Friday, August 15, 2008
In the Boat
Peter. Oh Peter! You gotta love him, right? What would the gospels be like if we didn’t have Peter there to spice things up a little? To put a human face on the sometimes anonymous group of disciples? To make these men and women who followed Jesus at the drop of a hat seem a little more normal? I love Peter’s stories because I can at the same time marvel at his commitment and chuckle at his impulsive nature.
Peter gets a lot of attention, a lot of “good lines”, and is present at a lot of key moments. He seems to be a favorite disciple, but, at the same time, he tends to rush into things. He speaks before he thinks. He says what many are thinking, but no one else has the guts to voice. He asks the questions, and when questions are asked, he gives the answers. And one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the answers Peter gives and his memorable one-liners aren’t necessarily the “right” things to say.
Think about Peter up on the mountain with Jesus at the time of the Transfiguration. Peter and James watched as Jesus was transfigured, changed, right before their very eyes. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared with them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. It was a glorious moment, and Peter, the excited, impulsive disciple blurts out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one of you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”
It sounded good in the moment didn’t it? Sort of a dream-like divine mountain-top spa reunion. Jesus got a facial, and a new wardrobe; he was there with two close friends, and then like a flash there’s a blast from the past and two more he hasn’t seen in ages show up! We’ve all had those kinds of vacations that we never want to end. Peter’s idea doesn’t sound too foreign. Why not build a place to stay and never go back to the real world? It sounded good in the moment.
Or how about the time just before that when Peter blew it? RIGHT AFTER he quickly and correctly exclaimed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Hardly any time at all after he made this perfect statement of faith and theology, he showed how little he really got it, contradicting Jesus’ report that soon he would undergo great suffering, be killed, and then be raised from the dead. Just as understandably as before, but just as incorrectly, Peter pulled Jesus aside, saying “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
There’s also his denial of Jesus after his arrest. At their last supper together Jesus told Peter that he would deny his Lord not one, not two, but three times that very day. Peter couldn’t believe it, saying, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Within a few hours his impulsive story has changed, “Woman, I do not know him.”
Poor Peter. I mean, he definitely has his shining moments, but there’s no hiding that he’s human and that even when he seems to be tracking right along with Jesus, he also has the tendency to really…miss the boat. (SO SORRY!)
Today when we meet the disciples they have been put in a boat by Jesus. He was unsuccessful at getting away by himself earlier that day, but now that the crowds have dispersed Jesus seizes the opportunity to go up the mountain and pray. He very deliberately and purposefully puts the disciples into a boat and sends them on ahead with no explanation of how he plans to catch up with them.
As their boat starts moving across the sea a storm begins to stir the waters, and before long the disciples and their boat are being tossed this way and that. All of the disciples, Peter included, are scared out of their wits. By early morning the storm has been battering the boat, or torturing it, an even more descriptive translation, for HOURS. And while several of these men are not unfamiliar with boats nor the Sea of Galilee, familiarity doesn’t make them any more comfortable with the violent storm.
As a child and teenager I sailed quite often on a small boat with my father, but I took a several YEAR hiatus after a particularly FRIGHTFUL experience on the water. A storm stirred up on the day we had to move our sailboat from one marina to another. Until that day I was very comfortable and pretty fearless on the boat, but I had never before had I experienced anything like the storm through which we sailed that day.
The skies were almost pitch black, and the clouds were swirling threatenly. Thunder clapped and lightning snapped. The rain came down in torrents. As the wind whipped around us we tipped well past the 45 degree mark on my dad’s gauge. The sails were dangling in the water until we could finally get them down so that they wouldn’t rip. The rudder and motor couldn’t even stay in the water because we were being tossed so violently. Previously confident on the water, I was scared to death that day.
Remembering that day now it’s not hard for me to understand why, in ancient times, the seas were a symbol of chaos, the unknown, and even demonic forces. Think of the way they often represent uncertainty, evil, and disorder in biblical literature as in the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis. In the beginning there was nothing but a formless voice, the chaotic watery deep over which the breath of God swept in order for creation and life to begin. Later it is water that is used to destroy the whole earth, to send corrupted creation back into chaos, so that God could start over gain with one righteous family.
The tossing and churning of rough unpredictable open water also seems to be a fitting metaphor for the tumultuous times and situations in life that seem to just batter our boats and our families. I know there are anxious men and women among us as jobs are on the line, health conditions are uncertain, and relationships are in distress. We worry about the heath and well-being of family and friends. Financial stability seems difficult to sustain. Difficult decisions weigh on our hearts and minds. The chaos of life, the storm of our responsibilities, the waves of our circumstances can be terrifying, menacing, and can leave us doubting the existence, the presence, and the nature of God, this same God we have heard and believed is with us in everything.
And when that happens, when doubt starts creeping in and blurring our vision, things can go from bad to worse. The problem is that when we we’re not sure we believe that God is even there any more, all too often we try to do what we think God isn’t. We try to save ourselves. We do what Sarah tried to do when she got impatient waiting for God to follow through with the promise of a child and a great nation of blessings. We try to take things into our own hands. We try to do what Peter did when he was scared in the boat and apparently doubted Jesus’ faithfulness to his disciples. We try to do the things only God can, and take on the power of chaos by our own will and stubbornness.
This isn’t how we usually read this passage is it? Usually Peter is praised and lauded for his enormous courage and faith in Jesus, even if a little doubt creeps in and throws off his concentration. Keep your eyes upon Jesus, that’s what I usually hear when I read this passage. This time though, maybe we can hear something different.
I mean, was this really the best time for a magic trick? A storm was all around them, and Peter’s interested in getting out of the boat to walk on water like Jesus. What about the eleven men he left in the boat? Was he thinking about them when he asked to get out of the boat? Why not ask Jesus for some proof that’s a little more relevant to the whole group. Instead of “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” wouldn’t the more compassionate test have been, “Lord, if it is you, stop this storm?” Jesus had calmed seas before. Certainly he could do it again. If Peter needed proof, and I’m not so sure he really did, why didn’t he ask him to replicate a miracle from the past?
So what if instead of Peter’s place of little faith being the moment he started sinking, it was actually when he asked to come out of the boat? Maybe this is one of those times when Peter’s impulsive speech is necessarily his most faithful speech? What if his time of weakness was in thinking that he can dominate over the chaos, that he should carry himself out of the battered boat, out of the storm, out of the turmoil he was facing? What if his lack of faith was in doubting that Jesus would come to stop the storm or at the very least be present with the disciples in the midst of it? What then does this miracle tell us?
It is sort one of the greatest human flaws, is it not? To think we can do the things God can do? It goes back to the garden. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve with the ability to think like God, to know good and evil. It goes back to Sarah trying to solve the problem God already promised to get her out of. And here it is again. Peter, thinking he should be able to do the things only God can do, steps out of the boat. Wanting to rule over the thrashing sea, the churning waves, the stormy chaos, HE asks for the power to step out of the boat.
You know, when I immersed myself in this text the week I was somewhat surprised by that. When I retell this story to myself, without reading the actual words, as I remember hearing it, I tell how Jesus commanded Peter to come out of the boat onto the water. It doesn’t quite happen that way. Getting out of the boat is Peter’s idea, not Jesus’. Yes, Jesus goes along with it, but doesn’t he often let us teach ourselves a lesson? He is always there with us in the lesson, and he is often even willing to reach out and lift us up when the lesson becomes overwhelming, but I’d dare say that he NEVER asks us to do the things only God can do. He doesn’t ask us to do the things that are possible only for the Creator, not the creation. I don’t think Jesus asked Peter to get out of the boat.
But Peter did, and so do we. When it feels like Jesus is taking a little too long to show up in the midst of our crisis, when his face is obscured by the storm clouds that have gathered, when the sheets of rain and the tossing waves make it next to impossible to see who or what it is that walks toward us, we, too, try to take matters into our own hands. We distance ourselves from family who frustrate us. We abandon our companions in the church or our friends who have pledged to walk with us in our trials. We hoard wealth to make ourselves feel more secure. We ignore those in need around us because we think it’s OK to just look out for number one. We begin to sink deeper and deeper into the disorder as we try to make order out of what we see in front of us.
But we can’t do it. At least we can’t do it for long. We can’t gather together the chaos and mold it and shape it and breathe life into it that is blessed and called good. We can’t walk on water. Eventually we will start to sink.
We can’t do, but thankfully, miraculously, Jesus can. In the middle of the storm, when we’re being battered and tossed and turned every which way, Jesus is the one who walks to us on the water. Jesus is the one with the power to find strong footing on the tenuous surface. Jesus is the one who has dominion over all the forces that torment our lives, and Jesus in his time, and in his way, can calm the storms that threaten us.
The truth of the matter is, Jesus knows what he is doing when he sends us out in these boats, in these lives and these communities. He knows that the situation will not always be calm and serene. He knows that the conditions will not always be favorable for smooth sailing. He knows this, but he sends us out in the boat together anyway, because he knows he will always be with us. He knows, even when we doubt it, that he will come to us, that he will pull us up when we are drowning even under our own arrogance and false sense of self-sufficiency. He knows that the wind can be calmed, and the storms will come to an end.
For this we can worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
photo credit: Eric Kilby via photopin cc