Year A Proper 14: baby steps / beyond the boat

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter.
Have you ever seen a young child learning to walk for the first time? It spends a long time standing still, holding onto the furniture, until it is sure that its legs are under it and ready to go. You’ve seen the yearning in the child’s eyes, wistfully staring after the dog as it ambles away into the other room; cries of frustration and fury as a parent steps briefly out of sight. The child wants so badly to follow. Eventually, there’s nothing for it but to step out, step away from that safe crutch of furniture, set out across the sea of carpeting. Finally, it’s all or nothing.
A step. Another. One or two more, a few, then the fall, into the waiting arms of the parent.
Just so, Jesus won’t let Peter fall, or drown. “Save me!” panics Peter, and immediately Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, like a parent catching a toddling child.
It is, after all, Peter’s first time trying to walk on water.
The theological background to this story is summed up at the end, when the disciples say, “Well this just goes to prove that this man is from God.” The stormy sea is a metaphor for the chaotic waters before creation – when the earth was dark and void, and the Spirit of God moved over the waters. Like the waters before creation, like the Flood, the stormy sea represents everything that is opposed to God, to God’s good order; opposed to creation, to us. The fact that the storm couldn’t overwhelm Jesus, that he was able literally to stomp it underfoot and subdue it to his will – that was proof positive, to the disciples that Jesus owned the same power that God wielded in creation, that God used to bring forth the Flood and to close the floodgates. It meant that he had power over everything. Everything. No wonder they were terrified.
Most of the disciples are content to wait in the boat for events to unfold. They see Jesus walking on the water – they are afraid that he’s a ghost, and they huddle in the hold for fear. Jesus calls out to them – the voice of God calling out over the waters before creation, calling them back to life – and they peer out, wondering, hopeful, cautious. Eventually, when he reaches the boat and climbs aboard, they worship him, relieved and confused and comforted and in some ways more disturbed than ever. But they wait. They wait, in the storm-tossed little fishing vessel, chucked up by the waves and thrown down by the wind, surfing the fine line between life and death – they wait for Jesus to reach them.
Only Peter says, “I wonder.” The disciples have already done their mission year – been sent out two by two to cure illness and cast out demons, proclaim liberty to the oppressed and the year of good news to the poor. The gospel says, “He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” He instructed them, “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” HE gave them authority to do the same works of power that he had demonstrated among the people.
So Peter says, “I wonder.” This is a huge step, because of the whole waters before creation thing, the chaos, the power that belongs only to God. There have been other healers, but no other gods, not with real power, not real gods. This power, to subdue the water; has this authority, this power to create order out of chaos, to subdue the forces of oppression, opposition; has this been shared with the apostles also? Peter wonders.
He also remembers where that authority and power came from. He doesn’t test it out without first asking Jesus. “Command me to come to you,” he suggests. It’s like a prayer. “If it is your will, let me do this thing with you.”
Once in, or on, the water, it was all a bit much for Peter. The storm has been battering, beating up on the boat; it must be wild out there with nothing between him and the elements, except for the power of God, except for his faith. No wonder he falters; you can hardly fault him for it. And as soon as he cries out, “Save me,” Jesus catches him, and saves him, and gathers him aboard the boat, now heading home to safe harbour.
And still, Peter is the only one who even tried getting out of the boat, and for that short time, his footsteps echoed the footsteps of God in the garden; he claimed the power, the authority that Jesus had shared with his disciples in its entirety.
I’ve been pondering what all of this might mean for a little boat by the water, a little ship like the Church of the Epiphany. Our Sunday School children can tell us all about being fishers of men, fishers for people. We know that we are sent out into the world and its unpredictable waters to proclaim the gospel, restore the lepers, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, heal the wounded. But sometimes when the storms come we do what comes naturally and huddle in the hold of the boat, waiting for Jesus to come and save us, afraid to put our heads above the bulwarks.
Peter claimed the power for himself and later for the church to walk through the storm, even on the water. He called out to Jesus – command me to come to you. He didn’t wait for calm waters to step out of the boat. He didn’t wait for Jesus to get all the way to them; he wanted to meet him in the middle, to work with him and walk with him, to claim that power over the chaos, to do great things with God. And Jesus said yes; “Come.” Can you imagine the exhilaration, the adrenaline rush that Peter felt in those few moments spent outside the boat?

I’m going to suggest a teeny, tiny step to get us out of our own comfort zone. In two weeks’ time, weather permitting, and yes, I own the irony of that little caveat; if it’s stormy, remember that God invented the sense of humour; in two weeks’ time, I’d like us to take our worship out into the elements, to get out of the boat of this building and onto the grass and the pathway outside our own front doors. I don’t want us to go far, but I do want us to look around and see what is going on around us, and to let our neighbours see what it is that we get up to in here on a Sunday morning; to show them, in person, that yes, all are welcome: “Come.”
I’d really like it if we could practice just a little bit this morning. After the Peace, if you’re game to step out of the boat, you could return not to your seat but to someone else’s; sit next to someone you don’t really know; admit it if you don’t know their name, and tell them yours. We think we all know each other here, because it’s a small boat, but do we?
Little, tiny, baby steps outside of the boat, that we can make together. There’ll be more; and I’d love to hear your ideas for getting out of the boat and walking on the water; we have the power, and we have the authority to do it. We have the faith, and if we falter, God will catch us. We can do great things, with the call and command that we have been given, if we can just gather up enough faith and courage to take that first step, trusting that Jesus will always be there to catch us, to save us, even in the wildest storms.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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