“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
There are times in our lives when doing the right thing will mean stepping out into the storm.
That’s what Peter discovered. The disciples were lost in the storm, and Jesus came to them treading ghost-light over the water. What did it look like? A trough through the sea, spray like cold, shattered glass, dark, tearing wind with Jesus at the heart of it all, walking nearer. Or maybe, it seemed, it was not he who walked but the disciples who were drawn to him, vortexing into his infinite center.
Peter calls out: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
We struggle to understand Peter because of the fantastical remove we stand at from him, this man who directly encountered Jesus. There were few who knew Jesus the way the twelve disciples did, and fewer still who knew him like Peter. Because of this, we can’t easily comprehend Peter. What’s worse is the way many of us buy into a particular strain of Bible-reading that chides and chuckles and outright mocks Peter and the Twelve. We take them for fools.
It’s our mistake. The disciples understood the choice on offer. When Jesus laid out the terms, they left everything and followed him. Peter repeated that move again and again in his life. He left the other disciples and went up Mt. Tabor with James and John where he witnessed the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). At Caesarea Philippi, Peter left tame interpretations of Jesus’ identity and said it straight: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). In the garden, Peter left fear of the guards and struck the men who had come to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:51). It might not have been the right move, but at least Peter moved. As always, he chose to go nearer to Jesus.
Then there was that time when Peter left the boat as it shuddered between wave and abyss. He stepped out to go to Jesus. He didn’t step out because he wanted to share in Jesus’ divine power. (Here’s where we misunderstand him.) Peter stepped out because he wanted Jesus. Peter knew that being near Jesus is its own reward, worth braving any storm. Jesus’ magnetic heart drew Peter, even onto that unreal surface, the sea trembling under his liquid footsteps. Peter’s feet strode where his heart had leapt, because “where I am there will my servant will be also” and Peter was nothing if not Jesus’ servant (John 12:26). All was well until his mind worked the impossibility abacus and realized the absurdity of water-walking. Then Peter sunk until he was saved by Jesus’ hand.
We can learn two things here. The first is that following Jesus will not lead us into enveloping comfort. A lot of times, following Jesus will feel like the amoebic depths sucking at our legs. It will feel like all is lost. We’ll sink. But when we have been captured by a vision of Jesus, we’ll always choose him. We’ll step out into the storm. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the waves.” What else?
I think of John Henry Newman. He was a rising star in the mid-19th century Anglican church and an Oxford University professor. He began to read deeply in the church fathers and found that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant”–which is just what happened to him (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, p.3). Newman converted to Catholicism. It was a move that meant leaving friends, career, and professional relationships within establishment Anglicanism, becoming a Catholic priest, and serving an impoverished industrial district in the heart of Birmingham, England. Newman wrote that in leaving the Anglican church, he felt he was walking away from “the land of milk and honey.” But what else could he do? He had to go to be with Christ, where he felt Christ was leading him.Newman’s choice and direction might not be yours. But what are places in your life where preferring Christ above all else will mean leaving behind, stepping out, braving the storm?
The second thing we learn here is that to follow Christ is to experience the freedom to choose new possibilities. In all Peter’s years of fishing, I doubt he ever tried walking on water. I doubt the possibility occurred to him. But there was Jesus pushing through the storm, and a new path suddenly opened in Peter’s mind.
This matters, because we can come under the false impression that faith is about shutting down possibilities. That, at least, is what the world at large thinks of Christianity, as if following Jesus were just a bunch of finger-waggling. So many resent Christianity, or “organized religion,” or whatever you want to call it, as a bunch of bronze-age, warmed-over patriarchy that crimps the freedom we ought otherwise to enjoy. On that view, faith is all just a bunch of no, no, no’s.
Once, a church family brought the neighbor boy with them to worship. After my passionate sermon on following Christ (I don’t remember the passage or the theme, but that’s what all of my sermons are about), they quizzed the kid on what he got out of it. His response: “Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. And say no to drugs.” Alas. But so it goes: the gospel is reduced to a negative bromide.
To truly follow Jesus is to have a sense of possibilities open up. It’s to feel freedom, not bondage. Peter had the freedom to ask the impossible–and the freedom to respond. His was a freedom from fear, a freedom from want, a freedom to look past those vertiginous waves and claim a life that really mattered. How many of us can claim the same?
In many ways, walking on water was a just blip on Peter’s wide, free horizon. He would follow Jesus even if it meant getting crosswise with the authorities (Acts 4:18-20). He would follow him even if it meant challenging his long-held cultural prejudices (Acts 10:34-35). And history tells us that Peter left his native Galilee–his people and language, his culture and family and profession–and ended up in Rome at the nucleus of the expanding Jesus movement, all to follow his risen Lord.
This is how I’ve experienced the Jesus way of life: not as something pinched and flinching, but as the freedom to step out into the storm. Peter could imagine a way through the waves because he couldn’t imagine anything less than following Jesus.