The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the Church. In Particular, a vessel large enough that it takes a number of people doing diverse things to get it to move, beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves. Moving through the waters when wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is great. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same things need doing every day. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. But a ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain will guide them into the ultimate safe harbour.
Our Gospel reading for this weekend from St Matthew is about the disciples’ growing understanding of the identity of Jesus and about what the disciples’ faith in Jesus will enable them to do, it involves a boat and a storm, the disciples and Jesus, fear and faith and working together.
After the feeding of the multitude Jesus sent his disciples away When he was alone, he went up into a mountain to pray; and by this time the night had come. The disciples had set out back across the lake. One of the sudden storms, for which the lake was notorious, had come down, and they were struggling against the winds and the waves, and making little progress.
Jesus calls to the disciples and calms their fears. He is not a ghost. The impulsive Peter seeks proof that the person is indeed Jesus. He asks Jesus to call him out onto the water, and Jesus grants this request.
Peter’s fear and doubt overtake him, however, once he is walking on the water. Jesus reaches out to Peter and saves him. When Jesus and Peter enter the boat, Matthew reports that the wind ceases, and the disciples confess that Jesus is the Son of God.
One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.
So, I wonder if when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”
Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course, you’re afraid during a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone? “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Faith in Jesus will enable the disciples to do the work that Jesus has done. Peter walks on water. The five loaves and two fish feed a multitude of people. The disciples can and will participate in the work of the kingdom of heaven. When Peter fears and doubts the person of Jesus, however, he falters. Peter’s example teaches us that true Christian ministry emerges from the faith that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s only Son.
Storms will blow up in all our lives. But Jesus has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.
There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Courage! it is I! do not be afraid.”