Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
This story from Matthew’s gospel has always struck me as slightly confusing and idiotic on the part of the disciple Peter. Skin pruning underneath their clothes from the raid, exhausted, and thinking they would die, the disciples see the image of Jesus walking to them over the crashing waves. I can imagine them rubbing their eyes, thinking themselves absolutely crazy by the intense rain and wind. I can see the first disciple, maybe Nathanial or Bartholemew, one of the faceless disciple we all but never see in any of the gospels simply stare and point at the ghoul approaching their boat. While one the more noteworthy and prestigious of these bumbling fools, maybe one of the sons of thunder, shouts something that is unintelligible to the rest of the crew, but he keeps shouting it nonetheless. It isn’t until the third repeat that the collective hears “a ghost! a ghost, don’t you see? it is a ghost!” With water running down their beards like a stream, and with skin pale they stand still as though they have seen their own death marching towards them. If you were to hear each man’s cry, you would hear calling to himself. What you would not hear is faith.
Faith is and can be very many things, but most of all it is how we react to the world, to life, to tragedy. Do we respond in despair, do we respond in faith. Do we internalize the problems way face, do we cry out for help. Later in the passage, the rock that came from a pebble, Peter see the ghost as the man they have been following these several, seemingly countless years. Peter runs to the edge of the boat and leans forward shouting at the top of his lungs “Jesus? Jesus? Let me come out to you! If it’s you, command me to come!” Jesus responds “come” and Peter renches his garment off and steps onto the waves as though dry land. I do not believe Peter to have been ignorant that he was in the middle of the sea when he stepped off the boat. I can imagine Peter’s face light up as he feels the muscles in his legs push against the normally infirm waves. His delight to be able to run to his teacher over the water unlike any fisherman, or man before.
But there is something interesting that happens as he gets closer to Jesus. The water cannot hold a man of Peter’s weight. Peter begins to sink, and his eyes widen, and his mouth opens. Like the disciples earlier on the boat, Peter is given an opportunity to react to his present circumstances. If Peter continues to sink, he knows that he will drown. Now Peter is a fisherman. He is good swimmer, but the storm is strong. The reality is this storm could kill Peter. Peter’s reaction to this reality is faith, for he cries out not to himself but to his Lord to save him. He says what we all say when we respond in faith “Lord, save me!” And we can imagine Christ pulling Peter from the waves, and walking him back to the boat before calming the storm.
Not to overlook the fact that Jesus says to Peter “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” surley Peter began to see how his walking on the water was not in accord with his daily dealings with the liquid. And there is the idea that he began to look down at himself and not towards Christ and began to sink. But at the same time I believe the sinking is representative of the unexpected turmoil that will follow our lives, and Peter’s reaction should be representative of ours. It is our crying out “Lord, save me!” that is faith.