I don’t know how many of you think as I do, that the episode of Jesus walking on the water, on the Sea of Galilee, which we have just heard is not just an instance of Our Lord demonstrating His extraordinary powers of jolting the ordinary rules of existence into something timeless and miraculous. The story does at first of course come over as a miracle story- Jesus walking on the water, and the terrible wind, which has whipped up the Sea of Galilee into a freak storm drops immediately He and Peter get into the boat. And so the rest of His disciples proclaim Jesus’s divinity in words which will not be heard again, until the centurion present at Jesus’s crucifixion utters them once more: “Truly this man was God’s Son”.
I think, however, that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel may be attempting something more than a miracle story. You do not have to look very hard to see that in the narrative there are significant suggestions of the age-old narrative of creation, found in the very first chapter of Genesis, created anew in the light of the new covenant and the new dispensation of the Son of God. We have Jesus alone, up in the hills above the centre of events praying alone. Down below, the Sea of Galilee is charged with restless winds and storms, just as we are told in the opening of Genesis that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep..” But, in the fourth watch of the night, just when the darkness was at its greatest, you have the appearance of Jesus, walking on the water, just as the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and masters and orders creation and who declares with ultimate authority, “Let there be light”. And you will remember that in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares Himself to be “the light of the world” and reminded His hearers that “whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. So Jesus calms the dark waters of chaos on the Sea of Galilee by the light of His divine presence, and even calls out to His terrified disciples in the boat, “It is I ! do not be afraid”, those words used by the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament in the calling of Moses and Samuel and, in the New, in the salutation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation.
But here is the thing that is different, in which we can see the contrast of the message of Jesus in very simple and different terms from the message which the Lord had presented to His people under the old covenant. Peter sometimes gets a rough ride in the accounts of his behaviour in the Gospel narratives – he is presented as sometimes over hasty, tactless and argumentative, and panicky in the face of difficult circumstances. But his rôle in this story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee is different. Peter asks to be commanded to come to Jesus on the water, not, I think, to show off in front of the other disciples, or because he doubted. He wanted to walk on the water because for all his faults, he wanted to be like Jesus, and share in the divine; he wanted to be a saint. And so at the divine invitation, “Come”, which Jesus extends to all of us who believe in Him, Peter does actually start walking on the water.
But then, the fear and the strangeness of the experience overcome Peter and he starts to sink, although he retains just about enough presence of mind to cry out “Lord, save me!” that cry which has been echoed throughout the ages by saints and sinners, when overcome by doubt or despair. And Jesus does save him, reaching out for Peter’s hand and dragging him into the boat with Himself. The God of the Old creation expelled our first parents Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden into hardship and labour for their lack of belief in His promises. Even if we doubt, the God of the New creation promises us safety and forgiveness and a safe haven, creating new men and new women by His redeeming presence. And behind the question which Jesus puts to Peter, even when He is saving him from drowning, “Man of little faith, why did you doubt ?” there lies the promise which He makes to all who try to follow Him. As He said to Jairus, whose daughter lay dead, “Do not fear, only believe”. If we believe, anything is possible- we can even walk on water, and we can be caught up and united in the safety of His presence, which is the promise of the saints in Heaven.
Fr Nigel Palmer