Getting Out of the Boat

This morning our Gospel lesson is that great passage in which Jesus and Peter walk on water.  It reminds me of a lesser known, similar passage that I think may be in one of those Gnostic gospels that people are so enamored with these days.  In this story, Jesus and Peter are teeing up on one of the water holes at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in England.  It just so happens that Jesus saw Rory McIlroy win the British Open at Royal Liverpool the previous week, and since he is the Son of God, after all, he believes that he can drive the ball at least as far as Rory.

“Peter,” he says, “I’ll bet you I can drive my tee shot all the way across that pond.

“Now, Jesus,” Peter responds a bit nervously, “Why don’t you use a three wood and just try to place your ball on the near side of the water.  Then you can use a nine-iron over the pond and end up safely on the green.”

Peter has a knack for saying the wrong thing, and Jesus gets a bit irritated.  He glares at his disciple, and when he does dark storm clouds gather over head.  It gives Peter the willies.  “You don’t think I can hit this ball over the water?”  He asks Peter.  “You just watch.”

So Jesus tees up, sets his club face, and bends his knees just so.  He takes a full back swing, and Wham! knocks the stuffing out of his ball.  It soars overhead with a beautiful arc, heading toward the water.  It carries and carries and carries…and then Bloop! it plops into the pond about halfway across.

"Just who does he think he is?"

“Just who does he think he is?”

Jesus won’t even look at Peter, and Peter does everything he can to keep the smirk from creeping across his face.  “Mulligan!” Jesus yells, and he takes off toward the pond.

“Ah, c’mon Jesus!” Peter calls, “Just use a different ball.”  But Jesus gets to the water’s edge and takes off across the pond, walking on the water.  As he gets to the point midway across where his ball has sunk, the foursome behind him and Peter ride up to the tee box.  One of them looks out to the pond and sees Jesus walking on the water.  Naturally, he is stunned.

“Who does that guy think he is” the man asks incredulously, “Jesus Christ?”

“Nah,” Peter sighs, “He thinks he’s Rory McIlroy.”[1]


One of the things that makes The Episcopal Church somewhat distinctive is that we read scripture each week from the lectionary.  In other words, we don’t have the luxury—nor do we fall into the trap—of picking and choosing whichever passages of scripture we want to read in a given week that might prop up our comfortable notions of the world.  Instead, we read scripture as it is intended to be read, as the on-going narrative story of God’s people.  (Of course, this only makes complete sense when we attend church regularly to hear that whole story from week to week…)  Well, last week Jesus fed the five thousand.  Jesus took a seeking and a hungry people and nourished them.  They were lost and they were famished, and Jesus set aside whatever might be pressing on his own agenda to gather the people up and feed them.  This is what God does.  Humanity is a self-absorbed and voracious species slowly but surely killing this tiny green planet in a barely noticeable solar system in some far corner of the universe.  And yet, God counts every hair on our heads, Jesus tells us, and he loves us every one.  Even if the effort requires nothing short of a miracle, when we are in need and when we seek God, God feeds us.

That was last week’s message.  It’s a great message, one that we need to hear often.  But that pesky lectionary won’t let me or you rest in its comforting assurance for very long!  That we are supposed to read last week’s Gospel lesson and this week’s Gospel lesson together as one piece is accentuated when Matthew joins the two by beginning today’s passage with the phrase (which our leaflet omits) “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…”  There is no pause in the action between the feeding story and this morning’s passage.  There is no change in scene.

So what happens in today’s passage?  The disciples get into the boat and head across the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus hangs back for some much-needed alone time.  The next morning the disciples wake up and look out upon the choppy waters only to see Jesus himself walking toward them!  Across the chasm, where the brine is dark and deep, the Lord stands, and the disciples are afraid.  Jesus does two things at that point, both of which are crucial.  He tells the disciples that outside the boat, right in the middle of the foamy torrent he is there, and he beckons Peter to join him.

Walking on waterTo his credit Peter tries.  With enthusiasm he jumps out of the boat and heads across the top of the water.  It is true that soon he notices that the murky water is crashing in waves against his legs and the wind is buffeting him sideways.  In an utterly human way, his fear gets the better of him, and he begins to sink.   But just before he the water overtakes him, Jesus offers him a saving hand and pulls him to safety.

In this story, there are two reactions to Jesus that are noteworthy.  The first is Peter’s, upon which the passage focuses.  He, like the others, has been recently fed by Jesus’ abundance and now he finds himself called out of the boat and into the choppy water.  He follows where Jesus calls.  It is true that he becomes fearful, but he tries to follow, and when he does Jesus will not let him fall.  It is true that Jesus says to Peter, “Why did you doubt?”  But I believe Jesus means this not as words of condemnation but as words of encouragement, as if saying, “You were doing it!  You were following, finally understanding my call to you.  Don’t stop next time!”[2]

The second reaction is even more instructive to us.  Looking closely at the story, we realize that when Jesus is seen on the water, only Peter responds to him.  The other eleven make no attempt to call to Jesus, and no movement to follow him.  Perhaps they are still too full of the food Jesus had given them when he fed the five thousand.  Perhaps they are too comfortable on the boat.  Rather than venturing out onto the water, they wait on the boat for Jesus to come to them.  They content themselves with offering him platitudes saying, “Truly you are the Son of God,” but never even making the attempt to follow.

The feeding of the five thousand and today’s Gospel cannot be separated.  Matthew links them in a way we dare not break.  Jesus feeds us, but never so we can simply sit back and offer up pious platitudes, never so we can stay on the boat.  He feeds us in order that we be given the strength to follow him out onto choppy waters, to walk with him in the face of wind and waves.

What is our boat?  Where are we comfortable?  Where do we risk getting fat on God’s food and mustering only the strength to offer feeble, half-hearted words of praise?

What would it mean for us to get out of the boat?  What would it mean for us truly to believe that Jesus is to be met not when the water is still, but when it is choppy and murky?  This very day, we come here materially comfortable to be truly fed with the spiritual food of Christ.  But what will we do now?  What will we do with all of the abundance we enjoy, every bit of which is owed first and foremost to God our Creator?

“He feeds us in order that we be given the strength to follow him out onto choppy waters, to walk with him in the face of wind and waves.”

We’re just a couple of short weeks away from the beginning of our fall program year here at the Cathedral.  Starting on Rally Day, the opportunities for worship, formation, fellowship, and service will be abundant.

Will we be like the eleven, who take Jesus’ food from his hands only to stay in the boat, to recline in our comfort, self-satisfied?  Or will we, like Peter, make the effort to use the sustenance Jesus gives us to do the hard work of the Gospel?  Jesus feeds us here so that we can follow him out onto the sometimes treacherous sea and feed others.  Out there it’s hard to keep our balance.  It takes our time, our energy, our money, and our focus.  It requires making room on our weekly schedules to take the risk to get out of the boat.  Jesus understands this, and when we follow him he will not let us sink.  Even in our doubts he will offer us, as he did Peter on the water, words of encouragement and strength, and when we stumble he will extend his saving hand.

Today’s Eucharist, like every Eucharist, will end with this prayer:

You have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.


 [1] I first heard this joke so long ago that the golfer was Jack Niklaus.

[2] I owe this insight to Amy Hunter, “Living the Word” in the July 26, 2005, issue of The Christian Century.

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