Matthew, like any author of any piece of writing has an intentional agenda for his gospel. He also has an audience in mind and specific points of theological truth he wants to share with a specific audience. As a Jew, speaking about a Jewish savior to a Jewish audience, Matthew clearly wants those who hear his gospel to come away with a strong foundation of beliefs. He is attempting to answer the question: “But who do you say I am?” a question which is recorded in the gospel of Matthew and which Jesus directly asks Peter at some point in their travels together. Matthew wants us to know and to understand exactly who Jesus is and once we come to know this Jesus, to ask the questions why does it matter to us and in what way does the answer of such a question impact our lives? What does it mean to know Jesus? What is it Jesus asks of us? Why should we care?
Several times in the gospel, Matthew describes Jesus trying to find a quiet place to pray, away from the crowds, away from the demands for more healing, miracles, and providing food. Some of those attempts are successful as in this story. Matthew clearly wants us to know this Jesus who prays and whose gifts of healing and grace are securely based in a life of prayer. Jesus calls his disciples to pray as well. He calls them to put aside their fears and put their trust in the same source upon which he places his own life and from which he receives the power and ability to silence the storms, calm the seas, heal the sick and feed the hungry. There’s more than a slight hint that prayer and trust go hand in hand or that fear diminishes the ability to place our trust in God. More than once, Christ admonishes his disciples with the words, “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” Or put another way, doubt diminishes faith and lack of faith diminishes trust. Something we – that is, anyone of us can own up to when our lives are shaken by the losses and pain of just being human and therefore fragile and finite. We are susceptible to needs we can’t always meet and to grief and loss we can’t always rise above. Life itself can sometimes feel like a slow, slippery walk across an uncertain body of water with more and more slips than safe steps.
Peter was doing all right as he stepped out of the boat and started to walk toward Jesus but, fear overcame trust. He dropped his eyes. He saw the waves. He felt the wind pounding against his body. In that moment, Peter realized what he was doing. In the moment of awareness, he called into question his own sanity. What was he doing? Why was he doing it? And most importantly, could he do it at all? Could he conquer the elements of wind, rain, and wave? Could he reach Jesus safely?
A very long time ago, my cousin Bill taught me a trick that if done correctly never fails. It works for golfers, football and basketball players and in the example my cousin shared with me, it works for bowlers. What he said to me was, “See the move you are about to make before you make it. In your mind’s eye, imagine the ball going exactly where you want it to go. See it drop into the hole. Watch it hit the center pin. In other words, claim the action before you take the action. Most importantly, never take your eyes off the target whether it’s a basket, a net or right down the center lane of a bowling alley. Trust what your mind has already seen you accomplish and then, let your hand or foot take that move or step in faith to make what you saw happen in your mind come true on the field, the court or down the lane of a bowling alley.” So I tried it and if I follow Bill’s advice and never let my eye wander, I’ve learned I can’t miss. But if I get distracted, or fearful or just plain lazy, if my eye wanders from the target or my imagination fails to see the goal or the accomplished deed, I simply won’t meet my objective. I’ll fail. Try it!
Peter let his eyes and his faith in Jesus wander and, as a result, fear took over. He began in the right frame of mind…he was walking toward Jesus with his eyes on Jesus but when he lost focus, when he became aware of what he was doing and how truly impossible the task was for him as a human being to do this impossible action, he let go of what was keeping him above water. He let go of Christ. He felt alone. He cried out for help and he received it. We often need to cry out to Jesus for help and we will always receive it. Our help may come in a way we hadn’t anticipated…the prayer of friend, a book that can speak to our pain, a calming walk or we may just need to stop, breathe and take up our walk of faith with renewed trust knowing in head and heart, we don’t walk alone. We gather our fears up and lay them down at the feet of the Lord who calls to us with a word of encouragement…do not be afraid.
Most of us would rather stay in the boat or for security, not even venture off the solid ground of land but lives of faith as Christians require us to step into turbulent waters and to face challenges that may, at first, seem overwhelming to us. There are ministries we try and missions we attempt and some are successful; some not so successful. The rightness or wrongness of what we do isn’t determined by our successes or our failures. We are judged by a higher standard. In all we do, are we keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, on God’s work, on Christ’s redeeming grace? As William Willimon puts it:
“If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.”[i]
So, we step out of the boat, as a church, as individuals, as a member of a family – large or small, we keep our eyes lifted to Christ and we trust in the next marvelous adventure Christ is calling us to take. We know we are not alone; when we falter, when our focus blurs, when our actions call us to question our own sanity or sense, we still have Christ reaching out to us, guiding our eyes upward and encouraging us to trust. What do we need to fear? Like Peter, the waters will still, our steps become more certain, and we reach out to the One who is reaching out to us. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 3, Clifton Kirkpatrick quoting William H. Willimon, p. 336