Peter grew up as a fisherman. Water was in his blood. He knew its essence, its beauty, its danger. He had no illusions that his long relationship with the Sea would save him should it one day turn against him.
When the disciples saw Jesus walking across the storm-churned water towards them, they were rightly terrified. They knew that this was not how the world works. Even after all they had seen – the feeding of the thousands, the healing miracles – the idea that Jesus would challenge even the power of the elements, the powers that be, that control the way that we live and move and have our being in the world – this was truly wonderful and fearful; frightening in its potential to open up a whole new way of being.
For a moment, Peter could see the possibilities. Wind and water were, after all, the first elements of creation (Genesis 1:1-2). In a rush of hasty optimism, Peter appealed to Jesus: “If you say so,” he told Jesus, “I can walk with you.”
Jesus said, “Come.”
Once Jesus had given the command, Peter had to choose whether to obey his fear or his faith; being human, he chose both.
Peter started out alright, but his wet feet, his cold ears, his shivering body screamed at him that this is not how it goes; that we are not born to understand the wind and waves and make of them a new creation. His body, with its conventional and unassailable wisdom, told Peter to forget new horizons. It told him to sink.
But Jesus, of course, caught him, and hauled him into the boat, and laughed gently at his humanity, his human error of believing in the impossibility of the situation rather than in its potential.
Peter had seen what was possible. In the first place, when he saw Jesus walking on the water, as terrified as he was, he said, “If you command me to, I can do that, too.”
Last week I put out the question on Twitter: if you could imitate any one of the things we have seen Jesus doing – from walking on water to turning water into wine – what would you choose to ask him, “Say the word, and I can do that, too”? No one replied.
Perhaps it was a foolish question. Or perhaps we are too afraid to ask, in case Jesus calls us into the storm, or in case he tells us we are not ready. Or perhaps we would really like to walk on water, because it sounds awesome and fun, but we feel as though we really should be asking to heal the sick and feed the hungry, to steal back life from death.
Of course, they are interrelated. If we ask to follow Jesus, if we ask him to command us, to give us some of his Spirit, so that we can walk on water, then we are already beginning to reshape the world around us. If we ask Jesus to help us to follow him, to walk with him, to love our Creator and to love our neighbour and even our enemies as he does, then we are by default challenging the way that the world works. And if we challenge the ways of the world, we confront the powers that be, and we defy the forces that decry compassion as an inefficient currency for our economy of life. If we choose the way of love, and Jesus as our commander and guide, we can ride the currents and rise above the depressing mess that the world has been in since the Fall.
Peter set out confidently, sure of the possibilities before him, knowing that Jesus would change the world, wanting to be at his side, at his feet, at the hem of his garment as he did so. But as Peter’s imagination retreated into his own skin, he became afraid, and he let go of the vision that had stretched like a bridge between him and Jesus and creation, and he began to sink.
Two thousand years later it sometimes feels as though we are still weathering the same storm. We are still afraid of the call to walk on the water, to defy the strong winds that keep us from reaching the promised land, the kingdom of God. But after all that we have seen him do, from the water to the wine to the bread to the boat to the Cross to the Resurrection, what is really holding us back from asking him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”?
Do we doubt him? Do we doubt ourselves? Or do we secretly like life the way that it is, as long as it profits us. Is the way of the cross, the currency of compassion too much of a stretch for us to give up the coinage of personal capital and complacency? Are we too stuck in our own skin?
You understand that I am preaching to myself here.
If the value of life and limb were held in universally higher esteem than the profits of the individual and the elite, then we would not see an exchange rate of hundreds of lives, thousands of injuries, hundreds of thousands of people made homeless for the customs duty on a couple of thousand tons of fertilizer.
If the way of love, the way of compassion, the way in which, as Paul advised, love makes room for those at risk, using love’s freedom to promote the common good rather than the individual’s right to flaunt it, then we would reshape the curve of this pandemic and its effects on our country. “Be careful,” Paul writes, “… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).
If we were to choose the way of love over the way of blood, then our “stand your ground” laws would be grounded instead in the commandment to turn the other cheek.
What would we pay to defray the risk of storing explosive chemicals among people’s living spaces? What would we give for an economy that could never be said to depend upon a thousand deaths per day from pandemic to stay afloat? What would we confront in order to be able to offer a cup of clean water to the children of Flint?
If we were to refuse to be conformed to the standards of this fallen world and its uneven powers, if we were to exercise our vocation to walk on water, to reshape the world around us, in Jesus’ name, in the name of love, what storm would stop us?
What would it take for us to get out of the boat?
The disciples, seeing Jesus walking upon the water, were terrified. By the time he had hauled Peter out of the sea and into the boat, they were in awe, and they worshipped him.
As far as we know, Peter never did walk on the water again, and he stumbled more than once more, denying Jesus as the rooster crowed over the Friday dawn. But he no longer doubted that God’s kingdom was near, closer than his own skin, and he did go on to heal the sick, and raise the dead, and to root out evil in Christ’s name.
Whatever we choose as the one thing we have seen Jesus do that we would like to follow, it cannot be separated from his whole life of love. It will lead, if we follow, to the way of the cross, the way of love, the way that leads to the promised land, the kingdom of God. And if we feel ourselves sinking, we have only to reach out and Jesus will pull us up, and gently rebuke us, and it will be worth it, to weather the wind and water with him, the storm-torn elements of a new creation.