Posted August 12, 2014
St Matthew doesn’t tell us how far St Peter managed to walk on the water before beginning to sink (Matthew 14: 22-31), but it must have been a reasonable distance, for he got so close to Jesus that Jesus had only to stretch out his hand to save him. Peter must have walked more than a few feet on the water. Perhaps 20 yards. Who knows? But it was certainly a remarkable feat. So it is surprising that Jesus doesn’t give him any credit for his achievement. Twenty yards or more of absolutely faultless performance and all Jesus can do is to chide him for faulting at the end. That’s rather like rebuking your cat for leaving The Times crossword unfinished.
Why, I wonder, does St Peter get so little credit for walking on water? One would have expected St Matthew, at least, who is responsible for the narrative, to have expressed some admiration. Perhaps St Matthew did not consider St Peter’s walking on the water all that remarkable, in itself. It seems that, like Jesus, he was more interested in faith than in miracles.
St Peter did, of course, show faith, first of all in looking to Jesus to call him onto the water, and in trusting him that he would not go under. But for Jesus and St Matthew, it seems, all this was only the preamble to real faith. It was the kind of faith that depends on the feel-good factor – the kind of faith that is buoyed by imagined success in one’s spiritual and religious life. It was that immature faith that we all had once upon a time, before we discovered that life was hard and there were no easy answers, or no answers at all. It was the kind of faith we all have even now, when everything is going well, and people are nice to us. It was the kind of faith we all have before the clouds gather – the kind of faith we have before that stark choice between God and myself, between truth and falsehood, confronts me out of the blue. Peter was walking on water. Things were going well for him. He had not yet been asked that fateful question: ‘Weren’t you also with Jesus the Galilean?’
So it was not Peter’s walking on water that really interested St Matthew, but what happened the moment he felt himself threatened by the windstorm. Only when the windstorm hits you is real faith possible. St Peter, on this occasion, failed, as he was also to fail after Jesus’ arrest. He felt the force of the windstorm and he was afraid. His trust in the Lord came to an end, and he began to sink. Jesus rebuked him because he stopped believing at the very point where he should have begun to believe. The purpose of the story is to teach believers to become believers.
The point is that Christian faith is not about doing the impossible, like walking on water or moving mountains. Such faith can exist even in the absence of real faith. ‘Even if I have all faith, such as to move mountains, but have not love (St Paul means the love that is born of real faith), I am nothing.’ Christian faith is that attitude of mind and heart which, in spite of the troubles and fears, the regrets and the discouragement, that threaten to engulf you, enables you to stand outside your own perspectives and fix your gaze on God alone. Real faith is letting go of self in order to find all your security in God.
One often meets Christians who are buffeted by the winds, who feel discouraged, who can see no light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps perplexed by their own life situation, never experiencing the peace that others seem to enjoy; perhaps always battling with sin and temptation and never getting the better of it; up against daily hardships and struggling to cope. My heart goes out to such a person. On the other hand, isn’t that precisely the situation where faith can begin? – where all the familiar props have fallen away and self-reliance is no longer an option? – Where you have nothing to show for your efforts; never could you say to others, nor even to yourself, ‘Did you see me? Did you see me walking on water?’ Where you have nothing to hold out to God but empty hands.
Be of good heart. Those empty hands, held out to God with trust and humility, with heartfelt regret for your mistakes but complete reliance on your saviour, are just what God is looking for. When he sees that, he sees faith, and that is the beginning of your salvation.
And the lesson for us? Well, I can hardly say, ‘Next time you are walking on water and feel yourself sinking …’ But what about: ‘Next time you feel yourself sinking when insults come flying?’ Or: ‘Next time you have to let go of your own pleasure or satisfaction in order to remain faithful.’ Or: ‘Next time you have to say goodbye to your popularity in order to do what you know is right?’ ‘Next time you have to swallow your pride and admit that you were wrong?’ ‘Next time someone asks you for something and it will cause you time and hassle?’ There are millions of next times. They may not be dramatic. But they always call for an act of faith, a stepping outside of your own perspectives in order to rely on God alone.
God does not always come with the hurricane; he is present also in the whisper of the wind. If our ears are attuned, we shall hear the call to faith a thousand times a day, and we must answer the call a thousand times a day. Then, when that final invitation to self-abandonment comes – as it surely will one day – we shall be well practised.
Fr Tom Deidun