story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water is an embellishment of
Mark's, where only Jesus walks on the water. In Mark's version the point
seems to have been to glorify Jesus. The story ends with the astonishment
of the disciples, which is supposed to function for the readers as a kind
of applause sign: "Pretty great, wouldn't you say?" Thus the story
probably had an evangelistic, a propaganda function at first. But Matthew
takes for granted that his readers all know well enough that Jesus is
pretty great. He doesn't need to prove anything about Jesus to them. So he
tries to prove something else, something about the readers themselves, and
about the life of faith. And that's what interests me this morning.
Matthew had quite an
imagination, and where he differs from Mark, his source, he is often
simply fictionalizing the story of Jesus, much of that already largely
fictional. This is one of those places. If Mark having Jesus walk on the
waves wasn't enough, Matthew adds Peter. Why did he add it? In a sense it
almost makes Peter, not Jesus, the star of the show.
I think the point is
pretty obvious. Peter is doing fine until all at once he becomes aware of
his position, much like Wiley Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons: he is
running off a cliff and across thin air when he suddenly remembers the
little fact of gravity! He realizes that one cannot defy it. And so
Peter, realizing the same fact, begins to sink. And he cries out in fear!
And then Jesus
reaches out and takes his hand, restoring his equilibrium. "Oh you of
little faith; why did you doubt?" This is almost comical! Yes, why indeed?
Just because you're walking on the surface of the water as if it were the
sidewalks of New York--why doubt? And yet, Jesus is right! Peter was
foolish to doubt! I will return to this point in a moment.
What is Matthew
getting at? I think it is so obvious it cannot be missed. But I will
insult your intelligence by saying it anyway. Matthew means you and me to
learn this lesson: we are surrounded by a heaving sea of stormy problems.
But if we will only keep our eyes fixed with devotion upon the savior we
will not succumb.
The moment we grow
faithless, however, it's Davey Jones's Locker for us! And yet, Matthew
reassures us, Jesus is willing to rescue even the wavering. Much the same
point is made in a nearly identical Buddhist story in which a Buddhist
monk is able effortlessly to walk across the water so long as his
concentration does not waver from the thought of his Lord Gotama Buddha.
But as soon as his mind begins to wander, he sinks like a stone. It's not
inconceivable that Matthew had heard the Buddhist version, though there's
no real reason to think so. I think it's almost an archetypal
In fact we don't
have to go very far afield to find parallels to the story. Peter's modern
counterparts are the heroes of action movies who are walking thin rope
bridges across wide chasms, mountain climbers, people rescuing would-be
jumpers on a skyscraper window ledge. What do they always tell the hero?
"Don't look down!" You only get frightened if you look at the danger
beneath you. If you can keep your mind above it, you can keep above the
If you keep your
mind on Jesus or the Buddha, it may be that you will stay afloat above
your problems. Or it may be that you will sink and not even notice. It
will seem to you that you have not sunk because as a another psalmist
says, "If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there."
The point would then
seem to be to do what Brother Lawrence said to do: to "practice the
presence of God." What the Buddhists call "right mindfulness." This,
however, devotional meditation, has never worked too well for me, unless I
am reading H.P. Lovecraft or listening to Pink Floyd.
And yet there is
another application of the story, one that may be less obvious, but which
is easily just as important. And this one is relevant even if, like me,
you're not exactly the praying kind.
What exactly was
Peter's big mistake? It was this: the fact he should not have neglected
was not the law of gravity, but rather the simple fact that in that very
moment he was in fact defying gravity. He should have continued
boldly with that, not its reverse, in mind. He thought he was a victim of
inertia: he can walk
on the water as long as he doesn't notice that it is water! And then the
jig is up. It's as if he suddenly realizes he has been disobeying a
traffic law and then hastens to correct his mistake. "I can't be doing
But he should have
said: "Hey! This is great! I don't know how I'm doing it, but I'm doing
it! And as long as I am, then let's make the most of it." That's a
different sort of reaction than Wiley Coyote has. That's the way people on
The Twilight Zone react. A stop watch that freezes time? A camera
that snaps pictures of the future? A garbage bag that spews out Christmas
presents? Twilight Zone characters are quick to see opportunities
in unusual circumstances. And they are happy enough to adopt a "no
questions asked" policy.
Or remember our
action heroes. If the odds against escaping are a million to one, all they
see is that that means there's a chance. They know not to keep reminding
themselves how unlikely is success. They know not to look down! And they
Even so, in the
moment you suddenly find yourself poised dangerously with nothing firm
beneath your feet: it is only the deadly gravity of uncertainty that will
sink you. If you continue on in the momentum of confidence, you will tread
the whitecaps as on water skis.
Is that too
optimistic for you? Put it this way: at least if you do insist on looking
down instead of looking ahead, you will sink. It's not so much a matter of
looking at Jesus as it is looking ahead and saying "So far, so
good." A matter of keeping going. Of not becoming a self-fulfilling
prophet telling yourself you've had it, it's over. Because then it will be
Peter thinks, "Wait
a minute! This can't be happening! I have to sink!" And he does. No
surprise. He should have said "Hey, what do you know? This is happening!
I'm not sinking! Full speed ahead!"
You may sink, I
know. I'm not one of these mind-over-matter delusionists. People do sink.
They lose. But my point is: you should only know you're sinking when you
see it happen and are surprised to see it happening! Don't
make it happen by predicting that it will, deciding that it
Here's piece of
advice from another great story teller, Ray Bradbury. Bradbury said that
sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow your wings on
the way down! It may be you won't grow wings, but you may be surprised
to find a safety net you didn't think would be there. Or maybe
there will be someone there to catch you. Or maybe you will
crash. But if the building is on fire, maybe it's worth the risk. You
wouldn't have been any better off staying where you were, that's
I have given this
dangerous advice to students, warning them that it was dangerous.
Do they tell you there's no future in what you want to study? In what you
feel you have no choice but to study unless you lose your soul? It may be
time to find the window and launch yourself out into the thin air of your
destiny, to take that first step onto the thin membrane surface of the Sea
I have given this
advice to people who, like myself, have suddenly found themselves
foundering on the jade pavement of the ocean when a job was pulled out
from under them and their families. At that moment you've got to think
fast. And you've got to have faith, trust, what Peter didn't have. And by
that I don't mean a naive belief that things will turn out fine, that God
will not let anything bad happen to you. He will, oh, believe me, he
will, at least if Jesus of Nazareth is any example!
No, the faith I'm
talking about is the courage to venture. To say, "I'm betting the surface
of the water will not break beneath me! That, like the Hindu fire-walker,
I'll be OK if I just take a deep breath and get moving!"
My old instructor at
Taggart's Driving School used to tell me, if I suddenly found myself in
the middle of a bad scene, a car coming at me, two cars coming at me,
don't slow down! Speed the hell up! His logic was simple: if you slow
down, you're making yourself a sitting duck. But if you speed up, at least
there's a chance you'll get clear! That's the kind of "faith" I'm talking
about. The faith of a venture. If you venture, you may sink. But if you
don't venture, if you don't keep going, you will definitely
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