In the Boat: stepping out

AgnusDay Mt 14v22-2Given other stories we know about Peter, there is a bias for us to assume Peter is just being Peter here in this story, impetuously acting before considering the bigger picture. But we should remember that this story is likely grounded in saying something about ekklesia (church). Eugene Boring (328) points out that this is no longer a story about what Jesus alone can do:

The Christ who speaks with authority (chaps. 5-7), acts with authority (chaps. 8-9), and then confers this same authority on his disciples (chap. 10) here shares his power and authority with his disciples. The figure of Peter should not here (or elsewhere in Matthew) be psychologized as impetuous, but later failing. We do not have a psychological profile, but a character in a story representing all the disciples, portraying the theological meaning of discipleship as such. Peter addresses Jesus as a believer would, “Lord” (non-believers in Matthew use other titles). He has the right christological title and shows great personal faith, but he leaves the boat and the community.

At first things go well, but alone, outside the boat/community he has only his own faith to rely upon and he soon discovers he is of little faith (v.31). But the core question Jesus asks is “why did you doubt?” Peter is the first disciples, and the typical one, but he can become the agent and voice of Satan (16:33). Is Peter’s walking on the sea a sign of faith or lack of faith? Is he being like the Tempter who asked, “If you are the Son of God, ….” when he asks, “If it is you, ….” and he seeks proof that Jesus is really present? Is he putting God to the test?

Boring writes (328):

For Matthew, Peter’s problem was not only that he took his eyes off Jesus, but that he wanted proof of the presence of Christ, and so left the boat in the first place. . . . The gentle rebuke identifies Peter as the typical disciple in Matthew; ‘little faith’ is the dialectical mixture of courage and anxiety, of hearing the word of the Lord and looking at the terror of the storm, of trust and doubt, which is always an ingredient of Christian existence, even after the resurrection. The last point is underscored by the peculiar word used here for ‘doubt’ (distazō), which connotes vacillation, not skepticism. It is used elsewhere in the NT only in Matthew 28:17 of the disciples in the presence of the risen Lord.

Boring concludes (329-30):

The message is not “If he had enough faith, he could have walked on the water,” just as the message to us is not “If we had enough faith, we could overcome all our problems in spectacular ways.” This interpretation is wrong in that it identifies faith with spectacular exceptions to the warp and woof of our ordinary days, days that are all subject to the laws of physics and biology. This is wrong because when our fantasies of overcoming this web are shattered by the realities of accident, disease, aging, and circumstance and we begin to sink, this view encourages us to feel guilt because of our “lack of faith.”

What if the message of this text were “If he had had enough faith, he would have believed the word of Jesus that came to him in the boat as mediating the presence and reality of God”? Faith is not being able to walk on the water – only God can do that – but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.

What happened to Peter (the “Rock”) with his little faith and his doubts? One answer is, “He sank into the sea like a rock.” Another answer is, “He was saved by Jesus.” For most of us whose faith is unable to move mountains and thus must be smaller than mustard seeds (cf 17:20); we are assured that even our microscopic faith is sufficient for salvation. It is the person of faith is the one who cries out to Jesus in time of need. Martin Luther’s observation described the human condition well: simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner).

Faith Among The Disarray. Here is an insight from Matthew L. Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary:

The most important detail to consider is the place Peter asks to go. He and his companions apparently have spent nearly the whole night struggling to get across the blasted lake before Jesus shows up near daybreak. It’s not a massive body of water, never more than seven miles across when traveling east-west. Yet they’ve not been able to traverse it, for the storm has “battered” or “thrashed” their boat. As for the churning sea, in their worldview it represents chaos and danger. Then they think they see a ghost.

It’s terror all around.

Fear erupts because they anticipate how the story will probably end. All night they have been threatened by the prospects of established boundaries being overrun. Water leaping up from its environs to pull down an entire boat. A ghost intruding into the realm of the living perhaps to claim new victims. Disciples left to die at the mercy of more powerful forces.

Then they realize: it’s Jesus, striding over the watery chaos.

So, why would Peter want to go out there? After all, Jesus himself is not exactly respecting the natural boundaries everyone is used to. There’s something scary about that, too.

I doubt Peter expects a walk on the sea will alleviate all his fears. Rather, his desire to join Jesus on the water expresses a desire for transcendence. He’s not trying to be Jesus, he’s trying to be with him. Peter wants to share Jesus’ unbounded place, to put himself beyond the forces and expectations that determine our usual existence, whether for better or for worse….

When Peter steps out of his boat, he enters a tumult. His motive isn’t to escape from threat, for he goes into a situation where the threats will now look different, into a place where Jesus is defying and reordering the assumed boundaries.

Isn’t this what history’s most faithful people have demonstrated? Not all of them were great believers, but they knew that if God might be encountered anywhere, God will be found in places where the regular delineations and predictable endings don’t apply as before. Sometimes incredibly turbulent places are also “thin places,” where God breaks through.

These heroes of faith find and illuminate God in settings where “the way things are” are reconfigured: where the poor receive support, the sick find comfort, and the oppressed enjoy dignity and freedom

Notes

Matthew 14:29 Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus: there are many small textual variations in the sources surrounding this one verse. The predominant and accepted understanding is that Peter got out of the boat, began to walk on the water, but after some success, ran into trouble and began to sink. The alternative readings, depending on the verb tense one discerns is being used, can also indicate that Peter intended to come to Jesus but sank from step one.

Matthew 14:31 little faith: oligopistia; of the six times the phrase occurs in the NT, five are in Matthew: 6:30 (par. Lk 12:28); 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; and 17:20). They are always descriptions of the disciples. Although Jesus calls attention to the fact that his disciples are people of little faith, he never indicates that there is anything that they can do about this. He doesn’t offer to increase their faith, nor does he give them any guidance as to what they might do to increase it themselves. One would think that if “little faith” is what’s holding these disciples back, them Jesus would tell them what to do about this problem. But he doesn’t. He points out their little faith as an explanation for why they are not making progress as quickly as they would like, but he never tells them how they can get more faith to remedy that situation.

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