The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Discipleship: Walking on water?

Posted by Ron George on September 25, 2012

Icon of Jesus and Peter walking on water

Icon of Matthew 14.22-33
Photograph by Ted Bobosh

Flight of imagination: Jesus strides across the surface of a windblown Sea of Galilee to join his disciples whom he’d sent on their way after feeding 5,000 people. Jesus had been praying alone but now was making up for lost time in unimaginable fashion. As he approaches the boat, predictably, his disciples are scared out of their wits not by the wind but by him. They think they’ve seen a ghost. Chill out, Jesus says. It’s me.

Now comes Peter the Rock. He wants proof. If it’s really you, he says, then call me to come out there with you. Jesus cracks a wry smile. Here we go again, he muses silently. Peter’s got something to prove, the impertinent twit. OK, says Jesus. Come on out. Peter’s fine for a few steps, but then like the Rock he is, he begins to sink. Frightened by the wind and sinking into the waves, Rocky calls for help. Jesus pulls him out of the drink. They get into the boat.

What’s the matter, O faithless one? Jesus says with a grin. Scared of a little wind, a big old fisherman like you? Why did you doubt?

The wind dies. Everyone in the boat falls at Jesus’ feet out of sheer relief, including sheepish Peter, chief among the disciples, still in leadership training, perhaps wishing he hadn’t been so rash.

We’ve been hearing a lot about this story at church lately. Sunday school classes and home study groups have been reading John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. It’s a good read, based on  Matthew 14.22-33, addressing pertinent issues of Christian life – faith, fear, vocation and the challenges of discipleship. Our preachers have been preaching from this text for several weeks. It’s that time of year – fall ingathering, as some churches call it. It won’t be long before we’re filling out pledge cards, and it is surely hoped by all that we’re inspired by this book and pulpit leadership to get out of the boat at least in terms of stewardship. Smart money predicts a surge; indeed, this congregation has been surging for about a year since the advent of a new, articulate, energetic pastor. As he said last Sunday, our congregation has joined the four percent of U.S. churches that are growing as the rest decline. I haven’t checked the stats, but I’ve no reason to doubt it. Fifteen months ago, we certainly were in the other column.

Night passage, Mt 14.22-33

Night Passage, by Jan L. Richardson

The imagery of this campaign is dramatic and clear. Just get over any skepticism you may have about whether walking on water is possible, because that’s not the point; at least, it shouldn’t be. Miracles are to be seen, by definition, not analyzed by scientific standards that simply did not exist in the first century. It’s a story and it means something to those of us who embrace Christian tradition and whose worldview is shaped by it. John Ortberg’s is not the only take; indeed, his book is probably not his only take on this remarkable but familiar story. It’s one among many that might be had by thoughtful consideration in the light of faith. I wonder, for example, what the story may have meant to early generations of Christians for whom it was worth recalling in written form.

The earliest, surviving gospel account is Mark 6.45-52. Scholars call this a nature miracle: It suggests that Jesus walked across the lake because his disciples were rowing against the wind. Jesus was on a rescue mission. His disciples were terrified when they saw him coming, but he calmed them down, got into the boat and, immediately, the wind ceased. The disciples were astounded, “but their hearts were hardened.” End of story.

Matthew embellishes the story quite a lot – and Luke omits it altogether! (John has a short version with a weird ending.) Matthew’s account is almost word-for-word copied from Mark but then adds the tradition about Peter’s stroll over the waves. It surely makes a better story, and it shifts the meaning quite a lot. The disciples are no longer clueless due to hardened hearts but begin worshipping Jesus on the spot, declaring as though in anticipation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16.13-20.

First-century Christians were not confused by these apparently contradictory accounts. Mark and Matthew were regarded as authentic purveyors of the gospel. It’s just that Mark had one point to make – that Jesus’ role as messiah was hidden, even from his disciples, until after the resurrection; and Matthew had another – that Jesus was divine from birth, the messiah of the Jews predicted by Israel’s prophets. Both authors were steeped in Christian tradition about Jesus, but they produced gospel accounts – not history – from different theological points of view. In other words, they interpreted the tradition differently because they wrote in different historical contexts – 15 to 20 years apart.

Now in our day, we have a Christian writer – John Ortberg – interpreting Matthew 14.22-33 in a way that would not be recognizable to the authors of Matthew and Mark but which is no less legitimate. Ortberg’s purpose, his theological agenda, unlike Mark’s and Matthew’s, is to encourage conventional Christians to step out of their comfort zone into a more active species of Christian faith and practice. Not surprisingly, Ortberg calls it water walking.

Jaison Cianelli Walk on Water abstract

Walk on Water, by Jaison Cianelli

It’s hard not to like this image. As we’re wont to say in the vernacular, it preaches; however, not without some troubling implications.

We have heard from the pulpit, for example, that Peter’s water-walking gave him bragging rights over disciples who, as we’ve been told for several weeks, “huddled in the boat” rather than walk on water to Jesus. Water-walkers, it seems, are a kind of cut-above Christians for having overcome their fear and lived into the faith such that they’re willing to risk everything – even their places in the boat, presumably – to respond to Christ’s call to discipleship. It’s likely that water-walkers inevitably begin to sink, but like the story says, Jesus is always there to pull them from a watery demise, which may be the inevitable result of their hubris. We’re left with the impression that there are two types of Christian – water-walkers and huddlers. Maybe so, but my guess is that it’s a whole lot more complicated than that, more like I Corinthians 4.12-31: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone … ”

The part of this story that weighs heavily on Ortberg’s use of it, despite the many insights he imparts, is the so-what factor. Jesus’ destination is the boat. Only Peter’s foolhardy, egocentric demand that Jesus prove his identity led to momentary water-walking before Peter realized, truly, that he was in over his head. What kind of ministry is there in that? What species of discipleship? Even the quality of Peter’s foolhardy faith is called into question – it fails him. In the end, everyone is back in the boat – where they belong – and there is peace.

It might behoove us, as we contemplate our calling as a congregation, to keep in mind another image from Matthew’s gospel alongside that of water-walking: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16)


3 Responses to “Discipleship: Walking on water?”

  1. Anonymous said

    Hello Ron..good to see more of your great stuff..Enjoyed your homily/sermonette, whatever..especially significant since a friend and I used JO’s book in a good class last yesr..usd to challenge all the folks..seems to me there is also a fine helpful study guide..your use of artwork is so effective..hope all is well..we flourish here in the BOTOX BUBBLE, an enclave of wealth/growth with all the attendant problems..blessings and joy

  2. Elizabeth McCafferty said

    This one’s a good one, Dad. I love the correlations.

  3. Jim Abbott said

    Hi Ron, Perceptive as ever. Did you get my e-mail from last week?

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