What’s so Bad About Being in the Boat?
What’s so Bad About Being in the Boat?
The story of Jesus walking on water is well known. It has been reproduced in art, spoofed in movies and used a measuring stick for our faithfullness. Why did you doubt is what Jesus asks Peter when he begins to sink. But would any of us have done any better and what’s so bad about being in the boat?
Every time I see an image of Jesus or anyone else walking on water, the water is always calm. I can recall the comical scene in the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty, when his character infused with the power of God walks on water. The water is flat and as calm as can be. However, our text today tells us that the boat was being bombarded by waves because the wind was against it. Remember, several of the disciples are fishermen. We don’t know how experienced they were at sailing, but I’m sure they would have faired better than me on a lake with high winds. But there is Jesus, walking on the water, with the high winds and waves. It isn’t until Jesus climbs into the boat with a drenched Peter that the winds die down and the water calms. Something about being in the presence of Jesus.
We remember that Jesus has just spent some time alone. His cousin John the Baptist has died at the hands of Herod. Seeking time to grieve Jesus withdrew for some time alone, but the crowds wouldn’t let him. After feeding the crowd, Jesus sends the disciples out ahead of him and finally takes some time alone to pray.
There is a connection here between prayer and the mission of God. A connection between walking through the storms of life and the mission of God. Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountain or in the boat. After taking time alone to pray, he gets on with the work of ministry: Teaching, healing and caring for God’s people.
What do we make of this story? Is it enough to say that if we have enough faith, if we trust in Jesus enough, we can walk on water? It’s something we all desire, to trust completely on the mercies of God, but we all know that if we go down to the lake after listening to this sermon we won’t be walking on water. We are going to sink! This isn’t to say that we don’t have faith or that like Peter we will doubt when it matters most. I think that too often we focus on the wrong thing in this story.
It’s really easy to focus on Jesus in any part of the gospels. He is our focus, God with us, the one in whom we believe and follow. When Jesus is doing something it is natural for our attention to be drawn there. When Jesus walks on water our jaws drop open in wonder and we proclaim as the disciples did, “Truly you are the Son of God.” How could we not! It is a clear miracle and works contrary to everything we understand about the world God lovingly created for us.
This passage also draws our focus to Peter. Upon seeing Jesus walking on the water, Jesus shouts out over the storms, “Lord if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus replies, “Come.” So Peter, all full of bluster, jumps out of the boat and starts walking on the water. He’s actually doing it! If it was me I’d be splashing about trying to keep my head above water and I’m a half decent swimmer. Peter shouts out for help and Jesus does help him, but not without an admonishment, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Our choices with this passage seem to be Jesus or Peter. Jesus, who spends time in prayer, walks on water and seems otherworldly calm throughout the whole passage. Peter, who trying to look brave jumps out of the boat in an attempt to emulate Jesus. Something we all aspire to and are all successful at in different ways.
If Peter is where our focus should be, after all he is human, a disciple and closest to what we can ascribe ourselves to then it seems all we need is bigger faith. How big, I don’t know, though there is that parable about the mustard seed and moving mountains.
However, I think our focus is in the wrong spot in this passage. As we watch Jesus walk on water and as we watch Peter flounder in the water we forget all about the boat and the disciples who are on it. They aren’t just on the boat, they didn’t hire a yacht for an afternoon pleasure cruise, no the disciples are actively piloting the boat. They are working together, as a team, a crew, making sure that boat doesn’t capsize, doesn’t take on water and that it reach its destination. Yes, they are experienced in being on the water, but that doesn’t remove the risks and they need to rely on one another to navigate the lake with the high winds and waves.
Mitzi Smith puts it best in her commentary, “Sometimes faith is seeing the boat for what it is—a shared experience and the opportunity to lean on one another, to encourage each other in the storm while waiting on God.” (Mitzi Smith)
Today, our focus needs to be the boat in the storm and the disciples who work together to keep it afloat. I believe this due to our societal sharing over the concerns of Covid-19. I believe this because as a community of faith we are called to work together for the purposes of God’s kingdom! And I believe that the changes we have all experienced due to Covid-19 and how we are called to be church are tied together.
When Covid-19 really began to affect our lives back in March we all hoped that it would be a short few week pause. Looking back I find my own thoughts on this incredibly naive, that we would quickly be back to life as usual. As things have drawn out we have seen Covid-19 expose many things which are broken in our society. We have been required to rethink the way we do and approach many things and church is no exception.
As those early weeks dragged on I began to wonder if this ‘great pause’ wasn’t actually an opportunity for something new? Could we at the end of this time, whenever that might be, find a new way to reach people with the message we cherish about God? Over the summer I’ve been reading, reflecting and praying about what this could mean, what it might look like. I’m not the only one. Earlier this week I read an article titled: Your Church after Covid: restart, refresh or relaunch? Contained within was this quote, “It is beginning to dawn on us that what was may never fully return and that we may have been overestimating its effectiveness all along.”
It’s a jarring quote, that we may have overestimated our own effectiveness and faithfulness in the local churches mission. However, I’ll be honest and let you know I over think everything I do when it comes to the church. Should we? What if we did something else instead? How will people react? Will it reach people? Is it God honouring? I question and think, because it matters. What we do matters.
I do firmly believe that as terrible and frightening as this time of Covid-19 is, God is calling us to something new. God is leading us in a new direction and providing the opportunity to reach people in new ways.
The saying goes, if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. And that’s true! But I don’t believe we are being asked to abandon the boat or to go it alone. I believe we are being called to find new ways to work together in faithfulness, all for the glory of God. That within the confines of that boat, battered by wind and wave, we will find a sense of renewed purpose.
The miracle of the story we have today isn’t that Jesus walked on water. That shouldn’t surprise us. Nor is it that Peter managed it for a step or two. The miracle of the story is that it dawned on the disciples that the Son of God was in their midst and they worshipped him. And so we, in the confines of our boat, which is not our church building but our wider community faith, will also worship God in old ways and in new. For what we realize is that throughout the storms of life, Jesus remains with us. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.