Matthew 14.22-33 (NRSV)
Jesus Walks on the Water
22 Immediately 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 towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, 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.’
Barclay offers the following thoughts:
After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus sent his disciples away. Matthew stresses that Jesus ‘made’ i.e. compelled them to embark on the boat and go on ahead. John’s account of this event gives us further insight. John suggests that the crowds, after the feeding of the 5000, wanted to make Jesus their king by force (John 6.15). This was completely out of line with how Jesus saw his ministry and it is possible that his fickle disciples might have complicated matters still further. Jesus needed to be alone and deal with the situation alone. He did not want to involve the disciples.
When Jesus was alone, he went up the mountain to pray. As the night progressed, there was a sudden storm – not uncommon in this region. Jesus eventually began to walk around the lake to reach the other side. It was probably spring time and full moon and so Jesus would have been able to see the plight of the disciples and they would have been able to see him.
But did Jesus actually walk on the water or did it look as though he was? Barclay suggests that the Greek could mean that he was or that he was walking towards the water. It is not impossible that Jesus did walk on the water, because we know of other natural miracles that Jesus performed. It is also possible that the storm had blown the boat toward the northern shore and that Jesus was walking through the surf to help them. But, as Barclay suggests, whatever explanation one prefers is of little consequence because the meaning and significance of this passage remains perfectly clear. And this is that, in times of need, Jesus comes to us. When life is a struggle, Jesus is there to help us.
The reality of our lives is that we often have to face ‘winds of trouble’. When these times happen, we do not have to face them alone, because Jesus comes to us through the storms of life, ‘... with hand stretched to save, and with his calm clear voice bidding us to be of good courage, and not to be afraid.’
This is what matters and what all Christians can testify to the truth of and that is in the storms of life, we never need to face them alone, for Jesus always comes to us, helps us and even blesses us in the process.
I continue with the aid of Barclay for a while longer.
There is no passage in the New Testament that reveals the character of Peter better; it tells us three things about Peter:
Firstly, he was given to acting on impulse and without thinking about what he was doing. He did this again when he vowed unswerving loyalty to Jesus before our Lord’s arrest, only to deny him soon afterwards. Peter’s troubled was that he was ruled by his heart, but this does not mean that his heart was always wrong, in fact his heart was always right, because his instinct was always to love.
Secondly, Jesus wants us always to face every situation, sometimes in all its grimness, before we act. Jesus was always completely honest and wants us to see how difficult it is to follow him. Peter needed to learn that it is not a good idea to act on the emotional moment without counting the cost first. He eventually learned this lesson.
Thirdly, whenever Peter failed, he clung on to Christ and so was able to rise again. His failures brought him closer to Christ. Barclay suggests, ‘A Saint is not a person who never fails; a Saint is a person who gets up and goes on every time they fall.’ Peter’s failures only made him love Jesus Christ more.
These verses also give us insight into more. When Jesus got into the boat, the wind died down. This shows that wherever Jesus is, the wildest storm becomes calm. This was the experience of Francis of Sales: He noticed that when people went to the well to draw water; they would put a piece of wood into the water before carrying it away, to keep the water steady. Francis concluded: Whenever your heart is distressed, put the Cross of Jesus into the centre of your heart, to keep it steady; this will bring peace and calm.
This is indeed my experience ...
Some further thoughts based on the commentary by Suzanne de Dietrich ...
We are not sure how much solitude Jesus had access to at this point in his ministry but it would seem that it only happened at night. In order to experience it, Jesus needed to leave the conditions of their tiny lodgings ‘... that cruel lack of privacy imposed on the poor.’
There are three accounts of the crossing of the lake that took place after the multiplication of the loaves, and all of them point to the difficulty of the crossing and the sudden appearance of Jesus: they all show how the disciples did not recognise Jesus at first and that he appeared to come to them , ‘walking on the sea’. But Matthew alone includes the experience of Peter who also walked on the water but began to sink because he was gripped with fear. All those in the boat prostrated themselves saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
The mystery of this experience calls to mind the post-Resurrection experiences as the disciples’ confession of faith anticipates that which will be made later. Does this reflect the memory of Matthew of the Risen One blending with that of the earthly ministry of Jesus?
But the incident has a double message: (i) Jesus is Lord of the elements because he is clothed with the very power of God. Jesus is not only a teacher whom the disciples follow but also the Son of God to whom they prostrate themselves. (ii) Faith in Jesus is empowering; but the faith that begins to doubt ‘sinks’ and can flounder, but our merciful Lord comes to our aid.
A W Argyle suggests that the secret of Jesus’ power lay not only in the fact that he was the Son of God, but also in the fact that he was constantly in fellowship with the Father in prayer. ‘This was the essence of his inward life, of which his ministry was the outflowing.’ Archbishop William Temple wrote: ‘The right relation between prayer and conduct is not that conduct is supremely important and prayer may help it, but that prayer is supremely important and conduct tests it.’
Verse 27 is of some special significance. What is translated as ‘it is I’ is more literally translated as ‘I am’. As we know these words are often used as a self-revelation of Yahweh in the Old Testament – once again a reference to the Incarnation.
Verses 28-31 are peculiar to Matthew. To come to Jesus across the water required a great deal of courage – which Peter demonstrated – but his faith wavered and Jesus saved him. This must have been of great encouragement to Matthew’s original audience as they were often confronted by ‘storms’ and ‘dangers’. Argyle too, suggests that these verses must have originated from this early preaching of the Church as it is significant that Mark makes no mention of it, and it is accepted that Mark used Peter as his source. It is also interesting to note that here the disciples accepted and declared Jesus as the Son of God and in Mark’s account their ‘minds were closed’!
A few last thoughts on the Gospel reading, this time aided by J C Fenton ...
The emphasis here is to deal with the separation of the disciples from Jesus, their insecurity, their fear – even their terror – which lasts until the fourth watch of the night. The significance here for the Church is that although we are physically separated from Jesus after the resurrection ‘... yet he is praying for them, and will come to them again as the Son of man; they are to take heart and have no fear, although they are beaten by the waves of persecution, and the wind is against them.’
With reference to the passage from verse 28 ff. We know that the early Church revered Peter as the first of the great disciples and the Rock on which the Church is built *(10.2 and 16.18) nevertheless, Matthew adds this important other dimension of Peter’s character and experience: Matthew does not shy away from Peter’s denial of our Lord during the Passion and here he represents Peter as one of ‘little faith’ – a doubter. His failure here and Peter’s restoration by Jesus, may be an anticipation of Peter’s future failure during the Passion and his restoration after the Resurrection.
Fenton suggests that this section seems to be a preachers’ elaboration on a theme by means of a story ... once again, if this is true or not is of little concern to me, because it is my experience that our Lord treats me and those I know and love with the same grace, and for that I am grateful.