In order to understand our gospel story for today we have to revisit the story from last week which immediately precedes it. Jesus was exhausted and trying to find some time alone, but he had become so popular that he attracted enormous crowds. Most people who are called to vocations of healing, teaching and ministry are energized and encouraged when crowds show up to receive the gifts of their vocation, but all human beings have limits and need boundaries, space, and time for self-care apart from the crowds and also from the people who surround them on a daily basis. The human side of Jesus was craving such a respite but the crowds would give him no peace.
Matthew tells us that Jesus responded to the needs of the crowd with compassion, teaching and healing until dusk approached. His disciples came to him and suggested sending the people home, it was getting late, they needed food, and they knew how tired Jesus was. But upon finding out that the disciples had five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus insisted that they provide food for the people. He taught them to place the needs of others ahead of their own, even when it seems difficult or downright impossible, because anything is possible with God. And so, a crowd of 5,000 was fed until all were satisfied, with 12 baskets of food leftover, signifying the abundance of God.
At this point, having spent a long day offering teaching, healing and compassion to the crowd, and then providing for their physical need for food, Jesus must have been exhausted. There are times when we have all allowed ourselves to be pushed beyond our capacity, to neglect the care and rest that we need. But it is important that we realize that there is a limit to our ability to push ourselves, even Jesus had one. And we have to acknowledge that, unlike Jesus, we are not God. We do our best, but there are things we have no control over.
Mitzi J. Smith, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Ashland Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, writes in her commentary in Working Preacher that
when she left home to attend college, it was very difficult for her to leave her mother’s side. She was an invalid and Smith was the only child still living at home to care for her. Many nights she cried herself to sleep in her dorm room; because she felt she should be doing more to help her mother, even though she had quickly obtained a job and was sending money home. During phone calls her mother assured her that she was doing all she could and that she just wanted her to be happy. Smith says she finally felt peace after a sleepless, tear-filled night when God reminded her through her prayers that God can do what we cannot do, both in our presence and our absence from whatever is troubling us.
After that exhausting day of teaching, healing and feeding the crowd, Jesus recognized that he had reached his limit. He needed some time alone, time to rest and pray. He sent his disciples away in their boat towards their next destination, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus left himself in a vulnerable position – he had no boat, no companions, and would have had a long walk all around the Sea of Galilee ahead of him. Yet after several hours of rest and refreshment, Jesus takes a short cut, he feels strong and empowered by God enough to walk across the water and join the disciples in the boat. Meanwhile, one of the frequent storms had come up on the lake, so fierce that even the experienced fishermen were frightened.
The disciples were no doubt tired after their day of helping Jesus with the crowds, and there was probably little time for rest before the storm came up. In contrast, Jesus is rested and refreshed and calmly walking on the sea toward his disciples with the intention of joining them. But the disciples think that Jesus is a ghost and they are terrified. Belief in ghosts was very common in first century Palestine, later, during a post- resurrection appearance, Jesus will eat food in order to prove he isn’t a ghost. Jesus understands that they are afraid and he tells them to ‘Stay calm, it is I; don’t be afraid.’ Peter responds, ‘Master, if it is really you, command me to join you on the water.’ Jesus (who is probably wondering at the wisdom of such a request) responds, ‘Come!’” Peter gets out of the boat onto the water and finds himself walking towards Jesus. But he quickly discovers that it is one thing to be battered by strong winds while in a boat with other people. It is a whole other matter to be on the water surrounded by strong winds and waves all by yourself.
Jesus and Peter were not “in the same boat”; both literally and metaphorically. Jesus had evidently walked on the choppy seas for some distance in the fierce winds. Peter had been in the boat with the others. Yet Jesus chastises Peter when he notices the winds and begins to sink; Jesus accuses him of doubting and having little faith. In an interesting perspective on this story, Smith notes that 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. Peter was eager to leave the others and join Jesus, rather than wait for Jesus to join them in the boat. Sometimes we want our own miracle at the expense of others who are in the same boat as us. Jesus does not leave Peter floundering, he reached out his hand and caught Peter, and they both got into the boat with the other disciples. It is only when they are all in the boat together with Jesus that the wind and waves calm down.
When reading this story, we rarely focus on the miracle of Jesus walking on the water – after all, he is God, he can do anything. We get all caught up in Peter’s brief walk on the water and his failure to maintain that walk because of his shifted focus from Jesus to the wind and waves. We think about how we need to maintain our focus on Jesus as the center of our lives and to be able to place our trust in him. That is an important lesson. But perhaps it is also significant that Jesus is able to walk on the water, refreshed and ready to re-engage in his ministry because he took the time for rest and prayer. The disciples were overworked, tired, and frightened by the storm. Before Jesus sent them off in the boat, he had also been overworked and tired. But now, Jesus appears rested, calm, in control, and peaceful as he comes towards them across the choppy water. No wonder they thought he was a ghost!
There are many lessons we can take away from this story – the importance of taking time to rest and pray, especially when we are overworked and fatigued. The importance of being together in the boat – committed to working together towards the same goal of ministry and encouraging one another as we face the same fears when we are buffeted by storms. We are reminded to keep God at the center of our lives and to trust in God, to know that God is in control and to have faith that God will take care of things that we are unable to change, no matter how hard we try. Amen.