(This is my column from the December issue of ChurchActs, the newspaper of the Diocese of WNY)
This column comes with a warning. I’m about to say something that might upset some folks. So I’m asking you to stay with me till I can explain, OK? It’s not as bad as it sounds I promise. I’m just trying to head off angry, torch bearing mobs at my doorstep. So here we go:
I have a problem with the Bible.
(Take a deep breath, it’s not what you think I promise)
Actually I have to admit I only have a problem with some bibles. Some translations have little headlines at the start of chapters or stories. My problem is with the one in Matthew chapter 14 that inevitably says, “Jesus walks on the water”. (Oops that just spiked some folk’s blood pressure too. I’m almost there I promise). You see I would change it to “Peter walks on the water”.
I’m not denying that Jesus walked on the water. But Jesus is God. That God is capable of the miraculous is wonderful but is kind of….. expected, right? What’s not expected is when Peter climbs out of the boat. That’s astounding. This story has always drawn me in. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about Peter climbing out of that boat.
Peter isn’t suddenly a super hero, walking on water is not some new power or gift that he’s given. There’s a good chance that Peter couldn’t even swim. Recreational swimming is a relatively uncommon activity until the last century. While he’s comfortable on the water, even during a storm, Peter knows the danger facing everyone on the boat in this story. The boat used was probably designed for fishing. It was designed to perform specific duties under specific circumstances. Being out in the storm is probably a bit of a challenge. Peter has the skills to get them through this and deliver them safely to the other side. Strength, experience and training make Peter the right person at the right time in the storm.
So while they fight their way through the storm in the early morning hours Jesus comes across the water. Everyone in the boat knows that this can’t be happening. They are terrified by the battering of the storm, they’re tired and now this.
Now we’re back to Peter. Note that at first even Peter isn’t sure what’s going on. His first words are “IF it is you Lord…” Then he does what is probably the bravest thing he’s ever done in his life to that point. The fisherman who probably can’t swim, who knows that people can’t walk on water, that they sink and drown, climbs out of the boat. All of this in response to a single word from Jesus. No fancy promises, no big explanations about how his divine will will keep Peter safe. Jesus says “Come” and Peter tosses everything he knows aside and climbs over the gunwale.
And the miraculous happens. Peter finds that his foot doesn’t sink, the he can walk on the water. His mind is focussed on Jesus, on the “Come”. And it works. Now I figure that Jesus must be standing a little ways away because we’re told that Peter walks to Jesus, not just gets out and stands next to him. So Peter takes a couple steps. He's probably starting to get a little comfortable with this whole thing when he gets distracted. The storm is still going while all this happens and Peter’s mind suddenly starts thinking about what is happening. Jesus reaches out to Peter, brings him back to the boat and calms the storm.
Think about it. When Peter has his attention centered on Jesus he is capable of doing things he knows he can’t do. In defiance of his experience, logic and common sense he can do it. But when he let’s his mind wander suddenly things go wrong. For me that’s the lesson from this story. We need to remember the lesson of Peter climbing out of the boat. We climb out when Jesus calls us and we can do the miraculous. When we stay locked in on Jesus we will be able to continue doing the miraculous. When we let other things distract us we can end in over our heads very quickly. The good news is that at that moment Jesus always has a hand out for us.
Now who do I talk to about editing the Bible?