Walking on Water: Keeping Your Eyes on Christ

In the Gospel according to St. Matthew (14:22-34) we read the account of Jesus walking on water and St. Peter attempting to walk on water:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

Fr. Lev Gillet comments on the Gospel Lesson: 

“Peter walks on water. As long as he looks at Jesus, as long as he goes towards Him, he is able to walk on the waves of  the lake. But when he looks about him, when he notices that the wind is strong, he is struck with fear. He begins to sink. Jesus has to stretch forth His hand to save him. If Peter had paid no attention to the waves and wind, if he had concentrated his gaze on Jesus alone, he would not have found himself in danger. His faith would not have been shaken. In this you have also the cause of my fall. If I were capable of looking at Jesus along, if I did not give way to consideration of danger or temptation, begin a kind of dialogue with them, I too would be able to walk on the water. All my faults originate by a fading or disappearance of the Saviors image.” (A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, pg. 33)

The story of Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water brings to mind a couple of other salient points.   In John 21:7, the disciples are out fishing one day after the resurrection of Christ.  Christ while standing on the shoreline calls to them in their boat and directs them where to lower their nets for a spectacular catch of fish.  As soon as the disciples realize it is the Lord Jesus calling to them from the shore, Peter “sprang into the sea.”  Don’t know if this was typical of his behavior, but it is reminiscent of his walking out onto the stormy sea to get to Christ.  In the John Gospel lesson it would appear that Peter was not afraid of the water and apparently could swim and so swam ashore.  So his stepping out of the boat in Matthew 14 onto the sea might not be out of character for him.  He apparently knew how to swim.  But Peter seems to lose everything in that moment, not just his faith but even knowing how to swim for immediately he calls out to Jesus to save him.  It was a lesson for St. Peter in learning about salvation:  a drowning man is not interested in a theoretical discussion of how he might be saved, he needs to be rescued immediately.  But, he must recognize the desperateness of his situation:  his need for immediate salvation or otherwise he will just continue doing what he was doing.    Peter could swim, but he realized immediately he was in trouble and in need of being saved, something he could not do for himself.  He saw that it was Christ alone who could reach out to him and prevent his drowning.

I cannot resist adding something which I have thought about the scene of the sinking Peter.  Peter’s Jewish name was Simon, but Jesus called him Peter which in Greek means ‘rock.’   I’ve wondered whether the disciples also saw the humor in the situation of Peter asking to walk on water and the disciples later pointing out to him – and you sank just like a rock.

The Church as Holy Community

In 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 St. Paul writes:

“We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”

And what might St. Paul’s ideal of what the church is look like in practical terms on the local level?

Archimandrite Zacharias in his book offers us this example:

“As members of one Body, each is responsible for the health of the whole Body. We have a duty to defend the life of the Body. The Lord says, ‘If thou bring thy sacrifice to the temple and there rememberest that thy brother hath something against thee; leave there thy gift, and go first to be reconciled to him.’ He is not telling us to be reconciled when we know that we have offended someone – that goes without saying – but when a brother has no peace because of us, even though we are not to blame. God wants us to humble ourselves as much as we can before our brother, regardless of the apparent justice of the matter. Our brother’s heart will then be moved by our humility and he will be able to draw near to God again. In this way we work with God for his salvation.”   (Remember Thy First Love, pg. 295)