I’m unsure of what promoted it, but yesterday I found myself thinking about the scene in Matthew depicting Peter attempting to walk on water towards Christ. Christian or no, almost everyone is familiar with what occurs next in the story; Peter becomes afraid, doubts, and begins to sink below the churning waves.
‘Peter, you dipshit’ I think to myself. ‘You had GOD standing before you – indeed God all around you, present in the water, the sky and the wind – willing the elements so that you can commune with him.‘ I’ve always been a little hard on Peter, focusing more on his pre-Book of Acts personality rather than his post-Book of Acts personality. Where was that compassion for him that I’ve been espousing in all of my blogs? With that thought, I tucked in and thought about Peter.
Big, dumb, stubborn, Peter.
A la Ignacian spirituality, I tried to imagine myself in the story – going further, I tried to imagine myself as Peter and what it was like for him. Him and his friends were sailing into enemy territory – by themselves as their fearless leader (Jesus) had retreated to the mountaintop to pray. Nerves frayed, the sky opens up and pours rain down upon them. The wind whips the waves in to a frenzy, tossing the boat – no bigger than a modern day FedEx truck – between them. They are probably rapidly taking on water – faster than they can bail it out – and the very real fear of either capsizing or sinking are immanent. Then, Jesus appears and the rest is history.
But, wait a second….
Aren’t there four disciples on that tiny boat that are fisherman – moreover, sons of fisherman? Isn’t Peter one of them? Being the son of a fisherman intimates that Peter would’ve been practically raised on a boat just like the one being depicted in the scene. Peter is described as being married and having children, which probably puts him at around the same age as Jesus – early 30’s. In Jewish tradition the Bar Mitzvah is when a boy is recognized as a man – 12 years of age – which means that, tradition standing, Peter spent the better part of 18 years on a boat, fishing with his father. Don’t you think that in that long span of time he would’ve experienced at least one nasty storm? The odds are that he did – so he should be no stranger to this scenario. In fact he and his brother Andrew, along with James and John would’ve been the most qualified of the 12 to ensure their survival. Peter should’ve been steadfast – and he was. He was courageous enough to step out of the boat and onto the water when none of the others dared such a thing. It wasn’t until he was already walking on the water that he became afraid.
What propelled Peter out of that boat, in those frightening conditions, and onto the water? Was it love for Jesus, or was it ego and pride? I’m willing to bet that it was the latter. You see, he made it the first few steps indicating that his ‘faith’ – read: faith in himself – was strong enough to hold him up. He believed that he could walk on water, not because God willed it, but because he – himself – did. That’s when he looked down. Rather than being filled with amazement and wonder he was immediately filled with fear – for the first time in this reading. In a flash of recognition, he understands that it is not his own will carrying him forward, it’s God’s. For a fleeting moment, he understands the awesomeness that is God – and that’s when he begins to sink like a sack of rocks.
I don’t think that, for all his flaws (and our own), that Peter is malicious. Rather, I see him as a big, ol’ lummox – imposingly tall, a sort of chucky burley – in the end, just a little slow on the uptake. Peter is a very simple man – that’s what I’ve come to admire about him during this time of reflection. He wears his heart on his sleeve, both living and responding with passion.
I think that this describes us all in our humanity and our immaturity of faith. Time after time we see Peter rushing forward to love Jesus with his whole heart, but then withdrawing in fear as he realizes the consequences. As Peter – and ourselves – mature in our faith he is able to take the faith-filled, measured steps toward martyrdom (both literal and metaphorical) that Christ requires of us. It is only when we are secure in our everlasting life and in God’s mercy – that is, when we begin to fully trust God – that we can be considered mature in faith.
Of course, the paradox is that in order to fully trust in God and become mature in faith, we must perform acts of faith.