“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14:27
Last Sunday, thinking about the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we saw that it was a story that challenged us: it challenged us about our need for rest, for reflection; it challenged us about our need to accept responsibility, to be prepared to use the gifts God has given us, and it challenged us about our need to consider God’s response to us and our response to him, in what sort of God did we believe?
The three words that described those challenges, rest, responsibility and response, are words that can help us as we think about the story of Jesus walking on the water.
Like the story of the feeding of the five thousand, it is a story that begins with rest. Jesus had crossed the lake to find peace and quiet, and the crowds had followed him. The crowds are taught and they are fed and now the time comes to return across the lake. Sending his friends ahead, Jesus takes time for rest and reflection. In Saint Matthew Chapter 14 Verses 22-23 we read, “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone”.
He sends his disciples ahead in order to have time for quietness, had they remained, they would probably have made a constant fuss, because that is human nature. Confronted with all that happened and confronted with what a person with such powers might do, we would have been buzzing with excitement. Had Jesus’ ministry on Earth been in our own time, he would have found himself surrounded by public relations advisers, and management consultants and business strategists, he would have been offered constant advice on what he should do next.
Jesus’ way is not our way and at a moment when he might have made the most of the publicity generated by the feeding of the crowds, he withdraws; he finds time for rest, time to be solitary with his Father.
Jesus’ time of quietness is more than a few minutes in the middle of a busy day. The priority he gives rest and reflection should challenge us when we say we are too busy to stop, too busy to find time for God. Sometimes when we are prepared to stop, to be still, to look for a time away from the noise, we discover that we have not missed very much, that catching up with a situation is not very hard.
Jesus comes from his time of retreat on the mountainside and finds the disciples have not made much progress. We read in Verses 24-26, “by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’And they cried out in fear”.
When we read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we saw Jesus encouraging the disciples to accept responsibility for themselves, to have courage in the face of a challenge. “You give them something to eat”, he says to the disciples in Saint Matthew Chapter 14 Verse 16. Now, in Verse 27, he again gives them encouragement, struggling with the storm and terrified by what they believe is a ghost, they are given reassurance. Verse 27 tells us, “immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.'”
Peter takes heart, he accepts Jesus’ challenge to be more courageous. The disciples have just witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the crowds and Peter realizes that they should have more confidence. In Verses 28-30 we read of what happens to Peter. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter calls to Jesus, so Jesus says to him, “‘Come.” Peter is braver than any of us, he “got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!'”
Peter sinks, but he has had the courage to step out of the boat, the courage to go where Jesus calls him. Responsibility in our own Christian lives is about being prepared to go where God calls us, to meet the challenges that arise. Just as the disciples complained, “we have nothing” when Jesus challenged them to feed the five thousand, so our reaction to Jesus’ challenge is often that we can do nothing. We don’t want to accept responsibility, we want someone to do something for us. Had we been in the boat we would probably have urged Peter not to be so reckless, to sit tight, to wait until Jesus arrived; it would not be our way to step out of the boat.
Jesus sets us the example of rest, he sets before us the challenge of responsibility, and he shows us God’s response.
Faced with five thousand hungry people, he intervenes and multiplies the loaves and the fishes which the disciples have brought. The disciples might have been dubious, but their action is enough to allow something miraculous to happen. Faced with Peter sinking in the water, Jesus’ response is much more simple. In verses 31-33, we read, “immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”
Jesus’ responds, but, as he did when the disciples brought the loaves and fish, he only responds when he is given a chance to do so. Peter begins to sink in the water, but Peter is responsible for his own decision, Jesus has not forced him to do anything. “Lord, save me”, he cries out and only when he asks for help does Jesus intervene. Peter’s response to the water enveloping him brings Jesus’ response to his cry for help.
As Jesus responds to the disciples when they offer him the opportunity, so God responds to us – when we offer him the opportunity. He never compels us, never forces us, instead he awaits our call, our invitation to him. Our response might be as tentative as the disciples handing over the five small loaves and two fish, it might be as brief as Peter’s cry, “Lord, save me”, but it is our response that allows God’s response.
Rest, responsibility, and response.