We should read the story of Jesus walking on the water as a real miracle, of course, but this story also has long served Christians as allegory. The sea stands for the world; the boat is Christ’s church.
Having accomplished his miracle of feeding the multitudes, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. He stayed behind to send the crowds home. Scottish theologian William Barclay notes that a parallel story in John 6:1-15 indicates the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. Barclay speculates Jesus sent the disciples away because they were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle the tense situation.
Whatever the reason, once the disciples had departed and the crowds were gone, Jesus finally was able to go up the mountain and find the solitude he had sought since learning of John the Baptist’s brutal, senseless execution.
Try to see the ensuing hours like contrasting scenes swapping back and forth in a movie. Jesus was in prayer, presumably at peace. At the same time, the disciples were tossed to and fro in one of those violent windstorms known to arise on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus sank deeper into an understanding of his father’s will, the boat sank lower in the water, leaving the disciples clinging to the gunwales, the highest planks of the boat.
In the early hours before sunrise, the scenes began to merge. Jesus made his way across the sea on foot toward his frightened followers. When he drew near, there must have been at least some dim beginnings of morning twilight. The disciples made out a shape approaching and assumed, “It is a ghost!”
Jesus assured them with, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the Greek manuscripts, Jesus literally says, “I am,” echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.
This is where Peter—bold, rash Peter, the one who would soon be called the foundational rock of the church—wanted to walk on the water with Jesus, if Jesus would command him to do so. Jesus did, and Peter let go of the gunwales, stepped out and walked on the water, briefly, until the turmoil of the sea caused him to take his eyes off Jesus.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, plucking the sinking future leader of the church from the water and putting him into the boat. At this point, the disciples worshiped Jesus on the suddenly calm sea, acknowledging their master as the great I Am.
In Luminary UMC’s sanctuary, we have a particular stained-glass window depicting the disciples’ plight. One is bailing, trying to keep everyone afloat. I’m glad the image is there. Every church should have a depiction of this story hanging somewhere.
In particular, we need it so we have something on which we can meditate in difficult times, either individually or as a church. Remembering again that the sea stands for the world and the boat stands for the church, the story raises some questions we need to ask ourselves.
✞Do you believe, really believe, that Jesus as the Son of God is in full control? Do you believe he’s resurrected, in heaven as part of the Trinity, at peace with all things as he was on the mountain, despite the turmoil below? Basically, I’m asking you if you’ve fully absorbed what it means to call yourself “Christian.”
✞Do you believe he knows and cares when the turmoil of the world tosses his church about? And that he’ll come for us when we need him, even when we may not see him clearly at first?
✞What’s the solution when our boat is flooding? Does clinging to the gunwales really help? When times are tough, I suppose it’s important not to fall out of the boat completely, but does your clinging improve the long-term situation?
I think Peter gets too much criticism from preachers for his role in this story. Hey, he saw Jesus, and he got out of the boat. If only briefly, the turmoil suddenly wasn’t a problem, for as long as he kept his eyes on Christ.
✞What does it mean to get out of the boat? Ah, that puts you out in the world, out in the turmoil, doesn’t it. Now see if you can keep your eyes on Jesus!
✞Why does the boat even exist? It is important to pause together in worship, particularly when we see evidence of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are strengthened as disciples when that perfect peace of Christ settles on us for awhile. But ultimately, the boat should take us other places in the world as we go where Christ sends us. Jesus and the disciples finally disembarked in Gennesaret, where a mighty healing was needed.
As we go about doing Jesus’ work, storms will come, I promise you. Keep your eyes on the horizon, searching for Christ; keep your eyes on Christ when you see him.