I remember a Sunday school teacher using this very Gospel Lesson to teach us a threatening message: Peter tried to walk on water, but he sank, because he doubted. So don’t be like Peter. Don’t ever doubt even for a moment, or you’ll sink.
Now of course telling people not to doubt is like saying, “Don’t think of a purple elephant”—you can’t get it out of your head. And who wouldn’t have a few questions about a story with all those special effects? Practically a “Walk-on-Water Invitational.” But we didn’t dare say anything, because then we’d sound just like Peter. So we kept our questions to ourselves and went away thinking that we must not be very good Christians. We were sunk.
But today’s Gospel Lesson isn’t about having enough faith. It’s not about reaching down inside and pushing yourself to believe when maybe you can’t. And it’s not even about whether people can really walk on water. It’s about not having to go it alone. It’s about finding God with us just when we think we’ve been abandoned.
Like many episodes in the Gospels, most scholars think that this one was told, retold, and yes, embellished, because it helped later generations deal with current issues. They weren’t focusing on whether Jesus really walked on water or not. They had no trouble accepting that part, because their years-later experience of his risen life with and in them was so amazing that questions like that didn’t arise. Of course amazing things happened around him—amazing things were still happening. No need to fact-check. But that wasn’t the focus, and it still isn’t. Instead the focus here is on the amazing things that still happen when Jesus comes to his followers long after his execution.
Jesus makes the disciples strike out on their own. The disciples start to feel abandoned. Here they are running into all kinds of opposition, and where’s Jesus when you need him? It feels like they’ve been cut off, shoved out of the nest before they’re ready. That experience didn’t just happen once out on a lake. Experiences like this have happened over and over, down to today. These past few months just about everybody is feeling abandoned.
But they’re not abandoned after all. Here they are in the boat—alone, confused, maybe a bit seasick, probably resentful. … And there he is. Or at least there somebody is. The disciples are a little uncertain. In fact they try to come up with a natural explanation for what they’re seeing. I know, “It’s a ghost” doesn’t sound much like a natural explanation to you and me, but in their day it was. Ghosts were a bit frightening, but they were a handy and commonly accepted way to explain puzzling things—much easier to cope with than, say, God.
Jesus won’t let his friends explain this one away. When he says, “It is I,” he’s using one of God’s favorite credentials. The Greek actually reads “I am,” which is a dead give-away unless you never saw “The Ten Commandments.” That’s God speaking to Moses from the burning bush. Jesus is saying, “You’re dealing with God here, not some trickster in a bed sheet.” We’re not talking about ghosts. We’re not talking about magic. We’re talking about Mystery. Somehow, to be in the presence of Jesus is to be in the presence of God. Even to be in the presence of the story of Jesus, in Scripture, in sharing bread and wine, is to be in God’s presence. “True God from true God.”
Don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work—people who think they know are probably the ones who understand the least. We only know that to know Jesus is to know the God who will never leave us alone. We may feel cut off, but nothing can keep God away from us—not wind or waves, not depression, not pandemics, not violence, not hateful tweets—nothing, absolutely nothing can stand in the way of God’s love.
And when I say “nothing,” that includes even our doubts. That’s where Peter comes in. Peter wants a little proof, but the proof doesn’t work. It never does. You can’t blame him for trying, but we shouldn’t be surprised at the results.
When we want to know what keeps our very lives afloat, there’s nothing that can put every question to rest. We’ve got too much invested in the answer. So we know all about wanting a little proof, and never quite getting it.
But if you think the message here is “Don’t be like Peter,” then get real. We’ll always be like Peter. We’ll always approach the communion rail with at least a part of our minds on other things. Before his arrest even Jesus had some second thoughts—he was, after all, quite human. It’s the way we’re made, so stop pretending.
The point of this story is not that Peter doubted. It’s that, doubts and all, he still stayed afloat. And that’s because he wasn’t alone. He was in the arms of “God with us,” and even his doubts couldn’t keep God away. He was carried back to the community of faith, humbled, to be sure, but not excluded, not sunk. Doubts didn’t matter. Producing enough faith didn’t matter (if you have to produce it, it’s not faith). Only God’s love mattered.
And that’s the way things still are. We come together today, in person or online, to celebrate the communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ, because what happened back then still happens. Our knit-together lives are still afloat in the very arms of God, whether we notice or not. It doesn’t depend on us. “Take heart, it is I.” “Take heart, I am.” And so God is. Right here.