“Stepping Out of the Boat”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
2Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
9He said, “Come.”
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (NRSV)
It’s been a demanding few days for Jesus. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod. When Jesus tries to find some solitude to grieve and rejuvenate, crowds of sick and lonely people hound him for attention. And always aware of God’s call, Jesus tends to the crowd with compassion and generosity.
Afterward, Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. Go on, he says. I’ll catch up with you.
With the disciples on their way, Jesus turns and dismisses the crowd. Then, utterly spent, Jesus trudges up a mountain to pray—alone at last.
In biblical literature, going “up a mountain” is an image of consciously placing oneself in the presence of holiness. Matthew wants us to imagine Jesus as the second Moses, climbing a mountain to commune directly with God.
As Jesus prays, his disciples out in the boat are hanging on for dear life in one of the Sea of Galilee’s notorious storms. Also in biblical literature, when someone’s in a boat on a body of water there’s more going on than meets the eye. And a storm on the water recalls the primordial chaos of Genesis. So, while the situation is dangerous, and even dire, it’s also life-giving. When the storm subsides, the world may be brand new, but the voyage to newness is terrifying. For the disciples, the howling wind was bad enough, but when they see a figure they believe to be a ghost walking on the water, they become truly terrified.
Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. It’s just me.
When Peter sees Jesus walking across the watery chaos as calmly as he might sit on a mountain top, the disciple—more reckless than truly fearless—says to Jesus, “Command” me to join you on the water!
“Come,” says Jesus. And stepping out of the boat, Peter’s okay for a moment. Then he looks around at that churning, storm-wrinkled sea. As yet, the impulsive disciple’s faith is no more buoyant than water wings on a cinder block. Peter begins to sink, and Jesus reaches out and returns him to the boat.
Isn’t that just like Jesus? He offers comfort, peace, and capacities for courageous discipleship; and yet, when Jesus brings his prophetic fullness to bear, we’re more likely to feel as if he has ripped that comfort, peace, and courage away from us.
I think western Christianity has, in many ways and for many generations, distorted the gospel and misled its people by perpetuating the prosperity gospel’s false claim that true blessing means material wealth and physical comfort. Doesn’t scripture reveal, consistently, that it’s when the waves are up and the chips are down that we grow the most in the ways of faithful, hopeful, loving, and bold discipleship?
Years ago, Clifton Kirkpatrick, a former stated clerk of the PC(USA), wrote of attending an ecumenical gathering, and among the speakers was a man named Ernest Campbell, the former pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York City. In his remarks, Dr. Campbell made this challenging and unforgettable statement: “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”1
Those words hit me in the chest every time. The chaotic tempests upon which we sail are both external circumstances and internal struggles. Both can rock our boats and terrify us, and in the midst of them, Jesus issues his prophetic commands: Do not be afraid. Come. Get out of the boat. Do something that will require you to use your faith!
Last month our nation lost Representative John Lewis, a man known as the “Conscience of Congress.” Mr. Lewis’ public service began with stepping out of the boat and onto the chaotic waters of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. One thing that gave John Lewis’ activism such credibility was his Christian commitment. He even compared the movement to worship: “On some occasions,” he said, “it was just like being in church [or] at a prayer meeting. We would sing songs, in Mississippi, in Alabama, in Georgia, in little churches: ‘I’m going to do what the Spirit said do. If the Spirit said sit in, if the Spirit said march…if the Spirit said picket—‘I’m going to do what the Spirit said do.’”2
In particular, Lewis was influenced by Martin Luther King’s emphasis on nonviolence as the most Christlike and effective means of lasting change. In a 2004 interview, Lewis said, “At a very early stage of the movement, I accepted the teaching of Jesus, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Lewis was arrested often, and beaten repeatedly—usually by white men who would sit piously in church pews the next Sunday morning. In Selma, AL, Lewis was, literally, beaten nearly to death. During all of it, he kept his focus. He kept his eyes on Jesus. When asked how he managed to do that, how he managed not to drown in the depths of despair and vengeance, John Lewis said, “hate is too heavy a burden to bear. I don’t want to go down that road. I’ve seen too much hate, seen too much violence. And I know love is a better way.”
Looking back, though, Lewis did wonder how the nonviolent marchers managed to keep their heads above water in the face of such intentionally vicious cruelty and against such odds. “How did we do what we did?” he wondered. “How did we succeed? We didn’t have a Web site. We didn’t have a cellular telephone. But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us.”
Peter would have to step out in faith and begin to sink more than once before he would consistently act in ways that required him to depend on his faith. Eventually he did, though. Eventually he was not just a rock at the bottom of the lake, but the Rock on which Jesus built his church.
To step out of the boat is to follow Jesus. It’s to entrust our lives to God Almighty who is always with us. To step out of the boat is to add our voices to God’s response to cries for welcome, justice, and true peace for all whom God loves.
Clinging our boats may feel safer than following Jesus. Our fears may feel like more trustworthy guides than God’s Spirit. Nonetheless, Jesus continues to call us.
What is Jesus asking us to do—each of us and all of us together—that requiresus to use our faith?
1Clifton Kirkpatrick, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 334, 336.
2This and all subsequent references to John Lewis come from: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2004/01/16/january-16-2004-john-lewis/1791/