Well, between 3am and 6am. Early in the morning anyway.
See, not long after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, another major miracle comes along. Jesus has gone off on his own to pray on a nearby mountain, and because it’s evening, the disciples were heading out to pick him up.
All of which would have been simple if this hadn’t been first thing in the morning. It’s dark and the wind is against them, buffeting thier boat. These sailing conditions are far from ideal.
And yet here comes Jesus and he’s walking on the water, and the disciples are so scared by this they assume it’s a ghost. You can see where they’re coming from because human beings don’t tend to walk on water. But of course, Jesus isn’t a ghost and this is a miracle. Now, miracles involving water are pretty common throughout the Old Testament, but walking on water? That’s reserved for God. Job 9 says:
“He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. He is the maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. When he passes me, me I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.”
In other words, this is partly about identity – Jesus establishing himself as Son of God. And it would be fine if that was as far as this passage went, but it goes beyond that. See, when Peter sees Jesus walking on the water, he decides he wants a part of that. You can’t blame him really – after all, the guy’s a fisherman. The sea was something to be feared and respected, so seeing it ordered into submission by the power of God must have had quite an impact on someone who’d been through his fair share of storms.
And maybe that’s key to what happens next, because it’s one of Peter’s big moments of spiritual heroism – in response to Jesus, he gets out of the boat and…
Wait, stop. He gets out of the boat? In a storm?
Look at what the boat represents to Peter – physical security, yes, but also economic and personal security. His identity is tied up in being a fisherman – he knows boats, he knows sailing, and yet here he does something that he must know is impossible – human beings can’t walk on water.
But Peter’s a man who’s been following Jesus for a while, and so all his assumptions and concepts are being rewired. After all, almost as soon as he met Jesus for the first time, he got a successful lesson in fishing from a carpenter. Peter knows Jesus well enough to trust him, On the surface of it, getting out of a boat in the middle of a storm, trusting that he’s going to break the laws of physics is a crazy thing to do, and yet for a few moments at least Peter believes wholeheartedly that Jesus is bigger than his fears, experience, even science. And, as a result, something amazing happens.
I bet the rest of the disciples were kicking themselves that they didn’t have a go. Maybe there’s a lesson there for us all.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there – things start to go wrong for Peter a few seconds after his triumphant start. Suddenly he realises what’s going on around him. He’s in the middle of a storm, and what was initially an amazing experience has suddenly got very, very frightening. He takes his eyes off Jesus, and immediately he begins to sink.
“Lord, save me!”, Peter shouts, one of the shortest prayers in the Bible, and Jesus grabs his hand and pulls him into the boat.
Wait, Jesus is within arm’s length of Peter?
Peter lost faith when Jesus was right next to him.
Jesus was standing right next to him, but still the storm was bigger.
At a distance it’s easy to knock Peter for this. Losing faith, even temporarily, is easy enough to do in the middle of a storm. After all, it’s those times that God sometimes can feel so far away. He’s not, but it feels that way.
Even so, that’s just perception. God is with us, and sometimes he leaves footprints in the sea as he walks through a storm to save us. And that’s the key to Christianity – that a mighty, omnipotent God that can command storms with just one word reaches out for us, saves us, enters into relationship with us.
We just need to reach back.