Poor Peter. Poor much-praised, much-maligned, brilliant, bull-headed, courageous, and fearful Peter. It’s no surprise that of all the disciples in the boat in today’s Gospel reading (in which Jesus walks on water during a storm), it’s Peter who tests the ghostly apparition’s identity. It’s Peter who has the guts to get out of the boat and onto the waves. It’s also Peter who sinks.
In all of these contradictions, Peter is a lot like me, and I would hazard to guess, a lot like all of us. Enough faith to get out of the boat, not enough to stay afloat — that sounds about right (on my best days). But beyond the bumper-sticker truths this story inspires (“If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat!”), I think there’s something helpful here for us to keep in mind.
Returning to the text, it says: “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink” (Mt 14.29f).
In making his decision to step forward in faith, Peter had anticipated the water and the waves, but he hadn’t anticipated the wind. He was prepared for one danger, but not for the other. Perhaps even more telling, it was the big, miraculous thing he was prepared for — walking on water — and it was the normal thing — the wind — that tripped him up. (“Jesus walks on a blustery day” doesn’t have quite the same ‘wow factor’ as “Jesus walks on water.” In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the plot of a Winnie the Pooh story.) To make matters worse, perhaps, the water was rough because they were in a storm. The wind was an obvious part of the situation that somehow escaped Peter’s attention.
Again, this sounds so familiar. When we are called to step out in faith, there will always be complications and hardships. Some will be unpredictable (as anyone who did any year-ahead planning for 2020 knows all too well!), but many won’t be. We’re often so laser-focused on one big scary thing that we’re taken by surprise by another one, even one we should have expected.
So what can we do about this? Well, obviously, it’s helpful to think about the risks before we ‘step out of the boat’. Take a second and look around, not just at the immediate big scary task, but also at the context for it: The wind should have been a ‘known known’ in Peter’s situation — it shouldn’t have taken him by surprise, but it did because he wasn’t taking in the whole scene: ‘Okay, so I’m about to walk on the water, what should I be aware of? The waves, yes, the wind yes. But also: the water is probably cold, water has high surface tension so any wave that his me is probably going to hurt, it’s probably raining, there may be a chance of lightning strikes,’ and so on. Being prepared can make a world of difference.
But beyond basic risk management, from a faith perspective, it’s important not to let these side challenges distract us from a simple truth: If our faith is big enough to draw us toward the big challenge to which God is calling us, then it’s obviously big enough to handle the side things too. If Peter’s faith was big enough to get him out of the boat and start walking on the waves (and it was!), it was surely big enough to handle the wind. But, in his moment of distraction, he forgot what he was doing, why he was doing it, and the one calling him to do it, and so he began to sink.
Finally, when he did start sinking into the water, Peter didn’t try to scramble back to the safety of the boat. Rather, he reached forward, to Jesus. There’s a lesson for us in this too. If God is calling us toward something, we have to keep finding our faith when we lose it, and keep reaching out towards the goal and to the one who calls us.
And so, whatever it is God is calling us towards in life — whatever our walking on choppy waters may be — I hope we can apply these little truths from Peter’s misadventure: Look around first; remember that if your faith is big enough to do the big thing, then it’s big enough to handle the side challenges that come with it; and, if you start to sink, remember to reach out towards the one who calls you.
For God is faithful.