In some ways it may feel like we’ve heard this story before. This is the second time Jesus had been with the disciples on the rough sea. The first time was when he was asleep in the boat in the storm, woke up, and commanded Peace, Be Still, and everything was calm.
Right before this story today is the story where Jesus ends up feeding 5,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 (remember it was 5,000 plus women and children). So the disciples have been witness to some of Jesus’ great miracles before we catch up with them today. They’ve already seen what God is capable of, even on the sea.
Our story today begins at sea. Jesus had sent the disciples away in the boat, while he went up the mountain to finally get some time to himself after hearing that his friend, cousin, and possibly his mentor (John the Baptist) had died. He stayed there all night, while the disciples weathered out a wind storm at sea. In the early morning hours, when it’s light but not bright, he walked toward them on the sea. And they were terrified and thought him a ghost. But Jesus spoke to them to let them know it was him. He used the divine name here – I AM – so there would be no doubt who it was approaching. “It’s me, guys – I Am – don’t be afraid.”
This narrative shows up in two other gospels: Mark and John. And in those accounts, this is where it ends. Matthew is the only one that continues with the story about Peter.
I know we want to love Peter. Somehow we feel kindred with him or something. We want to commend him for being brave. And we feel defensive for Jesus calling him out for having little faith. But notice the setup for Peter’s command (and remember, this is after Jesus has told them who he was): “Lord, IF IT IS YOU, command me to come to you on the water.” That seems a bit presumptuous. It’s hard to know if Peter is testing Jesus, to see if he will be able to walk on the water. Or if Peter is just really not sure whether or not it is Jesus. We know it’s in those early morning hours where it’s hard to tell what might be out there, and it was probably hard to see that it was Jesus, but he’s just told them who he is. He used the divine name even. I Am. But Peter needs to see and experience it for himself. It reminds me of Thomas, another disciple who has been given a hard time throughout the history of the church for not believing eagerly.
What I notice here, though, is that even though Peter seems to speak from his doubt or his skepticism, which many of us can identify with, Jesus makes room for him. Jesus is willing to meet Peter where he is, and allows and invites him to come walk on the water. It seems that our message should not be to get out of the boat because we can do incredible things. But to trust in Jesus, the one united with creation, the great provider, the savior, our Lord. I am grateful that even the God of the universe is willing to meet me in my fear and my doubt, loving me even when I want to test and bargain.
Jesus invites Peter to walk on the water. And he does. Except he was afraid because of the strong wind, of course, and the waves that lapped over his feet and against his legs, and he began to sink. Some interpret this to mean that Peter was losing faith and so he began to sink. Maybe the water was just getting really rough and it felt like he was sinking. We don’t know, but he cries out to Jesus again, but this time out of desperation for life: Lord, save me! And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. And Jesus said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased, and everyone knew that Jesus was the Son of God.
That part where Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” That’s the part where we might feel defensive of Peter, especially if we feel like he’s done such a brave thing. But it’s good for us to observe that Jesus doesn’t call him “you of no faith” but “you of little faith”, and to be of little faith isn’t a problem in Matthew’s gospel. That phrase has occurred elsewhere. It occurred in the other sea story, where Jesus calmed the storm. Before he calmed the storm, after the disciples woke him up in a panic, he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Matt 8:26) And in Luke it shows up in the part where Jesus is telling the disciples not to worry about their lives, what they will eat or wear… “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!” (Lk 12:28)
Being of little faith isn’t a problem. It’s something you might want to grow out of, but it’s not as big of a deal as we might imagine it to be. And in each of these accounts, it’s not like Jesus walks away from them for having little faith. He might come across as deeply compassionate, just wanting them to believe and trust him so they don’t have to live in fear and doubt. “Why did you have doubts? I’m right here with you, and with you to the end.”
There are many things we can take away from this story today. And we haven’t even talked about the story of Joseph in Genesis or of Paul’s writing in Romans. The Joseph story and the story of Peter both remind us that life is complicated. Faith and doubt are intertwined. Failure and challenge is part of life. One of the greatest challenges of a faithful life is acknowledging that God is with us in all of it, no matter what. A full life is complicated and messy, but we were meant to be resilient and ready for change. Often it’s through our struggles that we find out who we are and become better versions of ourselves. And it’s through those experiences that we learn to put our hope and trust in God. And like the disciples, we might forget those moments, like how they may have forgotten the miraculous things God had done when they were in the midst of yet another storm, feeling alone and afraid. Yet those kinds of moments end up training us to be resilient people of trust. Over and over we can learn to trust in the Lord – that God is at work in all things, even if we can’t see where it’s going.
Jesus never promised that there would not be storms. But he did promise to be with us in the midst of them, and he meets us where we need him, even if it’s not where we expect him.