What does faith look like when we are being battered by storms? What does God hope for from us when we are under the pump and on the verge of panic? When our little boat is struggling and we are worried that the ship might go down, what are the signs of real faith?
Tonight’s gospel reading picked up where the story left off last week. Jesus has just fed an enormous crowd when there was apparently only five loaves and two fish available. And now, having dismissed the crowd, he tells his disciples — that is us, the Church — to get into the boat together and set sail for home across the sea. Jesus himself heads the other way, up the mountain, to spend the night in solitude and prayer. So when the storm hits and they are far from land, they are in a rather similar position to the one we frequently find ourselves in. All hell is breaking loose, and just when we most need him, it seems that we have left Jesus behind. For those first disciples in their boat, Jesus has been left behind on the shore, praying for us perhaps, but not with us when the storm hits. For us, it often feels as though we have left Jesus behind in the pages of history somewhere. He’s somewhere back there, and when the storms hit our little boat, he isn’t with us, but back there somewhere, and if he’s praying for us, that’s nice, but it doesn’t feel like what we most need from him right now.
And although Jesus does come to us in the midst of the storm in this story, he doesn’t come quickly. The story is quite clear about the timing. By the time evening settles in and Jesus is alone in prayer, the storm has already begun to batter the little boat of his followers out in the midst of the sea, but Jesus doesn’t come to them until “the third watch of the night”, that is somewhere around three o’clock in the morning. The boat is battered by the storm for a long time. Jesus has never promised to spare us from all experience of trial and trouble. Quite the opposite in fact. He has warned us that, as his followers, we can expect to encounter more than our fair share of tough times and difficulties that threaten to overwhelm us and sink us. Many of the psalms give voice to the experience of being overwhelmed by trouble and feeling like we are about to go under. And repeatedly they cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long? When will you come to rescue us?” Often it seems that Jesus takes an age to come, and yet if Jesus is in the business of building a resilient church, a boatload of disciples who can stand firm in the face of the tough stuff, then he’s not going to achieve that by bailing us out the instant trouble hits every time is he?
So there we are, all in the same boat, battered by the wild sea. And as St Augustine points out, the boat that is the Church might seem awfully flimsy and inadequate out there as it is bashed around in the menacing waves, but it is still a boat. The boat may well be in real danger on the water, but there would be certain death without it. Therefore stay in the boat and call upon God.
But then sometimes when we call upon God, our first reaction is that his arrival is more terrifying than his apparent absence had been. Jesus comes to us, walking on the wild waves, and the terrified disciples cry out in fear, “It’s a ghost!” How often do we do that? We want help, but we want it to come in nice genial ways that soothe and calm us, not in ways that confront us with new realities and disturb all our conceptions of where God is and how God acts. We want God to remain in heaven and pull a few strings from a distance and sort things out in our favour. We don’t want a man striding through the wild stormy sea!
But stride through the wild stormy sea he does, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And it is then that the story really begins to grapple with our questions about the nature of faith in the midst of stormy times. Peter, who for us stands as the number one disciple, the leader of the little boatload known as the Church, calls out to Jesus saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Okay, come.” And Peter is up and over the side and is soon in need of rescue, for his faith has failed and the waves are only too ready to swallow him. And we’ve probably all heard a rather simplistic interpretation of this incident which leaves most of us feeling guilty at our lack of faith. What we’ve often heard is that Peter, as bold as he so often is, was showing commendable faith in seeking to join Jesus in walking on the waves, and that it was only his failure to keep his eyes on Jesus and keep trusting that caused him to sink. And we all identify with Peter at that point and feel guilty with him about our lack of faith, because we probably wouldn’t have even got out of the boat, and if we had, we’d have certainly sunk at least as quickly as he did. O we of little faith! St John Chrysostom points out an interesting little quirk in the story too. It says that it is the strong wind that most frightens Peter and causes his confidence to fail, and yet he was in far more danger from the waves than he was from the wind. Isn’t it often the case, Chrysostom asks, that our perception of danger is often skewed and we feel more exposed to the lesser danger and sense it as the greater?
But is it really the case that Peter’s faith is demonstrated in his willingness to get out of the boat? Or might that be a sign of something else? It seems to me more likely that Peter’s failure lay in his willingness to jump ship in the first place. You see, Peter is never only an example of faith in the gospel story. He is the leading disciple, but he is also an example of how easily disciples can succumb to the temptation to get it all wrong. He is the disciple who first identifies Jesus as the Messiah, but he is also the one who just minutes later causes Jesus to say, “Get behind me, satan!” Peter can be the exemplar of faith one minute, and the agent of the satan the next. And did you notice what he says when he calls out to Jesus on the waves? “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” What? “If it is you”? Jesus has just identified himself, “It is I. Don’t be afraid,” and Peter says “If it is you…”
Who else in the gospel story addresses Jesus saying “If you are the son of God …”? That’s right, the satan in the temptation story. “If you are the son of God, do this. If you are the son of God, do that.” “Lord, if it is you, prove it by commanding me to come to you on the water.” And with a here-we-go-again shrug of his shoulders, Jesus says, “Come on then”, and Peter’s over the side and learning his lesson. Jesus rescues him, again, and chides him saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But perhaps he is not referring to a doubt about the waves’ capacity to hold him, but the doubt that caused him to jump ship in the first place; the doubt that caused him to say, “If it is is you…”, the doubt that made him unwilling to wait in the boat with everyone else until Jesus arrived.
For it is clear that Jesus was coming to get in the boat. And when he does get in the boat, the storm abates. So perhaps when the storm hits, true faith is not the daredevil bravado that says “I can be special and take on the waves alone without need of the boat.” Perhaps instead, true faith is the resilience to stay in the boat that Jesus told us to get into in the first place, and to trust the boat, flimsy though it may feel, as the storm rages around us, even if Jesus seems a long way off when we need him. Perhaps real faith is the capacity to keep trusting that, even though we are in the boat with a bunch of flawed people who are no better at believing than we are, we are better off in the boat than out of it and that Jesus will come when we have learned what we needed to learn and been shaped as we needed to be shaped by the experience of being in the storm together, and that when he comes he will not be wanting us to jump out of the boat, but that he will get into the boat with us and bring us safely to the shore of the promised land.
Let us then, with these first disciples, our brothers and sisters, all in the same boat together, join our voices in saying “Truly you are the Son of God.”