Text: And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. (Matthew 14:22-33 KJV).
Shortly into the new millennium evangelical author John Ortberg wrote a book entitled, "If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat." It was a small literary sensation among buyers of Christian books and won that year's Christianity Today Book Award (something short of a Pulitzer, but a parochial accolade that gave it evangelicalism's imprimatur).
The book's title was inspired by the pericope from the Gospel of St. Matthew given above involving the miracle of Jesus walking on the water and St. Peter's desire to duplicate his master's feat.
The book promoted and argued for an understanding of this narrative whose take away was that Peter's initiative was a good thing, to be emulated by Christians, and that believers--if they would but avoid the pitfall of faith weakened by trials and tempests around them--could (metaphorically--or "spiritually"--or analogously--but not exactly or literally as St. Peter actually had in mind) walk on water.
The book's premise made its way into thousands of pulpits and Sunday School classrooms where Christians were challenged in untold ways not to "stay in the boat" like the other fearful disciples but to launch out with bold and risk-taking faith. What exactly it meant in concrete, rubber-meets-the-road terms is anyone's guess (dare to give an offering beyond your means, dare to start a Dutch foreign mission in Appalchia, dare to witness to your Lutheran mother-in-law and tell her that baptism doesn't save...). But left on every mind was the distinct impression that this text--that God's inviolable Word--was telling them that Jesus must be met halfway, that faith is not at all about waiting for and receiving God as He comes to you in the man Jesus, but that faith, real faith, is throwing caution to the wind and rushing with abandon toward some imagined goal to where Jesus is thought to stand (more like projected) after prevailing on Him through a pestilence of importunate prayers to suffer you to be Jesus redux.
Okay, I admit, I'm not quite stating it the way the advocates have--but then that's my point. Behind their sophistry and lofty spiritual rhetoric, however well-intended (I've never known falsehoods to have ultimate intentions of any kind but sinful, despite the fact our hearts may deceive us and allow us to be conscious only of the moral veneer of sincerity)--behind the unctuous and triumphalistic words lays a very bad theology and an injurious pastoral practice.
The narrative, to be sure, does furnish us a lesson on faith, but just surely not the kind taught by Ortberg and those following his train of thought. Let's briefly consider what the pericope means for us to understand about faith--about ourselves, Jesus, and faith in Him.
The disciples have been told by Jesus to go on ahead of Him and cross the lake of Galilee, to be met by Him ostensibly on the shores they are headed to. At some point the Twelve head out onto the waters and are met by the billows and hard currents of choppy water driven by gusts and gales. Suddenly a specter appears in the dark of the morning moving across the lake's surface in their direction. Freaked out and wondering what in God's name it could be--a demon? death?--they agreed out loud that it was some sort of spook or phantom, a being of the netherworld. (Because flesh and blood men most decidedly do not walk on the water, and Christ's manifestation must have been somewhat epiphanic as the disciples saw him on a dark early morning proceeding across the waters.)
Seeing their fearful apprehension, Jesus reassures them it is He and for that reason they need not be afraid. "Cheer up, fellas. It is I!" But for one of the disciples, St. Peter, this apparently isn't enough. For some inexplicable reason he urges the Lord that if it really is he Jesus should invite him to come to him on the water. And what follows is almost predictable: Peter gets a few feet out and suddenly, overcome by the same fear the gripped him and the other disciples earlier from the tempest, he loses sight of Jesus and collapses into the turbulent waters. He cries out in desperation for Jesus to save him lest he drown. Jesus "stretched forth his hand and caught him," we are told, and gently chides St. Peter by asking him, "Oh you of little faith. Why did you doubt?"
Then, upon entering the boat together the winds abated and the disciples worshiped Jesus by making the confession, "Truly, you are the Son of God."
At this point the Ortbergian lesson is that had Peter not doubted, had his faith been greater, he would never have sunk, understanding Jesus' admonition to Peter to be about his lack of faith to leave the boat and walk on the water. It is thought that Peter's walking on the water is good and exemplary and that we, too, ought to act similarly in life, with the only exception that we should and can (being so much less fallen than St. Peter, I suppose) avoid the pitfalls of unbelief if we will but keep our eyes on Jesus. But such an interpretation is full of assumption and does not at all follow closely the flow of the narrative nor take stock of its real irony dramatically concluded in the final scene of worship.
Jesus' miracle is a manifestation of His deity. The disciples are not altogether mistaken in concluding the figure approaching them is a spirit. They got it half right. It is Him who is spirit made flesh--Jesus. And Christ's reassurance tells them that He, the man they know, is indeed more than the senses or reason can judge. He is the true embodiment of divinity. The hidden and numinous God, strange and alien to us all, arrives and approaches us in the familiar form of humanity. The disciples need not be afraid of the powers that lay beyond them for in this man Jesus they have been subdued and conquered, they have all been pressed into the service of their salvation. Consequently, they may be unafraid and full of trust and confidence in God for Christ's sake.
At no point do the words of Jesus incite distrust or inculcate suspicion. Nowhere does anything He says or does call for anything except pure reception. He's coming to the boat, to them, and they may be at ease and quiet in the hearts for in Him God approaches as a friend and Savior. What to do? Nothing but welcome and receive Him as He comes.
St. Peter's impulse to get out of the boat and come to Jesus on the water is, therefore, no heroic or noble act of faith at all. In fact, it proceeds on the very fatal premise of doubt: "if it be you, Lord..." If?? If?? Didn't Jesus just tell them it was He? Of course. But St. Peter's doubt is not so much that it was Jesus, but was a doubt and mistrust about who Jesus really was, that is, about His trustworthiness as the Savior of the world.
Peter wants to get to Jesus as quickly as possible to find safety from the hard winds and boisterous waves that threaten to capsize the boat. But why? Jesus has told them to be of good cheer and is making His way to them. Yet, somehow, Peter finds this inadequate and we can only speculate what ran through his mind: Jesus may be fickle; maybe He's testing us; if we go under before He gets here it will be our fault for not doing our part. Whatever the case, it arises from a distrust in both the good will and adequate power of Jesus to do ALL that must be done to save us from sin and all its judgment and miseries.
So why does Jesus suffer Peter's request. Clearly in order to reinforce His Gospel assurance and make his restless disciple believe in Him as he should. It is Jesus, not Peter or you or me, who walks upon the water. No, you and I, as St. Peter, are those who fall into the waters and need rescued by Him who trods their surface. And when St. Peter drops suddenly and calamitously into the lake--and this because of his own unbelief (he is no victim now), he finds out just how trustworthy and reliable the goodness and power of God is in Christ toward the worst of sinners. With three pitiful words, St. Peter moves the hand of God and causes it to be exercised on his behalf. "Lord, save me!" And Jesus does because THAT'S what He has come to do, all by Himself--and not to have people walk on water. For in the end, the worship of faith that confesses Jesus to be "truly the Son of God" comes about because of His power and grace, His walking on the water--not ours--and His compassionate deliverance of St. Peter from death and compounded guilt. In Jesus, everything is overturned for our salvation.
Peter's unbelief was seen in leaving the boat--and to imagine it was faith that was behind this action and that Jesus' admonition was about his failure to walk on water is to utterly turn this story on its head.
My friends, you have nothing to prove to God, to Jesus. He proves all things to you and for you. Stay in the boat; He's come to you, is coming to you, and will come to you. And does so to be with you, that you may be with Him. Do not be afraid, but be of good cheer! Cuz it's Jesus and not John Ortberg or any other Willow Creek guru!