Thought for the day
“Do not be afraid” is one of those expressions which goes straight to the heart. Who has not sometimes been afraid? The command not to fear combines two things: firstly, it is a recognition that yes, sometimes we are afraid; secondly, it proclaims that in the community of faith, with Jesus, God-with-us, our companion on the way, we ought really to be free from deep fear, because “all shall be well.” Let us hear again the words, “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.”
Lord, save us when circumstances seem to overwhelm us, when we cannot see our way forward, when we find ourselves sinking. Take us by the hand and lead to the open space of freedom and confidence in you.
Matt 14:22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dispersed the crowds. 23 And after he sent the crowds away, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. 24 Meanwhile the boat, already far from land, was taking a beating from the waves because the wind was against it. 25 As the night was ending, Jesus came to them walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the water they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” and cried out with fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them: “Have courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.” 28 Peter said to him, “Lord, if it is you, order me to come to you on the water.” 29 So he said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the strong wind he became afraid. And starting to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they went up into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
There are two stories here, of which the second could not exist without the first. The walking on the water is found also in Mark 6:45-52 (with his own special ending) and in Luke 6:15-21. It is worth comparing the versions to hear the distinctive voice of each writer. The story of Peter sinking is found only in Matthew.
Kind of writing
(i) From a technical viewpoint, this is an epiphany, that is, the story of an encounter with God, an experience of the numinous. The marks of an epiphany story are: (a) the reader knows in advance who is appearing; (b) fear and dread are the responses; (c) a recognition moment follows; (d) profound reassurance is given (“Do not be afraid”); (e) those receiving the experience grow in faith. All these elements are present. Epiphany stories in the Gospels would be the Transfiguration and the resurrection appearance narratives.
(ii) The first story is also a symbolic narrative and most closely resembles the just mentioned resurrection appearance narratives. As a story within the ministry, it doesn’t make a lot of sense – why would Jesus act like this? But as a symbolic narrative dealing with a later church situation it makes better sense. The community feels itself to be without the risen Lord; their struggles, symbolised by the sea, seem to get them nowhere; the boat could well be the church—although the “barque of Peter” is later language; in their profound need, the Risen Lord, presents himself and gives them the deep reassurance of his presence; such reassurance leads to a new strengthening of faith in the Lord. This symbolic reading is reflected very well in the closing prayer below.
(iii) The account of Peter sinking is an appendix, a kind of example story to show that even those closest to the Lord needed again and again to put their faith in him. It might even be a symbolic version of the self-presentation of the Risen Lord to Peter, mentioned several times in the Gospels but never narrated.
Old Testament background
(i) The narrative of this Psalm seems very close to Matthew’s account:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (Psalms 107:23–32)
(ii) But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:13–15)
(iii) There is implied reference to Moses traditions, important for Matthew’s community, made up mostly of Jews.
New Testament foreground
(i) Water is a symbol of both life and death; Jesus “walking” on water symbolically has conquered both life and death.
(ii) Peter has a high profile in this Gospel, understandably given that it was written in a time of church formation, in an area and context, Antioch, where Peter was especially prominent. Matthew has the expanded confession of Peter in 16:13-20, where the keys of the kingdom are handed over to him.
(iii) Little faith in a favourite expression of Matthew (4-0-1-0): Matt 6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Matt 8:26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. Matt 14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matt 16:8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?
And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
Verse 22 In Matthew, Jesus is often “in charge”, directing things. In this case, he compels them to depart—no reason is given, but from a narrative point of view it prepares for the divine manifestation to come.
Verse 23 Jesus acts like Moses in going up the mountain to pray. At this point, Jesus is alone and the disciples are separated from him.
Verse 24 Futile effort and impossible odds are symbolised by the sea (Ps 18:7; 32:6; 69:2). There is no explanation of why or how this happened—that’s not the point because the scene is really an image of the community struggling.
Verse 25 Early in the morning may recall resurrection appearances. But, at the same time, it refers to the fourth watch, that is between 3.00 and 6.00 am), that is, the darkest hour of the night, but also the time of God’s help (Ex 14:24; Ps 46:5). Walking on the sea is a symbol of power over death. Any naturalistic explanations (“it was foggy and he was really walking on the shore”) are beside the point. The same Jesus has already calmed the storm in this Gospel (8:22-27). It is not the miracle of walking that we are asked to believe, but the even harder conviction that Jesus has power and victory over sin, death and evil.
Verse 26 The reactions are part of the epiphany style. The correct etiquette, should you have such a vision, is to be terrified. This is not really psychological fright but rather awe before the power of the divine.
Verse 27 “Courage” is exactly what they need; “It is I” = the name YHWH from Ex 3:14. See also Deut 32:39; Is 41:4; 43:1-13. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2)
Verse 28 Even in symbolic narrative, Peter’s impetuous, blunt character comes through. This is the first of several instances where Peter takes centre stage. Are we to view him positively or negatively? Peter does respond to Jesus’ symbolic power over death and does ask to be saved. He does have faith, however small. At the same time his request is impulsive and presumptuous (only God controls death). Who is Peter to test Jesus? Peter wants to leave the boat, thus spectacularly abandoning the others!
Verse 29 “Walking on the water” means, in symbolic terms, sharing the victory of the Risen Lord. This is true of us all baptism and true later on when our own faith falters.
Verse 30 A bit late in the day!!! His prayer to be saved does, however, come from the heart. The text doesn’t say here that Peter doubted (an attitude) but that he became frightened (a feeling). In this verse, “to sink” is the same word in 18:6, where it means “go down.” Save, in the context, means rescue but symbolically means save in the sense of salvation.
Verse 31 Tremendous image of Jesus reaching out and catching hold of him. The “immediately” is good — the direct response to the prayer to be saved.
Verse 32 The calm they desired, from the Psalm. Suddenly, it is all over; symbolically, the crisis has passed.
Verse 33 Then comes the moment of worship. While the story does portray both church and discipleship, the real centre is Christology—who is Jesus? Jesus is worshipped from the very start by the Magi, in this Gospel.
Pointers for prayer
1. The story illustrates the power of faith. Have you noticed that when you believe in someone, or something, you can do things that would not be possible when you are full of doubts? Recall moments when your faith gave you strength and courage? Name for yourself the different kinds of faith that had this effect: belief in yourself, trust in another, faith in God.
2. When Jesus got into the boat the winds ceased. Who has been a Jesus person for you and helped to calm a storm that frightened you or made you anxious?
3. The experience of Peter gives encouragement to us when we waver in our trust and belief in God. In his doubt and fear Jesus reached out to him. Who has reached out a helping hand to you when you felt you were sinking?
4. The story ends with a profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Have you had experiences of being rescued from some hazard or danger, experiences which deepened your faith in the presence and compassion of God for you?
God of all power, your sovereign word comes to us in Christ. When your church is in danger, make us firm in our trust; when your people falter, steady our faith.
Show us in Jesus your power to save, that we may always acclaim him as Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.