Faith In Real Life Blog
“Impulsivity, Doubt and a Loving God”
Sharing Christ’s Love Series
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 10, 2023
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
It is perhaps a small detail but I think it is important to note that we have very early evidence that the meaning of scripture and ‘what actually happened’ is an evolving rather than static truth. This passage is similarly reported in Mark 6:45-52 but the two passages, using essentially the same source material come to strikingly different conclusions. In Mark, after the winds calmed, “….They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” In Matthew, on the other hand, the disciples “in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Mark, the disciples are reported as missing the point. In Matthew, Jesus is recognized as the ‘Son of God.”
This should not surprise us; we can almost always see more clearly in hindsight. The same was true for the early gospel writers. Even when we reminisce about our own lives, it is much easier to connect the dots and tell a more coherent story in retrospect. The actual living of that story has a lot more uncertainty and anxiety in real time as opposed to retrospective time. Because Mark’s writing was closer to ‘real time’ (his was the earliest recorded Gospel), I find it much more credible that the disciples were confused and uncertain. Matthew uses the story to announce the disciples’ recognition of the divinity of Jesus. Mark uses the story to point out, how in real time, the disciples could not understand the man they were following. We may get to Matthew’s declaration in our own faith journey but most of us get there by way of a large portion of Mark’s real time confusion.
That said, no matter how much research we do, we cannot know ‘what really happened’. Jesus’ walking on the water is an iconic narrative that almost everyone has heard. What it means, however, is a different story. Is this primarily a miracle story that ‘proves’ Jesus is more than human? I don’t think so. I think it is the story of a tired, grieving man who is constantly pulled to respond to the people he loves. It is tempting to view the story as about Peter and use the story as his test of faith but I think, we too, will be in over our heads in a heartbeat.
Let’s look at the text. Prior to this event, Jesus had just heard that John the Baptist had been killed. We read in Matthew 14:13: “ Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” That did not work out too well because the crowds followed him on foot to that deserted place. So instead of a respite time—and a time to grieve—Jesus was confronted by the needs of thousands of people. After tending to those needs, including feeding them, Jesus still needed to be alone. He sent his disciples away (the Greek reads ‘He compelledthem to get on the boat.), dismissed the crowds and withdrew to a mountain to pray. He was finally going to get time alone and time with his God.
Anyone who takes care of others knows that such time is required if care is to be sustained. And, anyone who cares for people—as friends, parents, spouses or as professionals—knows the never-ending needs of the people around us. It is a difficult line to walk. As it turns out, the call of human need was placed again to Jesus.
In the morning, Jesus sees his disciples struggling. The wind and the waves were against them. After an exhausting night, they were still far from land. For them, a short trip across the water had turned into a night of fighting the elements. For a first century reader, even more was at stake. The waters were associated with chaos. In the creation story, a dome is created to divide the waters—to provide a safe place for humankind. But there was always the risk the waters (chaos) would break through. Anyone who has lived through a hurricane or severe flooding can well appreciate the humbling power of such forces. It is in the face of this literal and metaphoric chaos that Jesus approaches his disciples by walking toward them on the water. From Jesus’ perspective, his followers were in trouble and he is moving to respond. From the disciples’ perspective, the reaction was fear. They thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus rapidly reassures them: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Up to this point several potential themes come to mind. All or none of which may apply. Jesus sees the needs of his people and goes to meet them in their distress. Jesus is proclaiming sovereignty over the forces of chaos. Jesus, by his actions, is demonstrating that nothing, including life-threatening chaos, can separate us from the love of God. All of which will preach and all of which we need to hear. But how does this encounter with Peter fit in? (This part of the story is not included in Mark’s version).
In Matthew, Peter demands proof that what he is seeing is real. “‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Now that is a temptation most of us have succumbed to. “Prove it.” It is outside of my experience, prove it. I am curious, however, how being called out of the boat would serve to verify Jesus’ identity – perhaps Peter believed if he could walk on water it could only be because Jesus commanded it. But for whatever reason, Peter wanted verification that Jesus is who he said he was.
Peter makes a good start but he becomes afraid and sinks. Many commentators and preachers suggest Peter sank because he had insufficient faith. Jesus’ words as he reached out and rescued Peter would seem to indicate as much— ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ I am more inclined to think he showed his lack of faith when he (a) demanded proof and (b) when he got out of the boat in the first place. At least in Matthew, Jesus is on the way to the disciples. Peter just needed to wait for Jesus to come to him but in real life, when we are anxious and scared, we want relief and want it now. It is hard ‘to wait for the Lord when we are in danger.’ But regardless of Peter’s (or our) impulsivity, anxiety or lack of faith, when Peter is sinking, he calls out “Lord, save me.” And that is exactly what Jesus does.
Though these words are usually reported as a chastisement, I imagine Jesus’ words were spoken kindly—much as we might speak to an invincible teenager who finds out the hard way how easy it is to get in over their heads. In real life, I have spoken loudly and angrily when the grandchildren have tried to use our living room to show off their gymnastic skills. I see danger—a lot of hard floors and sharp edges. All too often, in spite of being warned, they must find out for themselves.
In real life we have this problem at every stage of life. We can warn but we cannot control. Then we have the real-life problem of how do we respond when someone has fallen—even though we have repeatedly warned them. ‘Why didn’t you listen to me?’ can be asked many ways—from angry indignation to compassionate concern. We all add tone and inflection to the words of Jesus but it is probably helpful to remember Jesus loves us. I do not believe Jesus is in the business of shaming us into compliance.
We are often slow learners. The disciples were certainly good examples of that real-life experience. But if and when we finally defer to Jesus’ way of loving we will discover a God who is always with us. Jesus guides. He is an example. But most important of all He loves us. If we insist upon doing things our way, we will almost certainly get in over our heads. That is not a bad thing. It is simply predictable. We may be impulsive; we may doubt; we may get in over our heads—-but Jesus is there to help. If we have enough faith, we believe God will be with us in our lack of faith. That is how he treated Peter and how he will treat us.
That is when we too will recognize for ourselves, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
LET IT BE SO.
In real life, scripture keeps talking to me. Here is another batch of afterthoughts.
I imagine Jesus thinking (as he responded to Peter), “Just because I can do something doesn’t mean you can, wait for me.” But Jesus simply says, ‘Come, find out for yourself’. Faith is not about defying the laws of physics. Stay within yourself, I am coming. Trust me. Peter could not tolerate waiting. But when he found out the hard way, Jesus reached out his hand.
Once again, we can warn but we cannot control. Loving always includes choice—even when those choices are unwise or just plain stupid.
Likewise just because Jesus could repeatedly respond to the people he loved does not mean we will able to maintain the same level of mindfulness—we will get in over our hea heads.
Finally, the last thing Jesus needed was somebody else in troubleafter the previous 24 hours— but in real life we don’t get those choices. Sometimes people need us when we are exhausted and empty. Ask any young parent or any caregiver for aging parents. A baby crying in the middle of the night does not ask if mom is tired. We don’t get to choose when life smacks us in the face. But we do need to build in enough rest to give ourselves a chance. Sometimes we have to tell people to get on the boat. You’ll meet them later.