In the Footsteps of Christ: Walking on Water

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 has many, what biblical commentators would call, “textual irritants.”  Textual irritants are things found in the text that cause you to stop reading and take a closer look at the text – what does it mean?  Why did it use these particular words?  Why is the grammar or vocabulary unusual or unexpected?   Textual irritants are things in the text that stand out and make you take notice so that you stop reading and start pondering.   Let’s consider the Gospel lesson of the Lord walking on water:

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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In 14:22 – Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, it is already late evening (Matt 14:15 & 23).  Why does Jesus have to compel them into the boat?  He forces them to do something they  perhaps didn’t want to do.  Was the bad weather, which will be described in 14:24 already obvious to them?  They had already survived one storm at sea, but Jesus was in the boat with them that time, though he was asleep (Matt 8:23-27).  Now He is pushing them into the boat but is not going with them.  Chrysostom and other Church Fathers think Jesus was gradually teaching them to trust Him, but each time the lesson is a little more difficult.  First He was with them at sea in the storm, but asleep, now He is sending them into the storm but not going with them.  He wants them to learn to trust Him according to these Fathers.

And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.

Matthew 14:15 says the evening was coming on which led to the disciples wanting Jesus to dismiss the crowd.  Evening was coming on but then Jesus took time to feed the 5000, all ate a full meal and were satisfied, and 12 baskets full of leftovers were gathered up and the crowd was dismissed and the disciples sent off and Jesus went up to pray [Note well: feeding 5000 people takes a lot of time as does dismissing 5000 people].   And then after all these events we read again in 14:23 that evening was coming on – the exact same phrase as before the multiplication of loaves took place.  It is as if no time had elapsed despite all that had happened.  The next time reference in the text at 14:25 mentions the 4th Watch of the night, somewhere between 3-6am.  But the time of the feeding of the 5000 is not only in an unusual place – a deserted place, but the time seems  suspended as well.  Have they entered into and are they experiencing the time of the Kingdom?  The day which has no end?  And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the LORD), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.”  (Zechariah 14:7)

[Also interesting is that in 14:15, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away for evening was coming on, but Christ choose to feed that crowd first.  Now Jesus sends the disciples away BEFORE dismissing the crowd!  Jesus  is teaching them something – this is part of their formation as disciples.   And then evening finally comes on.]

But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

The wind (Greek: anemou).  The Evangelist Matthew had in the Greek language a number of different words he could use to refer to the wind.  He chooses one which gives us a sense of the wind as a force of nature.  The wind is powerful and unpredictable, we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:8).  The word is used in the expression “ scattered to the 4 winds” meaning the entire world, or the world in which God acts.  This wind will be significant to Peter in a moment.

The wind was contrary –  Remember Jesus sent the disciples out on the sea, and now the wind is against them.  Was this a sign from God that they were headed in the wrong direction?  On the boat they were probably wondering why in the world Jesus had sent them out there in the first place.  Now God was opposing them . . . or was it God, or is it a force that opposes God?  Is the lesson they are learning is that doing the will of God is not easy and sometimes all the forces of nature and the world will oppose you when you set out to do God’s will?

Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!”

 Disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, but it is night, and the wind is howling and the waves buffeting the boat, there are no spotlights on the boat.  They are looking into the darkness and see something walking on the sea.  If the wind and water were totally calm, one might be able to see something on the water, but the wind is blowing hard, so the waves would be roiling as well.   It is pretty hard to see under such conditions, no wonder they are troubled by seeing anything on the water, let alone a person!  They see someone on the water, not in a boat, so of course they think it has to be a phantom of some kind.

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The disciples are not only seeing something, they are having some kind of spiritual experience, for their eyes alone would not be able to see much as it is dark.  The disciples had experienced something of eternity when Christ fed the 5000, something outside of normal time.  Now they experience another spiritual reality.

In 14:26 disciples seeing  is in Greek: idontes – experience or perceive.   Note that in 14:30 the Evangelist uses a totally different word in describing Peter seeing.  There he uses the Greek: Blepwn –  which is the word meaning the opposite of blindness,  but also spiritual perception and insight.  The fact that Matthew uses two different Greek words for seeing tells us he is putting special stress on how and what they are seeing.

And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

 The disciples cry out in fear, but Jesus calmly speaks to them.  Again, one wonders how they could have heard him so clearly under these windy conditions.  He must be very near their boat, another sign that something supernatural is happening.  They are able to hear and see under very adverse conditions.   We might call to mind Isaiah 32:1-4 –  “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will hearken. The mind of the rash will have good judgment, and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.”  

 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

 “Command me to come” –  Peter, as rash as he sometime is, dares not of his own volition join Christ in this revelation.   He cannot come out on the water on his own, and he knows it.  But if Christ commands him to come  out, he is willing to obey.   Was Peter trying to show off how obedient he could be?  Or trying to show the other disciples that he indeed was greater than them and had a special relationship to Christ?  Or trying to show that he was not afraid – he is obeying Jesus’ command not to be afraid but to be of good cheer?

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Does Jesus invite Peter to come, or command him to come?  In either case, Peter has to decide to do what Christ tells him.  Without hesitation Peter does as Christ bids him to do.

[One is reminded of the demons of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt 8) asking Christ to apostolize them by sending them into the herd of swine.  They can’t do it on their own, in Christ’s presence, they need Christ’s permission.]

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

Seeing the wind (Greek: anemou).  He would have felt the wind all along as it was battering the boat.  All the disciples knew the wind was blowing strongly against them.  What did Peter suddenly see?    One doesn’t normally see the wind, but one can see what the wind can do – the force of the wind against things.  Peter apparently sees the wind to be the power of nature even chaos it represents, a force far greater than himself Peter has choices before him.  He has to decide what the forceful wind represents – it is a force to be reckoned with, yet is it God’s will or God’s presence or is it opposing God?   Peter faces what the Prophet Elijah encountered: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind …  (1 Kings 19:11)

Peter can focus his sight on God in Christ,  or on the wind that great force of nature and a real threat to Peter, or on his on experience and the limits of his human powers.   Peter has to decide who is more powerful Christ or the force of the wind and whom will he obey – the force of the wind or the voice of God.   Perhaps it is even the face of death.  Blowing at Peter is the force of chaos, beneath him is the abyss of the sea – Davey Jones’ locker.   A sailor fears being swept overboard by a violent wind, but Peter is already overboard!

Again the Evangelist uses a different word for seeing.  Here, Peter sees (Greek: Blepwn) the wind whereas back in 14:26 the disciples see (Greek: idontes) Christ walking on the water.  The Evangelist changes the word for seeing because he wants us to understand something beyond nature is occurring here.  We cannot see God with the eyes of the world, we need a new way of seeing to find God, for God is holy, God is other, our minds must change in order for us to see God.  So in this lesson, it is in the most unusual place and in the darkness of the night that Peter sees something he has never seen before.   Peter’s eyes are open, he is no longer blind but is seeing the spiritual reality the wind represents – and immediately he is afraid – of what?  The chaos of oblivion?  Of his own death?  Or that now he sees God face to face?

In 14:27 Jesus told them not to fear,  but in 14:30 Peter is afraid – is the issue that he disobeys Christ in this?   His fear is a natural response to the situation, but he in walking out on the water he was obeying Christ, but now in the midst of this he disobeys and allows fear to take over his life.   Is that why Jesus rebukes him as one of little-faith?

Beginning to sink?  One doesn’t just begin to sink, one goes down quickly.  Step off the side of a pool into the water, when do you “begin” to sink?

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Petros – sank like a rock.  Maybe this is what the other disciples thought of Peter – he was so bold as to step out on the water, maybe they thought he was trying to show his faith was greater than theirs.  Later, one can imagine the disciples, but maybe not Peter, were amused.  Yes indeed Peter is rightly named the rock (John 1:42), and he sank just like one.

… and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”   And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Surprisingly Jesus rebukes Peter not the wind.  The wind keeps howling until they get into the boat (14:32).   Peter apparently is only a half-believer, and it shows.  Peter shows fear, is this his doubt? – Even though he did Christ’s bidding and came out on the water, once there he ceases to obey Christ’s command not to be afraid.   Just like Peter each of us can obey some command of Christ and yet in the midst of that obedience, disobey some other command of Christ.  Discipleship is challenging.

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Christ did not suspend nature to save this one disciple, He saves Peter while allowing the wind to continue blowing against them.  It is only once they are in the boat, in the fellowship of the community of disciples, in the Church, that the wind no longer prevails.  They also are not brought to their destination by the wind, for it ceased.  They crossed the lake in the boat under their own power.

Of course there is the one time miraculous sign – not only Jesus walking on water but Jesus able to call His disciple out on the lake with Him.   Christ is showing Himself more powerful than nature, more powerful than wind, or deep or gravity.   Yet Christ doesn’t command or teach His disciples to foolishly disregard nature or the powers of nature in their day to day living.  He does not take this moment to promise them that the winds will always be with them or that nothing will ever threaten them or that they will never be afraid again.

The Gospel lesson is also for us today.  It is  about the call to discipleship – obedience to Christ.  Even if we willingly obey Christ or do what we think he wants us to do, we might find ourselves in trouble, needing to be saved, facing death or the hostile forces of nature or of evil or of our fellow humans.  And then we have to ask ourselves do we really believe Christ is more powerful than all of these?  Are we willing to die for Christ, knowing Him to be more powerful than death, realizing we have nothing to fear from death itself for Christ has overcome death.

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On a small level, when I came to Dayton, OH, with my family in 1986, I was following Christ, and walking out onto water.  We came to establish an Orthodox parish where there was none.   I did not know whether the mission would succeed or not.  There was a small group of disciples here, but I did not know if we could work together to plant a church.  There were forces we had to deal with including that almost all of the original people were very strong willed.   Each one could blow like the wind where it would.    Could we set aside our individual egos and personal dreams and drives in order to work together to build a community?    Yet we did it, we all climbed aboard that boat with Christ to weather the storm.

And it is true that not only in founding St. Paul’s parish were we walking on water, but all  who have joined us through the years, who left behind family and friends and the familiar to convert to Orthodoxy and join the parish, also walked by faith on water.  None of us knew what would happen, but we trusted Christ each in our own turn.

And on another level, we understand this Gospel lesson to be about facing the end of life  – we each and all have to face death at some point.  Peter was suddenly confronted with it right there in the face of Christ, while obeying Christ and walking with Christ.   To the end we have to cry out:

God be merciful to me the sinner and save me.

2 thoughts on “In the Footsteps of Christ: Walking on Water

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