Of all the disciples and followers of Jesus, by far we hear the most about Peter. He is named more often than any other disciple in the Gospels. He appears at nearly every central event in Jesus’ life. He is often used as a foil or device for the Gospels’ narratives.
Through the numerous mentions of Peter we get a sort of character sketch of what type of person he might have been. He was impetuous, impulsive, dedicated, hot-headed, often speaking without the benefit of forethought. But also, at times, he made bold and profound statements, without even knowing what he had said. But Peter can also be a victim.
Many times the stories we have heard about him are cast in a certain light and we are left with a stunted or even incorrect view of Peter. We have an example of this in today’s Gospel reading. The story of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus, being overcome with fear and then being saved by Jesus may at first strike us as a story about the perils of doubt. But I do not think this is a story about Peter’s doubt at all. In fact, it may be more a story about the faith of Peter.
I have no problem with doubts. I have plenty of them, I don’t really need any more of them. But I am not overly concerned about my doubts. I have spoken before about the opposite of faith not being doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith asks us to trust and take chances. There is no chance in certainty. There is no trust in a sure thing. But, besides all this, our reading today has more evidence of Peter’s faith than his doubt.
Peter is the only disciple to respond to Jesus’ call for calm. Peter asks for a command to come to Jesus. That itself is an act of faith. Who, except acting upon faith, would seek someone’s command to walk on water? Further still, Peter seeks a command from Jesus but receives only a simple beckon. Jesus’ response contains no sense of force or the authority of a command. Yet Peter still ventures forth from the boat and begin walking on the water. Even when Peter’s faith seems to falter, he calls out to Jesus to save him. Is this story really one of about doubt? Who among us would not have reacted just as Peter did if we, too, found ourselves ambling across a stormy sea?
But the final reason to note that this passage is not about doubt is that Peter’s sinking was not about Peter’s confidence in Jesus, or Peter’s faith to carry him across the water, but about Peter noticing the strong wind. This one note from this passage places this reading in the proper perspective. Peter noticed the winds and began to sink. Peter took his eyes, his focus, his intention off the power of his Lord, and noticed the winds.
This is highlighted by Jesus’ response to Peter once he has been pulled from the roiling waves. In our reading we have Jesus asking Peter, “Why did you doubt" But consider the verse from a more accurate translation, “for what didst thou waver?” The word translated as doubt here is used only twice in the New Testament and both times it is used in Matthew; once here and once at the very end of Matthew when, as Jesus is ascending to heaven, we are told that they worshipped him, though some doubted, or, more accurately, some wavered.
The difference between doubt and wavering is very important. We live in a physical world as spiritual people. We are caught, at any moment, between heaven and earth. We are challenged at every turn whether to seek and support the spiritual or the physical world.
We are aware of a larger reality than this world, but we live in the midst of this world. Our lives are lived in moments, yet we know that life is eternal. Today’s Gospel reading catches Peter glimpsing between this worldly reality of the here and now, and trusting in the spiritual reality of a world beyond our sight and understanding. Peter did not doubt, he wavered. There, on the buffeting waves of the lake, in the middle of a raging storm. Peter stepped out in faith, trusting in what he could not see, rising above the temporal world. But in the next second, Peter, a human, a being bound by the laws of this earth, also notices and realizes just how bizarre a reality he was facing. He wavered. He was caught in between two worlds, two realities, and began to sink.
Yet he called out the Jesus to save him. It is well worth noting that the same word here that Peter calls to Jesus, “Lord, save me,” is the same word Paul uses when he tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
What are we to learn from this Gospel reading? From Peter’s wavering? The issue here is not doubt, or certainty, but focus and perspective. The question and challenge before us is whether we will focus upon what we see and feel or whether we will also look deeper into reality. In the midst of storms, trials and tests; in the middle of turmoil and danger or even those dark nights of doubts and fear, Peter can teach us to look up and beyond the waves at our feet, or the wind rushing about us.
To doubt is human, to waver is a choice. We stand in between heaven and earth. It is our choice of which direction we will face when confronted by trials. Will we face this limited and passing earth and our own limitations and foibles? Or will we face the eternal God who walks in the midst of our storms and bids us come ever closer even as the waves crash around us.