"Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water." "Come," he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (Matthew 14:22-33)
If there is one thing I like about Peter, it's his failures. He was bold and passionate about following Jesus, and yet he would also at times fall flat on his face. I could only imagine all the things that weren't written about him. It seemed to be a part of his nature. This carried on even after the Spirit was given at Pentecost. We know this because Paul had to challenge Peter on at least one occasion about playing favorites. Again, it just makes me wonder what a fuller picture of Peter's life would reveal. This was a guy who knew who Jesus was by the revelation of the Spirit and still couldn't always do the right thing. Forget all the Old Testaments saints and how we should follow their example. Let's look to Peter as our example. Not following him as a pillar of righteousness, but as an example of failure who over and again receives rescue, mercy and grace. There is a great picture of this for us in the story of Peter sinking in the water.
If you've been a Christian for any length of time, you've heard the story. Yes, it’s true that you might have heard it referred to as, "Peter walking on water." or "Peter stepping out of the boat by faith." I suppose, technically, that's accurate. That's usually where most pastors and teachers go with it. We are encouraged to keep our eyes on Jesus. "Peter only sank because he took his eyes off Jesus, so if our focus is always on Jesus, we won't sink when we face difficulties, and then we'll be able to accomplish all we want, or are called to do." It sounds nice and perfect but I don't know anyone that has had that experience. I mean, we don't struggle? We don't despair and doubt at times? We look to the virtuous characteristics of the Old Testament saints and forget the shadier parts of their stories, or at least we gloss over them with the best parts. We forget David was a murderer, Noah a drunk, and even Isaiah knew how unclean his lips were and the list could go on.
In the same way, we look at Peter's life and see the things he did and try to follow those examples. We make the story about Peter's faithfulness. We make this story of Jesus walking on water about Peter's faith and subsequently our own. We turn a simple story about Christ into a call to arms for us to have great faith or even a "greater faith", so we don't sink. We certainly don't forget Peter's failings, but it often gets overlooked in favor of seeing it as a stepping stone to something greater for Peter, and eventually us. We miss the great grace of God by focusing on what Peter is doing and then making it what we are supposed to be doing. That's fine. Then let's really focus on what Peter was doing. He was sinking!
Peter stepped out onto the choppy waters by faith, but it wasn't a perfect faith. It was shaky and doubtful. It had to be. Peter's faith was the kind of faith that denied Jesus three times. Peter's faith was the kind of faith that is sometimes more concerned with how he looks in front of his own people. Peter's faith was the kind of faith that was determined to justify itself by actions over and over again. But it is still the same faith that hopes in Christ. He displayed hope that day. It was that hope that made him step out of that boat and begin to take steps atop the waves. It was that same faith that was tested and found lacking as the winds came and Peter quickly sank. But it was also that hope, that faith, though shaky that remained as it cried out, "Lord help me!" In that moment, Jesus did for Peter what he has always done for all of us. He saves him. In that shaky, barely-holding on faith, Christ is still present, and he grabs him not because of how laser-focused Peter's eyes were are on Jesus in that moment, but because even if we only catch a glimpse of him from the corner of our eye, on a bad day, it is the object of that faith that matters most.
The object of that faith, Jesus, always rescues, always saves, and always encourages us towards hope.
With such a focus on telling people to "keep our eyes on Jesus", we forget no one does this all the time. We all have wandering eyes. We all turn our heads, we all have moments of wavering faith. We all have moments when we cry out to God for help in our unbelief. Finally, we all have moments that Christ has to reach down and rescue us in the little faith that we have. For the longest time all I could see in this story is Peter. Peter stepping out, Peter sinking, Peter crying out. I used to think, "I'd better keep my eyes on Jesus or I'll drown." My Goodness, what a burden to bear! I see it so differently now! I see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus calling Peter out, and Jesus rescuing Peter. Even in his rebuke, “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”, Jesus is grabbing hold of Peter and pulling him up. In that moment, Jesus is still encouraging him towards faith in him.
This is a picture of everyday faith. At least it is for me. It's not faith in our abilities as Christians, but in Christ, who is our continued rescue despite our failings. Jesus is always there, not hitting us over the head with condemnation, but encouraging us through each difficulty, even the ones that never seem to go away. I make that point so you might understand it's not specifically about the end result in this life, but about the one who holds us and rescues us. For some of us, in our specific situation, that rescue has to be daily, because there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Heck, there is no tunnel! But there is Christ, who is always saying to us, "I am here, why do you doubt? Keep trusting me. I will hold fast to you." God is always telling this story in so many different ways. He is always saying you need a rescue, and I have a provided it. It has never been about "great faith", but a GREAT SAVIOR! How great a Savior would he be, if he didn't take care of those of us with a shaky, barely holding on, pin-needle sized faith? His grasp is firm, and we can be sure that he does hold us.
When we do these character studies, we can see the faith and the hope of these men and women, but ultimately they are flawed characters. These flawed characters should always be pointing us to Jesus, whose character is flawless. In Peter, we see a flawed man. A man who repeatedly, throughout his life, could not keep completely focused on Jesus in the midst of trouble. A man who, as he walked on the waves, quickly began to sink. A man who was rescued by Jesus. Even today, we are still so much closer to Peter in our flaws than his virtues, and Christ is still our rescue. May that never change.
There is no story in the bible that we read where we can claim that we walk like this saint or that saint in some form of righteous good standing by our actions. We are all, at times, the prodigal son and the one who remained, the proud Pharisee and the tax collector who beat his chest, and like Peter, we are the ones who step out of the boat, AND the ones who sink. We wrestle with our two natures, sinner and saint, and while we wrestle, Christ saves. He comes and lifts us up, comforts us and loves us.
I do encourage you to keep your eyes on Jesus. If you do, you just might see how often he has rescued you with forgiveness and grace.