Proper 14A; Matthew 14:22-33
This gospel passage always comes with a flood of images: It follows on the heels of John the Baptist's death and Jesus feeding the 5000. It has Jesus dismissing the crowds and finding a place to be alone and pray; the rising of the storm that batters the boat and the disciples; the boat in the middle of the sea making no headway; Jesus walking across the stormy sea; Peter stepping out to walk on those same stormy waters; Jesus rescuing Peter, and the confession of Jesus as Son of God. There is one particular part of the passage, though, that keeps jumping out to me.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Peter gets out of the boat, walks on the water, becomes afraid, then begins to sink, is saved by Jesus, and ends up back in the boat.
What keeps jumping out and has my brain sort of spinning around is the individualistic nature of this scene. It gives me the same feeling as when people ask me, or I hear the question, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” It gives the impression that Christianity is all about me.
Picture this: The disciples are in the boat, wind howling, waves beating against the boat, when a figure comes walking toward them. Jesus calls out to them and, as proof, Peter says, “Make me walk on water.” There is no concern for the other eleven. He doesn't say, “Call US out to you” He doesn't even invite Jesus into the boat; because, for Peter, it's all about him right now. I don't know if this is where the hyper-individualistic Christianity comes from, but it seems possible.
Christianity – and I can't speak to other faiths because I don't know enough about them – but Christianity is a faith of community. We do things together. Our creed says, “WE believe . . .” The central act of our worship, Holy Communion, is done TOGETHER in community. That is why in the early days of COVID we held Morning Prayer, because there was no community for Communion. Our Prayer Book is a book of common prayer because we hold these prayers in common, we pray in community.
Becoming a Christian and remaining a Christian is an individual choice, to be sure. The baptismal covenant states, “I believe . . .” The Apostles' Creed is an individual statement of faith. Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God.” We each make individual choices to come worship every Sunday and to, hopefully, conform our lives to the example of Jesus. But all that aside, we need each other. We practice this faith, not individually, but together.
As Paul says, we are the body of Christ, making up its various parts. Some are eyes, some hands, some ears, some feet, and none of us can say, “I have no need of you.” I don't know if Peter was saying he had no need of the other eleven, but he certainly stepped out of the boat on his own. He didn't say, “Command us,” he said, “Command ME.”
This is not to say that we don't or shouldn't participate in times of individual discernment. There are certainly times we need to pray and ask God, “What would you have me do?” We need to be open to the moving and calling of the Holy Spirit. There are times when we belong in this boat with all of the other disciples. And there are times when we are called to get out of this boat, following where Jesus leads, so that we can serve and minister somewhere else or in some other capacity. Or, in certain cases, we need to leave the boat for our own health and safety. But discerning where God is calling you is very different than saying, “Prove it's you and command me to walk on water.”
One is discerning where God is calling you. The other is an attempt to bend God to your will. Or, worse yet, to prove to yourself that God is on your side, rather than figuring out how you can be on God's side.
We see how this plays out in the end of the story. Peter stepped out of the boat to walk with Jesus on the water. He left his community behind to do what he wanted, mistaking discernment for personal goals. For a few steps, for a few seconds, he succeeded. For a brief moment he was walking on water with Jesus. Then he began to sink. On his own he could not maintain his ability to walk on water. On his own he could only live his individualistic dream for a short time. If it weren't for Jesus, he would have drowned out there on his own.
What did Jesus do in response? He reached out, grabbed his hand, pulled him up, and put him back in the boat. He put him back in the community he had left behind. By doing this he basically told Peter, “It's not time for you to step out on your own.”
This story should remind us that Christianity is a community of faith. We will face storms. There will be times we aren't making any progress or are stuck in one spot. But getting out of the boat because we want Jesus to do something exciting for us isn't what we should be doing. Christianity isn't always thrilling. Church isn't always exciting. Just because we think it's better out there is not a reason to leave the boat.
Discernment and desire are two different things, and we need to know the difference.
May we have the courage to stay in the boat, and the wisdom to discern where God is calling us to be.