The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 offers us a unique look at the Apostles as a community, and one Apostle’s, St. Peter‘s, relationship both to Christ and the other disciples.
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.
Christ sent the Apostles together on a boat. His disciples share a common life, common experience, common dangers. They experience life as a community – together they survive the storms of life, and together they also experience Christ the incarnate God.
On encountering Christ, in the midst of the battering storm, the disciples are made afraid both by the storm and by meeting the Lord in the midst of the storm. St. Peter, emboldened by seeing the Lord on the waters, asks permission to leave the fellowship of the disciples in the boat and to come to Jesus alone. His experience of Jesus alone cannot prevent him from sinking in the waters. In the boat with the other disciples, the fellowship kept him afloat.
It is an important lesson for believers. It is a false dichotomy to think one has to choose between the Church and Christ. Christ is with the disciples in the boat even when walking on the waters. The fellowship of the disciples, the Church, serves a purpose for the faithful. We encounter Christ as a fellowship and we support and help one another within the Church. The boat and the fellowship both serve a purpose for disciples as they face the surging storms of life, and neither prevents us from encountering Christ.
Of course there are times when the fellowship of believers fails. The Apostles deserted Christ at the cross. Members of the Church sometimes turn the community away from Christ to try to make the Church be something other than the Body of Christ. The Apostles were so afraid of the public after the crucifixion of Christ that they went into hiding rather than seeking the risen Lord. But if the Church keeps Christ as Lord, and the members including the leadership recognize the lordship of Christ rather than making themselves lords over others, the Church serves its purpose to help us find Christ in the midst of the storms of temptation.
Sergius Bulgakov reflects on St Peter, the only Apostle granted to walk with Jesus on water (even if momentarily), and also who also openly denied Christ. Peter rightly confesses Jesus as God, but then is called ‘Satan’ by Jesus for denying God’s plan of salvation for the world. What does this tell us about holiness itself? What does it tell us about the man, Peter?
“The forgiveness of sins does not mean they are forgotten. It even pre-supposes the contrary: their special remembrance in the full awareness of God’s mercy. There is no reason to think that the apostle Peter could forget, in this age or the future one, his renunciation of the Lord. According to tradition, he remembered this renunciation all his life, and its memory is preserved forever in the holy Gospel. But this does not nullify the great saintliness of the first apostle, to whom the Lord said on the same day, ‘Thou art Peter,’ and then, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ (Matt. 16:18,23). Peter is by no means an exception among all the saints, whose saintliness supposedly signifies freedom from all sin. On the contrary, this is what the prayer of the Church says about all human saintliness: ‘there is no man who is alive and does not sin. Thou alone art without sin,’ for ‘every man [is] a liar, as it is written, That thou might be justified in thy sayings, and might overcome when thou art judged’ (Rom. 3:4). Every human being has had need of forgiveness and redemption by the Blood of the Lamb. In other words, the saintliness glorified by the Church signifies not sinlessness but righteousness as the sum total of pluses and minuses, experienced as a synthesis of bliss and suffering. This confirms that, for human beings, there is neither absolute heaven nor absolute hell.” (The Bride of the Lamb, p 480)
Peter isn’t granted permission to walk on water because he is sinless or perfect. We don’t abide in the fellowship of the saints because we are perfect and sinless. We all are part of the fellowship of the Church because we recognize we are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy which we are given through our union with Christ and in His Church.