“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus and his disciples have just fed five thousand people who gathered to hear his teaching. The disciples must have felt that the Jesus’ movement was proving to be a great success and they were important players within it. But immediately after feeding the five thousand Jesus tells his disciples to get in their boat and head for the other side of the lake, but he leaves them and goes up into the hills to pray. The change is dramatic. From having been important figures in the crowd one moment, the next the disciples are alone in a small boat on the lake, and Jesus has left them to fend for themselves.
Imagine the early Christians reading the story around the year 80, ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem. Many of them were Jews but because they believed in Jesus as the Messiah they were no longer welcome in the synagogue. They were a handful of disciples alone in their boat, an early symbol for the church, on an angry sea. Facing persecution, they were fearful as the wind howled and the waves battered their fragile craft. Why had Jesus left them? Why had he ascended to the Father and not returned as he had promised? How could they keep faith in him as the crowds turned against them just as they had turned against Jesus and crucified him? Then, when everything seemed lost, the disciples suddenly become aware that Jesus was coming to them across the angry waves. At first they thought he was a ghost. But then they heard his words “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Words we all need to hear in times such as these in which we live as the nations rage and the people protest.
As we journey on an increasingly angry sea we do well to find some security in the community of faith, reassured by familiar words and songs, familiar faces and fellowship in a world which seems to be falling apart around us, threatening our families and friends, our country and global society. But even in the boat we no longer feel as safe and secure as before. There are leaks, and the boards creak ominously, increasing our fears. But at least, we say, we have Peter on board, the prince of the apostles, the rock, as we also had Mandela and Beyers Naudé, and after all we still have Archbishop Tutu. Yes, the boat may be fragile but thank God for leaders of integrity, faith and courage, and pastors we can trust. Yes, Peter will go and bring Jesus back on board, “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.”
But just at that moment, as he went towards Jesus, Peter’s faith faltered and he began to sink in fear. “Lord, save me!” he cried. Yes, even those we look to and trust to help us in fearful times often despair and are tempted to doubt, they too often sink into the depths of despondency and despair, unable to keep walking on water. But then, when all seems lost, Jesus reaches out and firmly grasps Peter’s hand, as he does ours, saying: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Why did you doubt that love and forgiveness, not hate and vengeance, was the true path of life? Why did you doubt that sharing with those in need, and showing compassion on the needy, was what life is about? Why do you not trust my word that my way is truth and that in me you have life to the full?
It is easy to believe in God when everything is going well, when the sun is shining and the sea is calm. It is easy to say the creed with confidence when the citadel of faith is not under attack. But when things fall apart, when the menacing waves of violence and war, environmental crisis, political corruption and the abuse of power, shrinking resources and rapidly growing populations, rock the boat, we can easily lose faith. We are all tempted to do so. That is why we pray daily “Let us not into temptation!” But many falter, even the Peters of this world, those we look to for guidance and support. God seems absent and Jesus is far away up a distant mountain, and we are up the creek without a paddle.. Like Peter we find we cannot walk on water. Yet it is precisely in such times that faith in Jesus as the way, truth and life, becomes most critical not just for our own salvation, but also for the world itself.
The boat in which we sail the turbulent waters exists is, like Noah’s Ark, meant to save the world not just those on board. So Jesus does not desert the boat, fragile as it is, or those on board fallible as we are, because he needs us to help bring joy and peace, justice, salvation and hope to the world. Matthew describes an occasion when Jesus could not do many deeds of power in Nazareth, because his disciples lacked faith. (Matthew 13:54-58) Without their believing co-operation Jesus himself was impotent. Is that not a remarkable thought? Can it be that without us even God cannot do what God loves doing to make this world a better place? On another occasion after Jesus had healed an epileptic boy his disciples asked him why they lacked the power to do the same. “Because of your little faith,” Jesus replied. “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:21) Yes, our faith releases God’s power to make lives whole, to transform situations, even to move mountains.
It may be true that nothing is impossible for God, as the angel told Mary in foretelling the birth of Jesus, even so the birth of Jesus was dependent on Mary being willing to be the mother of our Lord: “let it be with me according to your word.” The truth is, God has no alternative in working out his purposes on earth than our hands and feet, our love and compassion, our willingness and commitment. That was what Peter and the other disciples in the sinking boat had to learn, as do we. To say we believe in God is to put ourselves at God’s disposal to make the impossible possible, to walk on water and move mountains.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 10 August 2017