22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Our reading this week from the Gospel of Matthew is one that would have caught the attention of David Hume. Hume was a skeptic. He didn’t trust anything he hadn’t experienced himself or had it on good authority of someone he trusted having a particular experience. He was open to new truths, they just had to be provable. Therefore, he would have had trouble with a story about someone walking on water. He would ask us to consider the likelihood of someone walking on water. Have you either walked on water yourself or seen someone walk on water? No, he didn’t trust the testimony of a two-thousand-year-old book.
So, if you’ve never seen someone walk on water then how can you believe that either Jesus or Peter did so? Now, Hume might agree that in their fear the disciples could have projected an image of Jesus walking on the water, but would that be enough to get Peter, who had never walked on water (assuming that humans don’t walk on water), out of the boat on trying to walk himself? Surely, if he tried, as soon as he put his foot outside the boat he would have sunk. Therefore, Hume would conclude this was all a myth. It might have metaphorical value but not historical value.
This story is one of the best known in the Gospels. It has permeated our cultural mindset so that when too much is asked of us, we ask why people think we can walk on water. After all, we’re not divine beings (and Hume was skeptical about the existence of divine beings), so why should we be expected to walk on water? Of course, some, less skeptical types, have used the text to beat folks over the head for their lack of faith and unwillingness to “get out of the boat.” Years ago, when I was teaching theology at a bible college in Kansas, this story seemed to be a “favorite” of our chapel speakers. These speakers tended to be youth ministers who appealed to the story to call on the students, (and I suppose, we professors as well) to get out of the boat. Don’t doubt, don’t resist God, but get out of the boat and join me in whatever it is I think is the most important concern at the moment.
Of the two options above, I’d probably side with Hume. After all, isn’t there a place for a little doubt and even skepticism in the life of faith? So, granting that I’ve never seen anyone walk on water, and thus can’t prove the validity of the story, how might we receive this story? We might start by remembering that in the ancient world the sea was often symbolic of chaos and danger (note the storm that shook even this group full of experienced fishermen). Jesus comes to them as the one who has power over the chaos (walks on the waters) and then calms them. Though fearful at first, once Peter recognizes Jesus, he wants to get out of the boat and join Jesus on the water. It’s true, Peter could be impulsive, but at least for a moment, his faith overcame his fear.
After Peter got out of the boat, he began to sense the power of the wind whipping around him. At that moment, he forgot he was actually walking on water. With his focus now on the wind, he lost his focus on Jesus and began to sink. How often is this true for us? We begin to focus on the noise around us, get distracted by it, and lose our focus on Jesus.
Yes, Peter began to have his doubts. I expect given the situation, I would have my doubts. I might act impulsively at first, and then realize I hadn’t thought this thing through. I probably would sink as well.
So, Peter had his doubts, which leads Jesus to ask him why he had so little faith? I think Jesus might have been a little harsh with him, but the question is a good one for us. How much faith is enough? Is a little faith sufficient? If we are saved, that is made whole, through grace, which we receive through faith, how much do we need? Perhaps the good news here is not whether Peter had enough faith, but whether Jesus is willing to embrace us no matter the level of our faith. Remember that Jesus doesn’t leave Peter floundering in the water. He pulls him up and into the boat. If the waves and the winds of this story represent the challenges of our lives, it’s possible that we will step out on faith, flounder, and require a little help from the one who is present with us by the Spirit and calms the waters of life.
Do we all experience a bit of doubt in life? Do we lose focus? Do we have questions that require answers? Yes to all of these questions, which are important ones. In the end, the question is not whether we doubt, but whether it causes debilitating injury to our souls. When that happens, we need the salvific healing presence of God, which comes to us, Paul says in confessing Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). As for the disciples who stayed in the boat, once Jesus calmed the waters and joined them, they bowed in worship and confess “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Perhaps we can hear in this story a reminder that despite the possibility of doubt, we can step out in faith. We can take some risks. We may sink, but Jesus is there to catch us. At this moment when the winds of change are whipping around us, a bit of doubt-filled risk-taking might be needed. So, maybe those impetuous youth ministers who liked this story were on to something!
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.