Prepared to Drown
Peter strikes me as being like he is in one of those old Roadrunner cartoons where the coyote chases the roadrunner off a cliff, only he keeps running through the air . . . until he looks down. Only when he looks down does he realize where he is, and only then does gravity take hold, as if he wouldn’t have fallen if he hadn’t realized he was off a cliff. It’s amusing, and this is an amusing scene: Peter is at first so confident, but then there is a wind, and he realizes where he is, and sinks.
Douglas Adams, the novelist, described flying as “the art of falling and forgetting to hit the ground.” In his book Life, the Universe and Everything, the main character, Arthur Dent, learns to fly accidentally by falling and only at the last minute realize he has the last bottle of Greek olive oil in existence in his backpack, and caring more about it than about his impending death. I wonder if the same can be true for walking on water; just don’t realize that you’re about to drown.
Because Jesus did have something else on his mind: the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. He wanted to get away to a deserted place, but the crowds followed him, and he had to feed them as we heard last week. Only now, after than distraction, he gets to go up on the mountain to pray.
So perhaps he is distracted, or perhaps he is focusing only on what really matters, walking through the storm. I’m not here to try and describe how something supernatural happens and I’m not suggesting you absentmindedly go walk into the river. But I want to draw attention to this play between faith and doubt, that we can go a bit deeper into what each is.
Matthew’s version of Jesus walking on water is the only one where Peter gets out of the boat and also makes his attempt, so that deserves some special focus. In Peter, we have a figure where we have to ask, where would he be without Jesus? This simple fisherman, who does not know the signs of an oncoming storm and so he takes his boat out into the open water. He would have drowned if it weren’t for Jesus, and yet he becomes the leader of the new Christian movement after Jesus’ death; the first Pope, the holder of the keys to heaven with churches named for him around the world (interestingly, I looked up the most common names for churches and could only find the US statistics, but Peter comes in forth for churches named for saints: John is first, followed by Paul, Mary, and then Peter). Without the faith to leave everything he knew behind and follow this guy who is walking all across the land, what would he be? I mean, Peter would also end up crucified in the end, but still.
Peter is a sort of representation of all of us who call ourselves Christ’s disciples: sometimes we have strong faith and sometimes we don’t, but we still follow. And that’s what faith is; not believing without doubt, but following even with doubt. Really, I don’t think this story is an example of Peter’s failure as a disciple, but rather a success: He gets out of the boat, despite being afraid, despite doubt. It doesn’t have to be perfect, he doesn’t do it unquestioningly and perfectly, but he does it.
And then there’s Jesus, praying, and we don’t know what he’s thinking or saying when he is on the mountain to pray, but the one time we are shown his inward thoughts in prayer in the Gospels, it’s in the garden at Gethsemane, and he prays a prayer full of doubt and uncertainty and even fear. It’s okay to be uncertain and afraid, that is part of the life into which we’re called—it is a very brave thing to love in a world full of hate; it’s a brave thing to get out of the boat in a storm.
But there was a storm, and maybe we can look at the storm as all the trouble in the world and in our lives. It was political: Herod, lackey of the Romans, executing a political opponent and critic. It was personal: The loss of a friend and family member, an inspirational leader. It was economic: a rich king throwing a party while there was poverty and hunger everywhere. It was religious: Fundamentalist Pharisees on one side and increasing Hellenization and secularization among the Jews on the other side, adapting to the culture around them.
Jesus deals with this, centres himself through prayer, and then wades into that storm. He reaffirms his mission, his purpose, and his identity: “It is I,” he says. He doesn’t let the storm get to him. Peter does let the storm get to him, and so he sinks.
Faith isn’t about blind belief; it’s about being open to new experiences; being willing to leave the safety of the boat and being prepared to drown while fighting for justice and loving everyone. Doubt isn’t about questioning or wondering; it’s about refusing to take that step, by withdrawing or being complacent.
When we look at the storms of our worlds—political, social, financial, personal—we need to have the faith to be Christians in the way Christ sets for us, to love unconditionally, work towards justice, and bring the good news wherever we are. The hate-filled world needs us to be love in the midst of rising xenophobia and racism; the violent world needs us to be peace when there is the constant threat of war; the everyone-for-themselves world needs us to be altruistic and giving in the midst of hunger and poverty; the skeptical world needs us to be witnesses to the power of faith and spirituality and a relationship with Christ when that message is lost in a blur of twisted messages about prosperity theology or an exclusive Christianity; this town needs us to be this church despite all the questions about finances and whether anyone really cares; the people in your lives need you to be you, Christians, despite whatever you are going through. Be prepared to fail at changing to world, be prepared to be rejected, be prepared for this church to close, be prepared for all human decency in the world to break down, but still be the kind of people this world needs more of.
What is important is that we don’t focus on the possibility of drowning, even though we’re prepared for it, but focus on the need. I don’t mean to over-romanticize or be hyperbolic about this, but to be Christian is to be engaged in a sort of quixotic battle against evil: against hate, against injustice, and against poverty—three things Jesus was unequivocally against. And it always, always seems like it isn’t even worth it. Why come to church when nobody else does? Why give to charity when there will never be enough?
These are questions that are worth asking, but what is important is that faith makes us okay with knowing that we might drown, but daring to walk on water anyways; knowing that it is what we do that is important, not whether it gets results or not. Love anyway, seek justice anyway, dare to walk on water anyway.
To quote the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes, we will never walk on water if we’re not prepared to drown, and we’ll never move the gravestones if we’re not prepared to die as Christ did. But faith, the courage to do things anyway, is what will give us the power to walk on water. Just, don’t look down.