Whenever I read the gospel story for today about Jesus and Peter walking on the water, it takes me back many, many years to one of the holiest places in my entire life. I’m talking about Camp McDowell, the camp of the Diocese of Alabama, named after an early bishop and the place where some of the most critical molding of me as a Christian took place. I never missed a single summer after the third grade, and continued going as a counselor in college and even as a young wife and mother.
The time I’m remembering was from those later years. I don’t remember the exact theme of the camp that year, but the male counselors with all the energy and bravado of their youth, insisted that they would act out this story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. It was decided the place to do this was in the swimming pool…at night…with all the underwater lights turned off and most of the other lights as well. They practiced walking on one another’s shoulders for many evenings after the campers were safely tucked into bed. Then, on the big night, brought a canoe up from the creek while the campers were distracted with other activities. Of course the illusion couldn’t be complete. There was too much ambient light, and supermen that they were, those young men did have to come up for air once in a while. Also, it’s entirely impossible to fool a hundred or so skeptical fifth and sixth graders for long…especially the boys. But while some of the staff roiled up some pretty credible waves, others took the parts of Jesus and Peter and their underwater legs, and a good time was had by all.
Beloved as it is, this is kind of a tough story for us. Fifth and sixth grade boys aren’t the only ones with a healthy dose of skepticism. Biblical scholars have also grappled with it through the ages, and it’s one that we really do need to look at through the proper lens. In the age when Jesus lived and Matthew wrote, Hellenistic or Greek thought was a prevailing way of looking at things. In Greek mythology there were any number of divine heroes who had human mothers and whose fathers were gods from the Greek pantheon. These half-god, half-human creatures had the power to walk on water as part of their divine birthright. But if we know anything about the writer of Matthew, we know that this was definitely not what he was getting at. The story was aimed at a Jewish audience and told from a Jewish perspective. His first readers, who firmly believed that God was fully capable of empowering Jesus to walk on the water would not have been asking the question: Is it possible? They’d only be interested in knowing: Did it happen in this case?
This is also not a story aimed at simply confirming the divinity of Jesus. Matthew wrote before the great controversy caused by Docetism, which said that Jesus was really divine and only seemed to be human. But if Matthew had lived and written during that period, chances are he would have edited the story to make sure no one mistook it as a defense of that heresy. For Matthew, the key issue in the story was that the boat was far from the land and was being battered by the waves. You see, Jesus didn’t stroll across the lake to impress and show off to whoever might catch sight of him. He did it to come to the aid of his disciples. The story’s not about who Jesus the Son of God is. It’s about Jesus the Messiah, the one who’s charged and empowered by God to care for God’s people, to be their Savior.
It’s from stories like this that we get the image of the Church as a boat or ship. A boat is a safe and dependable way to travel across water except when the wind and waves become too strong and toss it around. The Church, the gift of a community bound by love and a shared mission, is a place you and I depend on for renewal and comfort and challenge as we navigate the waters of our lives. But as any of us who’ve been around long enough know, the Church can also be assaulted by storms both from within and without. It’s significant that after Peter walked toward Jesus and then sank and was rescued by him that all “those in the boat,” that is all the believers, not just the disciples, worshiped him.
I was part of a monthly prayer group for a long time in my former parish. One of the stories we came to revisit and cherish was told to us one night by a member of the group. She said her at-the-time very young granddaughter, in response to one of her parents telling her that Jesus was her friend, pointed her finger emphatically and said, “Jesus is no friend of mine…he’s too big.” Fortunately, as she grew older and learned that friends can come in all sizes, she began to realize that Jesus is indeed her friend. In response to this story, another of our number told how her fully grown daughter, whenever she’s faced with a seemingly overwhelming task, says in equally emphatic terms, “My friend Jesus will help me do this.” All of us are dependent on the Savior in times of physical and emotional and spiritual danger, and that’s what Matthew wants us to remember.
And all of us are like Peter, sometimes glowing with faith and the courage that comes with faith. Yet we also know what it’s like when the distractions of our lives and this world cause us to take our eyes off Jesus. When we do this we tend to sink like a rock. You know, most of us live most of our lives somewhere between faith and doubt. I want you to notice in this story that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter, or you, or me for having no faith, but for having too little. It’s interesting that in John’s gospel believing is always a verb, never a noun. Faith and belief are an activity, not a possession. They’re like a song that disappears when we stop singing.
God doesn’t want us to stew about whether we have “enough” faith. That’s a waste of time and counterproductive. What God wants for you and me as individuals, and for the Church which is our spiritual home, more than anything, is for us to rest in the security of knowing that Jesus shepherds and cares for us through all the trials and storms of life. We don’t need to hunker down in fear when we’re threatened. In fact, we need to be always exercising the muscles of whatever little belief and trust we’ve got. When the going gets tough, those reborn and bred in Christ grow tender and courageous and open in ways that seem beyond our capacity.
Today we baptize young Alison Nicole Sharpless into the family of God. And today, this very day, we begin teaching her that her friend Jesus will always be with her to help her do whatever she has to do.