At once, Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I. do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately, Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
In my prayer in the years since, I have often come back to those words. Peter is in need (he is beginning to drown, after all), but he is also giving voice to an awesome faith in Jesus, whom he calls “Lord” and whom he trusts can save him from the stormy sea with its overwhelming waves.
For many who do not share our Christian Faith, this seems to be one of those “too-good-to-be-true” stories of Jesus. After all, this isn’t like the stories of Jesus’ signs and wonders in which he heals someone who is sick or feeds a multitude of people. This is even something beyond John’s account of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. This story almost seems to present Jesus as some sort of demi-god—a Herculean being who is capable of defying the rules and limitations of the natural world. In a way, I think this is a fair criticism. After all, even the frightened Apostles, cowering in the storm-tossed boat, wondered if the figure they saw walking toward them was a phantasma (φάντασμά)—a “ghost”! Yes, this is a wonder-ful story, but this miracle of Jesus has more to do with the mysteries of Transfiguration and Resurrection than it does with many of Jesus’ other signs and miracles. This story reveals to us the power and glory of God at work in and through Jesus and it reveals his divinity to the frightened disciples. This revelation is embodied in Jesus’ words to the disciples (which most of us miss because it is a very subtle proclamation): “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The Greek phrase used by the Gospel writer is egô eimi (έγώ είμι), “I am,” which was the Divine Name which God revealed to Moses: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus claims the Divine Name to show that God is present to the Apostles both in the midst of the storm and in Jesus’ own being.
And so, when Peter, who finds confidence in the words of Jesus, climbs out of the boat to approach him, he’s exercising a daring faith and trust. However, we often lose sight of Peter’s courage because we immediately jump to the next part of the story. Peter does begin to walk on water but then notices the wind and waves whirling about him and he gets distracted by the danger. Did Peter’s faith waiver and did he lose sight of the One who had control of the wind and sea? Yes. But doesn’t Peter also deserve credit for getting out of the boat?
In a sermon on this passage, St. Augustine reflected:
Look at Peter, who in this episode is an image of ourselves; at one moment he is all confidence, at the next all uncertainty and doubt; now he professes faith in the immortal One, now he fears for his life… When the Lord said Come, Peter climbed out of the boat and began to walk on the water. This is what he could do through the power of the Lord; what by himself? Realizing how violently the wind was blowing, he lost his nerve, and as he began to sink he called out, “Lord I am drowning, save me!” When he counted on the Lord’s help it enabled him to walk on the water; when human frailty made him falter he turned once more to the Lord, who immediately stretched out his hand to help him, raised him up as he was sinking and rebuked him for his lack of faith.
Think, then of this world as a sea, whipped up to tempestuous heights by violent winds. A person’s own private tempest will be his or her unruly desires. If you love God you will have power to walk upon the waters, all the world’s swell and turmoil will remain beneath your feet.
I believe that Augustine’s understanding of this world as the storm-tossed sea is well worth considering. We live in a world that is ravaged by violence, exploitation, poverty, hunger, and greed. These forces of darkness seem to be whirling around us and it is tempting to seek the safety of the “boat,” hoping the tempest will pass by or at least subside a bit. After all, we can’t effect changes in great world events or even most family crises any more than Peter could control the storm. But is that really true?
When we place ourselves in the story, in the boat with the Apostles, we quickly recognize that Jesus' invitation to Peter to “get out of the boat” is an invitation for us, as well. After all, don’t we claim to share Peter’s faith? If the answer is “yes,” then we have to accept that we are also being called to get out of the boat and to enter into the storm that is around us.
Deep inside, I believe that we, as people of faith, recognize that we have to step onto the waves. As Sister Pat Kozak, C.S.J., put it, “We want to get out of the boat to engage in the work of faith—struggling for justice, offering hospitality, creating community. Yet our own fear, confusion, or self-preoccupation drowns out the call… Our staying put is not simply a failure of faith; it is also a failure to see how intimate and real are the power and love of God" (reflection in Give Us This Day, August 4, 2014).
What would it mean for you to get out of the boat and enter the storm? Could it be witnessing to your faith on social media by sharing and liking posts that express our Christian commitment to justice and peace? Is it standing up for the poor and marginalized when we put politics before people? Is it sacrificing your time and energy to do volunteer work? What about something as simple as skipping a meal out and making a donation to a charity that serves the poor and exploited at home and abroad? What about sharing your faith with your children and finding ways to live your faith in more obvious ways at home? It could be as simple as turning of the TV and spending a few minutes each day reading the Bible or a daily devotional or even stopping by your parish church for a few moments of quiet prayer when you’re out running errands. There isn’t really one answer to this because each of us is called to a unique form of discipleship that makes the best use of our gifts and talents. The important thing is that you and I choose to act now, to step into the storm today.
This is a terrifying prospect and we can expect to be lashed by the wind and rain and to feel the pounding of the waves as we resist the movements of our out-of-control world. But it’s simply what we’re called to do. This is what Jesus means by "take up your cross," this is Bonhoeffer’s “cost of discipleship” and this is the experience of those countless martyrs (from the earliest days of the Church up to those who are being murdered in modern-day Iraq) who have lost their lives because of their faith. But, through it all, we also trust that the Lord is there before us, in the midst of the storm with us. Ultimately, as Henri Nouwen observes, “Jesus speaks out to us in the Gospel with very strong words. Throughout the Gospel, we hear, ‘Do not be afraid.’ He continues,
This is what Gabriel says to Mary. This is what the angels say to the women at the tomb: ‘Do not be afraid.’ And that is what the Lord himself says when he appears to his disciples: ‘Do not be afraid, it is I. Do not be afraid, it is I. Fear is not of God. I am the God of love, a God who invites you to receive—to receive the gifts of joy and peace and gratitude of the poor, and to let go of your fears so that you can start sharing what you are so afraid to let go of.”
Jesus’ invitation to us is to move beyond our fear and to enter the storm with the confidence that we are not alone. And so we ask for the gift of courage and for the grace to move beyond our fears, and doubts, and justifications for staying in the boat, making the words of the Psalmist our own; “I will hear what God proclaims; / the Lord—for he proclaims peace… Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, / glory dwelling in our land” (Psalm 85:9-10).
give us a mind that is humble, quiet, peaceable, patient, and charitable,
and a taste of your Holy Spirit
in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.
a lively faith,
a firm hope,
a fervent charity,
a love of you.
Take from us
all lukewarmness in meditation
and dullness in prayer.
Give us fervor and delight
in thinking of you,
and your tender compassion toward us.
the grace to work for
the things we pray for. Amen.
—inspired the writings of St. Thomas More
(from The New St. Joseph People’s Prayer Book)