A number of years ago now there was a Peanuts cartoon in which Linus comes running across the beach to Charlie Brown shouting “I can swim, I can swim!” Charlie Brown said, “Well, I’m glad to hear that Linus, congratulations!” “Yes sir,” Linus says, “If I’m ever aboard an ocean liner and it sinks four feet from shore, I won’t have a thing to worry about!”
Today’s gospel reading comes right after last week’s story of Jesus feeding the 5 thousand. For the disciples, it had been a long day. They had come to this normally deserted area early in the day for a day of rest and relaxation. But then when they arrived there were crowds of people already there. Jesus began healing the sick, teaching, and then he fed them. You remember the disciples had been the ones carrying the baskets of food to feed the about twenty thousand people. And then they had clean-up duty and picked up the baskets of left-overs as well. It was after this Jesus sends them on ahead to Gennesaret which was across the lake about 4 or 5 miles.
Sailing 4 or 5 miles usually wouldn’t take very long. A breezy night might bring the boat to 3 or 4 knots and the disciples would be at their destination in about an hour and half. That is what the disciples were hoping. But that is not what happened. No, we are told that by the time Jesus went to meet them, the boat was still a long way from shore being beaten by the wind and waves because the wind was against them. The sail was down and the oars were out. Instead of a relaxing trip back to Gennesaret after a long day, this trip had become a nightmare! They left Jesus probably around 7:30 and the disciples were still out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee nine hours later! By 5:30 am they were still miles from Gennesaret, still fighting the wind and the waves; they were exhausted and probably frustrated.
In the reading it says that it was early in the morning, in the Greek text it says it was the 4th watch. It was the last watch of the night the time when the night becomes morning. The time that the sky begins to lighten and it was then the disciples saw something coming towards the boat. You know as one rows one faces the back and pulls, and pulls. There could have been 4 oarsmen on a boat that size. Each guy would have had one oar and since there were 12 guys they rotated each guy rowing until he was too exhausted to keep it up. And as one of them was rowing, who knows, it may have been John or Phillip as the boat went up on a wave he thought he got a glimpse of something. But no, it couldn’t have been because it looked like a person. He kept rowing and when the boat went up again on the next wave he looked and there it was again. So he says to the guy sitting on the next bench—“Hey do you see something over there?” He doesn’t want to say what he thinks he is seeing. So then the two are looking and staring and then the other guys see them staring and they all begin to look and then the rowing stops and they all just stare. This thing gets closer and they all see it. It is some sort of person looking thing coming right at them on top of the water!
Well, the disciples were terrified. They say, “It is a ghost” a spirit of a dead man. What else could walk on water? And think about how Jesus must have looked. His clothes, his hair and beard were all soaked and dripping with water. After all even though he was walking on the water, he was still walking through a storm—the wind was blowing the water all over him and he was soaked to the skin just like the disciples were. His bedraggled appearance would have been terrifying at that time of night. It is grey-dark, and one can barely see. Yeah they were scared—anyone would be. Then Jesus calls out, “Take courage. It is I, do not be afraid.” Now they know his voice but it is still pretty dark and they can’t see clearly. There is a pause and then Peter says, “If it is really you Lord, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come.” The other eleven disciples look at Peter as if he is nuts! But Peter climbs over the edge of the boat. He puts one foot out on the water and puts his weight on it. And it holds! Still holding onto the side of the boat, he puts his other foot on the water and he is on top of the water! I am sure that the grin on his face stretched from ear to ear! Now remember, the wind is still blowing like crazy, the waves are still high as four or five feet and he starts walking to Jesus. And then, perhaps when a wave swells up between him and Jesus, then Peter remembers that people really cannot walk on water and he looks around and sees that he is in the middle of a very deep lake; he sees the wind and the waves and we are told he gets frightened and begins to sink. He’s scared and cried out, “Lord, save me!” And it says immediately Jesus grabbed him and pulled him up; so Jesus had to run over to where Peter was to pull him up; and then they walked back to the boat and climb in and when they were in the wind stopped and everything is calm. At that point the amazed and astonished disciples worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” The disciples suddenly realized that they were in the presence of God in a human body.
This is a wonderful story isn’t it? Let’s think about it and try to learn from it. Notice first the disciples were simply trying to obey Jesus. He had told them, “Sail back to Gennesaret and I will hook up you there.” So they were trying to sail back to Gennesaret. For nine hours they had been trying to get to where Jesus told them to go. They were all exhausted and things were not going well at all. In fact it looked as though God was putting up all kinds of roadblocks to their obedience. Sometimes when we are trying to obey God things do not go well either. Sometimes it seems as though God is putting up all kinds of roadblocks in our paths as well. What did the disciples do? They kept on trying to obey Jesus. It turned out that they couldn’t do it; they couldn’t get to Gennesaret. In fact, they couldn’t do it anymore than they could feed the crowd of 20,000. So Jesus helped them. He walked out in the middle of the storm to help them. And what can we learn from Peter’s experience? Notice that everything was going great as long as he was focused on Jesus. It was when he looked around and saw the wind and waves that he became afraid and began to sink. This happens to us too doesn’t it? We listen to the news, we read Facebook and see the problems of our world and we also grow afraid. Or we look at our own health problems or a loved one’s health problems or any other problems and grow afraid. We fill our minds with the storm and take our focus off of Christ and forget that God really is in control. We forget, become afraid and like Peter begin to sink emotionally and spiritually. Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” The word for doubt here is the word for waver—to go back and forth. That’s like us too. We believe but then we look around, like Peter and grow afraid and our faith in God wavers.
Linus said to Charlie Brown, “If I’m ever aboard an ocean liner and it sinks four feet from shore, I won’t have a thing to worry about!” The fact is that it is good for us to prepare for problems in our lives ahead, and it is good to be able to swim four feet, but we are going to need to swim a lot more than four feet if our ocean liner goes down. And the sad fact is that our ocean liners are all going to go down and our ability to swim four feet won’t be good enough. Trouble in life is guaranteed; sorrows and problems come into our lives. But we know someone who loves us so much He was willing to die for us to save our eternal souls. And Jesus will come to our help even in our most difficult storms just like he did for the disciples in today’s lesson. And after we have swum our 4 feet like Linus, or after we have walked a little way on the water like Peter and we begin to sink; we begin to doubt; we can and need to say, “Lord save me!” And just as Jesus ran over and reached out his hand and caught Peter he will reach out to help us as well. So let us grow in faith and confidence in our Lord’s love for us. Amen