay in the boat with him and each other, as we make our way. Amen.