What do you think it sounded like when Peter first re-told the story of the two of them walking on water? You have to believe that one of the first things he did was to tell it to the people on the boat and then tell it to people who weren’t there. I also believe this became “Peter’s story”. For the rest of his life, at parties and social gathering, Peter told this story. Someone would say, “Peter, tell them about the time you walked on water.” Then, with only a bit of coaxing, Peter would gladly comply.
We all have one of these stories; a tale tinged with a bit of shame. Peter doesn’t come out looking all that great yet somehow this is part of the adventure. Mental health professionals call these shame stories. The Bible is full of them. They go right back to the beginning of the Bible. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and well (everyone he ever knew). Something happens that we’re ashamed of, something we’ve done or said, and by interacting with God; our shame is redeemed. In today’s story, it’s about Peter doubting Jesus in a life or death situation. Jesus redeems our shame because no one benefits from carrying emotional baggage given to them by religion.
No matter what you’ve heard about this story in the past, the deeper truth is this: shame can be redeemed. In fact it’s the underlying message from Genesis to Revelation. So that’s what’s going on at the macro level, the bigger picture. Let’s look at the micro level; what’s happening in this story specifically.
The disciples didn’t posses and abundance of sophistication. Jeff Foxworthy, noted philosopher, theologian, and comedian, defines a redneck as the “glorious absence of sophistication”. Given the holiness of the 12 men we’re talking about, I have no problem saying these disciples probably met Foxworthy’s definition of a redneck. The 12 rednecks from Galilee were Jesus’ A-Team for spreading the good news and bringing about the kingdom of God. I imagine Peter’s retelling of the walking on water story probably resembled the guy in the trailer park describing the tornado than a fancy preacher reading from the King James Bible.
“What you see, it was about 3 o’clock of the morning and me and the boys was asleep in the boat. I tell you, it had been one more long day. People just kept coming from everywhere to see Jesus. He kept feeding them too. We was plum wore out. Man, they was people from as far south as Jerusalem. We was tired but we still though we might go flounder gigging when we got back to Capernaum so we went to sleep. Jesus, he didn’t want to go with us. He stayed behind. He’s always wanted to go off and be by himself and pray. Especially after he’s had a busy day feeding people. Like I said, I don’t know where it kept coming from; the bread and fish just kept showing up and we kept feeding people. People do like them a free fish fry.
Jesus wanted to go pray by himself. I guessed he would catch a boat and row himself over in the morning. You wouldn’t think it, but for a carpenter, that old boy knows how to handle a boat. Oh, yeah, 3 o’clock in the morning. Couple of us woke up in the middle of the night, you know, like you do when you need to go to bathroom and I looked over the side of the boat and what did I see? I saw a ghost!
I saw a ghost that walking toward the boat. This here ghost was walking on water at a pretty good clip and was going to overtake us before long. The ghost had long hair, beard, a robe, and looked like someone I knew but I didn’t know who. I raised the alarm. “Disciples, one and all, there is ghost walking on the water, let us all freak out in a manner befitting our status of Biblical icons!” So we freaked out.
Have you ever seen a man walk on the water at 3 o’clock in the morning? We ain’t been drinking or nothing. Now here’s when it got weird. The ghost was some kind of Tony Robbins like motivational speaker. He said, “Be encouraged, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Like I was supposed to know who the ghost was! I need more than a pronoun to be friendly with a ghost at 3 o’clock in the morning in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Again, he just expected me to know who he was. Then, it hit me. Maybe this “ghost” was really Jesus. How could I be sure?
So I said (tell them what you said to Jesus, Peter) to Jesus, Lord if it’s you, order be to come out to you on the water.”
Let’s ask Peter to take a break for a moment in his retelling to Action News. Two things in Peter’s version of events ring true. First, Peter loses the ability to contextually identify Jesus.
What do I mean by this? Look at the past day. Jesus and his disciples have spent the day feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. According to Matthew’s gospel this is Jesus’ most important and meaningful miracle to date. As miracles go, this is one goes right to the top of the list. Look at what Jesus can do. If that image of Jesus’ care and compassion for humanity is seared in your consciousness; the possibilities of what Jesus might do next are endless. Who would want to put any boundaries or limitations on what Jesus might achieve? After you’ve seen the man feed 5000 people surely anything is possible? One would think that’s the case. I would hope to be in this group of rational Christ followers.
I however, like Peter, am a human being. It is easy to beat up on Peter and his supposed lack of faith. If one sermon on this text with the title (It Takes a Leap of Faith Get Out of the Boat) is preached today, then hundreds will be preached. When our ideas about the status quo become disrupted and disorientated, we freak out. Even though we’ve got mounds of evidence on one side of our brain, when it’s dark (literally or metaphorically) and 3 o’clock in the morning (literally or metaphorically) our ability to think straight shuts down. No matter how many miracles we’ve seen; we say stupid stuff. Despite the stupid (even shameful) things we say, Jesus hears us and keeps walking towards us. That’s the real miracle in this story.
The second deeper event which rings true is Peter’s question, “Lord, if it’s you”. Do we do this one or what? Let me put it this way: it’s also called “bargaining with God”. If it’s you Lord, do this, do that. The questions we put to Jesus. Lord, if it’s you, then we’ll believe, respond, go to church, give money, serve, and be faithful. We will then be faithful. Our faithfulness is conditioned our Jesus meeting our demands. Do you see the problem with that? That’s backwards. That’s not how faith is supposed to work. This is much more than getting the cart before the horse. If we take Peter’s “Lord, if it’s you” approach and make it our standard operating procedure; we have created a do it yourself religion where Jesus and God are employees and we are the bosses. When our employees don’t deliver, if the “if it’s you” test isn’t passed, we’ll fire the Jesus and God and find something else to worship.
The greatest “Lord, if it’s you” challenge we like to pose to Jesus is this: Lord, if it’s you, help us maintain the status quo. This is what Peter was asking. “Help my stable world of ghosts and fear stay in check. Help me live in a world where I didn’t realize physical and spiritual hunger was a problem that needed to be addressed.” Does any of that sound familiar?
Jesus challenges the status quos in our lives and the world we inhabit. We’ve made maintaining the status quo a full time job. Each time we come to this place and crack open this book and listen to these crazy stories our idea of the status quo is challenged. Sometimes it should be erased altogether. Indeed that’s what the Resurrection is; an obliteration of the status quo called death.
The world is working against Christ’s newness, doing everything to say we must stay inside, embrace, exist, and live in the status quo. The story we’re told to tell and document is the story of the status quo. Jesus says, no. Jesus says, don’t be afraid. Jesus says, be encouraged.
Jesus breaks in and grace invades; our well ordered ideas of life are placed at risk. If you don’t believe me, just ask Peter.