Peter: Courage, Faith, and Fear

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”    Matthew 14:30-31

Good ol’ rash, impetuous Peter!  How often he is the buffoon for us!  How well we remember his denial on Good Friday, when he denied His Lord three times [Matthew 26:33-35; 69-75], even after being warned about it in advance!  And there was that time, just after he made that confession of Jesus as being the Christ, he tried to prevent Jesus from fulfilling that mission of dying for the world [Matthew 16:15-19; 21-23].  Even in the Gospel for this morning, we immediately latch on to his lack of faith as he sinks in the water.

But wait a minute!  There is a lot to be said for this man.  It had to take a lot of courage for Peter to step out from the boat and walk on such water.  Deep water can be very scary.  It is one thing to go swimming where the water is just a little over your head, where you know that in maybe four or five strokes you can get to where you can stand on the bottom; it is quite another thing to have no bottom under you at all.  In fact, the very thought of bottomless water can create a panic in some people.

Now suppose one day, the Lord Jesus were to command you to walk on water that was perhaps waist deep.  Would you do it?  Probably you might try, because you also knew that if you ran into trouble, you could get yourself out of it.  But if Jesus were to ask you walk on bottomless water – would you do it?  And then add to that that this is taking place in the midst of a terrible storm, with water heaving about in great big waves, maybe four or five feet – one and half meters – high.  Would you do what Peter did?

Need I draw to your attention that not one of the other disciples even got that bold?  Sure, Peter got himself into trouble more than once, and yet he experienced things that the other disciples were too frightened to even try, and he had a genuine faith in Jesus that did hold him up at least for a while on top of the water.  Only one man stepped out of the security of the boat, and literally walked on water – because his Lord commanded him, “Come!” and he came to his Lord.  Yes, Peter had courage – and Peter had faith.

But then Peter began to sink.  What happened?  Was it because he realized that he was walking on water, and the exhilaration of seeing God’s power at work within his life overwhelmed him?  Yes, we sometimes do think that way, that the moment one seems to get closer to God we expect that he is headed for trouble.  How often have we criticized someone who has newly become aware of the power of God in his life, that he will be distracted, filled with pride, or worse, that this will make him go off the deep end of “religiosity” – of becoming “too” spiritual!

But this was not Peter’s problem.  Peter was all too much very human, and very ordinary as we are.  I am sure that the initial response in Peter was greater faith and wonder in the power of Jesus.  When he stepped out of that boat, his whole attention, his whole focus was on his Lord.  He was obeying the command of Jesus and discovered that through his Master he had incredible ability.

But deep water and large waves have the way of intruding.  Suddenly he became aware of the storm.  By itself that also wasn’t bad.  One cannot afford to live in a dream world no matter how religious he may try to be.  Yes, there is a need to be aware of what is going on around him. But that awareness crumbled Peter’s exhilaration, making him too much aware of how puny he was against the normal power of just nature alone.

Peter became afraid.  Instead of giving this over to the Lord Who was standing right there across from him – apparently only an arm’s length away – and saying, “Lord, this is for you to handle,” he became very conscious of what the wind and waves were doing, and his focus turned to his helplessness.  Fear has a way of making the problem grow larger and the Lord grow smaller.  It wasn’t so long before the storm overwhelmed him, and he began to sink.

Yet look at the Lord’s way of handling this.  Oh, how well He knew Peter.  How well He could have said to Peter that this was his own doing.  No, Jesus instead simply reached out and took hold of Peter.  There’s an important principle at work here.  Jesus doesn’t command anything of His people, first of all unless He Himself is always close at hand.  Because whenever any of His people – you and me included – step out in obedience to Jesus’ commands, we are very vulnerable to become overwhelmed.

In the comfort of our daily life, it may seem easy for us to be a bit condescending in regard to Peter’s foolishness.  However imagine being in Texas right now as the category four hurricane Harvey has come ashore.  Roofs are pulled off of buildings, cars are floated around like wooden sticks.  I remember being in a flood where we were sandbagging and as I stood in perhaps 20 cm (8 inches) of water, I could feel the powerful tug of the water, realizing that if I should trip or fall in the right spot, how easily I might be swept away.
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So often that can be the kind of feeling spiritually we can have, when we become afraid and discouraged.  How fragile we are when faced with sin, Satan and the evil in human nature.  We see how the world has become very much anti-Christian, we see destructive attitudes in politics and in the media against all of which we feel so small.  In Peter’s day, seamen were not as accomplished swimmers as we see today, so imagine their fear whenever the sea turned nasty, and so often as the sea of public opinion turns against God’s values and persecutes Christians around the world, how easily we also can become terrified in our seemingly little boats of faith.

Look at how overwhelmed we can get when it comes to evangelism!  Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations, beginning with our home territory.  Yet our minds become filled with images of what might happen when we encounter the wrath of the world.  The area of stewardship also becomes a place which can sink us in the fear of becoming too extended financially and time-wise.  The command by Jesus to love as He loved us can be too much to handle when standing in the full blast of contempt or indifference.  The Ten Commandments – the Sermon on the Mount with its demands – all those places in which we discover the storm and the waves all around us, and we can just feel ourselves sinking into fear, into despair, into frustration, into helplessness.

But then, look at how close Jesus is.  Here He is to be found, ready to lift you up.  Look at the forgiveness to be seen on that cross!  Listen to the words which He has spoken, the promises which are attached to His very presence.  Look at the way that through Baptism, the Holy Spirit was placed in you to so that you are not merely crying out into the wind when you pray, instead there is an ear that eagerly listens for your voice, whether it be the voice of rejoicing or the voice of urgent need.  Look at Jesus as He spreads His table before you, so that you don’t have to go searching mountains and valleys to find Jesus, but instead can find Him here Who stands at an arm’s length in front of you, in Flesh and Blood, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  And look in the faces of the people next to you.  Jesus is to be found in each one of us – in perhaps a helping hand, in a word of comfort, in an understanding touch.  Jesus is simply close by.

But there is also something else in this account of Peter’s walking on the water.  Jesus doesn’t give a command without Himself assuming responsibility for His people.  In Ephesians, St Paul emphasizes that Jesus ascended back into heaven not just merely to take back all His power and authority that He laid aside when He came to earth, but that He took all this power back, that “all things are put under His feet, and has made Him to be the Head over all things for the sake of the Church!”  The whole focus of Jesus centers down to His People – you and me.  His taking back his power is not something that conveniently also includes a spinoff power in regard to us!  No, St Paul says that in this universe a MAJOR PURPOSE for Jesus’ power from heaven’s throne is for our benefit.

This is significant.  It means that Jesus isn’t merely casually occasionally checking in with us, but that He is constantly watching over us.  Jesus doesn’t give us commands, without Him being responsible for us – the same as when He commanded Peter to “come!” that Jesus didn’t walk away leaving Peter to fend for himself.

That can be hard for us to believe, sometimes because we don’t want to believe that Jesus makes Himself responsible for us.  We like being self-sufficient and therefore like to try to do things our own way.  Although we may do something in obedience to the Lord’s command, our focus is really not on Him but on our own abilities.  And then like Peter, we become overwhelmed when we see what is really happening around us – like Peter when he walked on water, like Peter when he stood in the High Priest’s courtyard the night before Jesus’ death.

How wonderful for us that we see Jesus not discouraged and rejecting of Peter – we see for ourselves that Jesus won’t be that way toward us either.  Just as Jesus was there with help and forgiveness, that He doesn’t walk away from Peter nor from us, that we too have a wonderful comfort to take with us into daily life.  Jesus has made Himself responsible for us, for our welfare, for our response to His commands.

After all, isn’t that also what the cross is all about?  He made Himself responsible for even your sins!  He made Himself responsible for your eternal salvation.  And His love and concern doesn’t stop there but extends to all your life, it extends to His commands over your life.

What a joy it is to see Jesus in action in this story of Peter walking on water!  What forgiveness He has for you and me – that He will never get sick and tired of our antics and our apathy – but that as He promised, He is always at hand when we also cry out, “Lord, save me!”, always ready to lift us up and set us back on our feet, always ready to be close by when we step out according to His command.  The beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus never commands without Him being near to help in time of problems, even overwhelming problems; that He never commands without being in control – in control for OUR sakes.

Thank you, Peter for being a realistic believer.  You have done it again: you has shown us ourselves, but you have also shown us Jesus.

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