Season 1 - Week 7
I’m writing this reflection on a boat. A cruise, actually, in honour of my spunky mom’s 80th birthday. My mom is from the American Midwest where, according to author Garrison Keillor, “The women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.”
He got the “strong” part right. Look up courage in the dictionary and you’ll find my mom. She married my good looking politician dad, led her average children on Girl Scout expeditions, and thought nothing of raising fish to prove to us that some mothers eat their young. She made us wear nice underwear just in case we were ever in an accident and doctors had to cut off our clothes. This is the way Midwesterners think: you make sacrifices so the other guy feels comfortable, even down to your underwear. This takes courage, according to my mom: to make others feel at home, to stick to your scruples, to do your homework, even when other people don’t. What courage was not, Mom reminded us, packing a first aid kit for a junior high backpacking trip, was being foolhardy.
I am writing about Peter’s waterlogged stroll toward Jesus flanked by the woman who read me this story at bedtime almost fifty years ago. What I remember - besides some theologically-suspect hints that focusing on Jesus might determine who sinks or swims in life (let’s be clear: it doesn’t) - are Jesus’ words of encouragement to the disciples who are convinced they’ve seen a ghost. “Take heart,” he tells them, which could be translated: “Have courage,” or literally, “Be encouraged,” since the Latin word for inner strength is the same as the word for heart.
Have courage? For what? Peter, being Peter, takes it to the extreme: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” As I imagine it, Jesus rolls his eyes and says, “Come on.”
Here is where I channel my mom. How stupid is it for a mortal - especially one whose name means “rock” - to jump out of a boat without expecting to sink? If my mom saw Jesus walking on the ocean just off starboard side, I promise you the last thing she would do is get off this boat. It’s not because she lacks courage. It’s because she is from Ohio, and that means that, above all else, she is sensible. She is reading in the shade, after all, while most of us on Deck 12 are trying to cheat the sun with SPF 30. My mom is clear about this: there are things God can do, and things we can do. And only fools mix them up.
I’ve used this passage with young people more times than I can count. I use it because I want to encourage them. I want them to “take heart” and step out of their comfortable boats for Christ, even if (sorry, Mom) it doesn’t always seem sensible.
But sitting here on a boat beside my mom, I wonder if I’ve mixed this story up. After all, the courageous thing to do isn’t to follow Peter, it’s to follow Jesus. Was it courage that caused Peter to step out of the boat, or impetuosity? Was Peter a fool for Christ, or just foolhardy? I’m pretty sure this story is supposed to be about Jesus, not Peter. After all, it wasn’t Jesus’ idea for Peter to get in over his head. Peter came up with that all by himself.
Jesus just accepted Peter for who he was, and stood by to haul him out of his human mess when the inevitable happened.
Here’s what I never noticed before. I’ve always focused on Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” which never seemed like the most pastoral response to a guy who just nearly drowned. But the God-message, the incarnational moment, and the one the disciples all recognise is in the next sentence. Jesus gets into the boat with Peter, which is about the most Jesus-y thing that Jesus ever does for any of us.
“When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.”
“They” got into the boat - not just Peter. To be in the same boat with us is, after all, Jesus’ signature move.
When our courage to step toward God fails, God’s courage to step toward us saves.
No wonder the story ends with Matthew saying that for the first time the disciples worshipped Jesus. “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
Here’s the thing: When the disciples called home that night, they didn’t talk about Peter, except maybe to mention that he had done another embarrassing thing. What they talked about was fact that they had seen the Son of God and that they, like us, can “take heart,” because Jesus is in the same boat.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said,“why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Grab a square of paper and write down some of the things that feel storm-like at the moment. A tough situation one of your young people might be facing? A youth group that just isn't getting on as well as you'd like? Whatever those things might be for you.
When you're done, fold the paper into an origami boat. You're probably already an expert but just in case you're not, there are some instructions here. As you fold, pray for the situations you've written.
Stand the boat on your desk, dashboard or somewhere you'll see it. Let it be a reminder to you that whatever form the storms might take in your ministry, Jesus is in the boat with you. Take heart...