This morning we have read two of the best-known stories of the Bible—the feeding of the 5000 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 tough to do them justice.
Right before what we read, news of John the Baptizer’s death reaches Jesus. His reaction is to take a boat to a quiet place by himself. The crowds hear this; when he gets to shore, there they are. Jesus has compassion on them, healing the sick. But by now it’s getting late. The disciples advise shut it down and send the crowds home or to neighboring towns for supper. That’s when everything changes. “No, you give them something to eat,” Jesus says. Finding it humorous or threatening or crazy, they say, “We got nothing.” We got nothing, other than this bit of bread and a couple of fish. That’s good enough to start, Jesus says. Jesus blesses; they distribute; and there is more than enough; in fact, there are twelve baskets of leftovers.
The disciples offered what they had, and it was enough. With God, there is abundance. Jesus takes what we have, and it’s enough to do good. Offer what you have. Be who you are. Let Christ bless and multiply your good into abundant blessings.
Jesus practiced proactive compassion. He didn’t wait for people to ask. They didn’t beg before he cared. They didn’t need to show they were one of his people for him to see them as his equal. They weren’t related to him, nor all from his own tribe, race, perhaps even religion. It didn’t matter to Christ. He welcomed them. He fed them all. He turned his eyes and hearts to them and gathered them into one community of humanity. There were no obstacles they had to clear, no proof of need. It was unconditional, unconditional welcome, acceptance, affirmation. Go and practice the same Christ life.
The author and poet Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Jesus made them feel whole. He let them feel the faith we all want to have in others, in humanity. Compassion forms community.
People are drawn in by compassion, and as we practice compassion in real, tangible ways, by offering what we have, by doing what we can do whenever we can to whomever we can, even if it doesn’t seem like much, amazing things can happen. This is the heart of the church in the world. This is Christ’s life among us. We are called to be the same and to do likewise. Give what you can. Share what you have. Practice compassion by including all. Remove barriers and hindrances that make empathy delivered so much harder to accomplish.
He sent his disciples on ahead in the boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But in the early morning hours, a storm rolls in. Strong winds and waves batter the boat. Storms get big on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples watch the horizon for land when a shadowy figure comes walking across the water. Terrified, one of them yells, “It’s a ghost.”
Now this story is reported in three of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. The three accounts agree on stuff, such as it occurred immediately after the feeding of the 5000. But Matthew’s version differs because of Peter. Only Matthew includes Peter walking on water.
Peter 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, even then he doesn’t fully understand what he’s 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.
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.” 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 someone asks 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. This is in a nutshell the difference between a factual story and a faith-filled story. Now I know people are going to say if the Bible says it happened, then it happened. But I like it better to think of it this way: If the Bible says it happened, then it means it’s happening.
We look at the Bible to see what happened back then with Peter and Christ. The Bible is written, however, or let me say Matthew and others wrote their Gospels for those living at that time. The Gospels are current with their time, in their time, for their time; they’re contemporary accounts of what it means to keep the faith, and what faith in Christ means, and where it’s going well and not so well for them and between these first Christians and their churches. They’re not documentaries or newspaper accounts of what happened back then so that future generations will have a factual reporting of the events, so we can peer through the mists of time and walk with Jesus. That’s not their central vision or guiding purpose, though of course they have much of what happened. These narratives are told, and put in order, and shaped so that Matthew’s audience, his churches, the people he cared about who were trying to live with faith and who were being hurt because of their faith in Jesus Christ, could be instructed in the faith and to be inspired to keep the faith. These are faithful accounts of what faith in Jesus Christ and belonging to the Church meant, and often still means.
So, to go back to the question that got us into all that—why doesn’t Peter ask Jesus to stop the storm and instead asks if he can walk on water? Peter doesn’t ask Jesus to stop the storm because for Matthew’s people at the time, the storm wasn’t stopping. It was just picking up speed and destructive force. How could he tell a story in which Peter asked Jesus back then to stop the storm, and Jesus stopped the storm, but now when people are asking Christ to stop it, it doesn’t happen? Matthew’s story isn’t about whether Peter walked on water back then, but can we walk on and through stormy waters, stormy times, now. What they needed to be able to do was weather the storm, walk on it a little bit, to be brave enough to step out in it, to imitate Christ as best as they humanly could. To have faith and to keep the faith even during storms of persecution, family abandonment, and other painful choices and separations. They needed some of Jesus’ faith, like Peter showed in this story. That’s what we get when we see Matthew’s narrative not as one person’s miraculous experience. It’s more important and bigger than what that very narrow lens gives us.
Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter swings one 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 moment, Peter is walking, like Jesus was. He’s 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. Not bad, not bad at all.
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. Having faith but then losing it some.
Keep the faith. Be like Christ, a little more. In tough times, you don’t need to get tough—try to get faith and walk with it.
Peter may have fallen because of a fear of sinking, a fear of failure, from a lack of faith that could see him through the complete journey. We need faith and hope and guts to keep us giving in to fears about failing. We also need these to keep us from stopping our journey toward success and faithfulness.
Perhaps Peter was afraid of success. What if he did make it all the way to Jesus? Who would ever look at him the same? He could never see himself the same either. Who would he be? What would be his responsibility and role then? Maybe the implications started to sink in (pardon the pun).
Now I know we rarely if ever admit we are afraid of being more than we have been. We like to think we could have made it all the way if it weren’t for this or that, a person who hurt us or told us the wrong thing, because of a stupid choice we made, immaturity on our part, or what have you. But there’s a fear associated not with failure but with success, not with the idea we don’t have what it takes, but that we do. We fear we might have what it takes to succeed, to grow up, to face different challenges, to walk a road we don’t know as well, let go of excuses and realize it’s on us.
Truth be told, for some of us, it is not a question of choosing whether to get out of the boat. Some have been thrown out, and we’re already in the water trying to stay afloat. Now what? Let yourself see you walking on the water. There’s no doubt a storm is swirling, but that doesn’t mean you’re sinking. There’s no doubt the wind is howling, but that doesn’t mean you’re failing. It’s not easy, but Christ is in front of you. You may feel as though you’re alone, but you’re not on your own. You’re walking on the water. You’re standing with Christ facing you, calling you out, asking you to keep the faith, to walk in his direction.
Go ahead. Walk. Keep the faith.