It's me. Don't be afraid.
1. Today's passage of scripture deals with one of the miracle stories of Christ. It's the story about when Jesus walked on the water. And not just that, he walked on the water up to Peter. How should we understand this story? If someone should ask "How did they walk on the water?" my only answer would be "I don't know." Perhaps even Matthew who wrote the story would probably only answer "I don't know." However, despite that, the fact is Matthew has recorded this particular miracle story because he had something he wanted to transmit to us through it. We must receive the message which this event is relating rather than search out the nitpicking particulars of the miracle itself.
In order to understand this story
2. There are a few things which may help in understanding this story. First there is the organization of the very text itself, how the Gospel of Matthew is composed. When we read this gospel book, at the very beginning is the account of the nativity of Jesus. It is the passage we read every year at Christmas time. And at the very end is the account related to the cross and the resurrection. Actually, the sections between them are divided into five parts and in those various sections the long narratives about Jesus appear. Surely the famous section is the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7. As another four parts appear in the text please try to search out all the parts of the Matthean gospel by reading them. It is said that what Matthew had in his mind when he was recording this gospel with an emphasis on these five narrative sections is perhaps the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. (The Pentateuch consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) In other words, this literary design signifies Jesus as a type of second Moses. Today I cannot go into further detail about this point, though I will go into the concluding point of this arrangement in which there is something here about the first church's understanding. In short, as the people of Israel were guided by Moses through the wilderness and entered into the Promised Land of Canaan so the Church has been guided by Jesus through history and looks forward to the final land promised on the other side, even the Kingdom of Heaven. That is how he went about writing his book. Therefore, naturally, we will consider the influence of the early church's understanding in the story we read today.
3.Furthermore, we understand why Matthew was writing in such a way. The reason is that at the time Matthew had written this gospel there was already an imperial persecution starting up. The church has happy and pleasant gatherings, but it did not form under those conditions. When the church gathered together and offered up her worship it included a great sacrifice. At times the situation included the sacrifice of one's life. Why did they gather together and form a cooperative body worshipping in unison? The answer to that question is no longer "to assist each other in their faith" or "it is enjoyable when we meet together." What must have been one hundred percent clear to them was where was this cooperative body headed towards. The cooperative body of believers was lead by Christ and was heading for the Kingdom of Heaven. That fact must be clearly and accurately told.
4. And if more is told, when this gospel was written, the leadership of the first century including Peter had already died off. Based on the contents of this gospel it seems to have been written from A.D. 70 on after. (According to tradition, Peter was martyred under emperor Nero in the 60's.) In the story we just read Peter was saved from drowning. However, the readers who read this gospel account knew that. The truth is Peter ended up dead in the end. Although he was helped at that period of time, and even though one wondered if he would become part of the seaweed through the effect of the high sea winds, in the long run he ended up dead through persecution. Many other disciples all wound up dead. They all knew that to be true. We must understand what this story began to relate back then to these very readers. Based on the view I have been walking you through in the above comments, now when we read this story, perhaps the situation pertaining to the church is written about here, and we may understand the first questions flung at the individual believers. With that, let's go into the story.
A boat heading for the opposite shore
5. I would like you to read verses 22 to 27 one more time. "Immediately after that Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and made them go ahead of him to the other side of the shore while he also sent the multitudes away. After sending the multitudes away he climbed up a mountain in order to pray alone. Even into the night he was there just by himself. Meanwhile the boat had been separated from land a good distance of several Roman stadia, the waves got agitated against the head winds. The night was about to lighten and Jesus came to where his disciples were by walking on the lake. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the lake they said 'It is a ghost,' and they raised their crying voices out of great fear. Immediately Jesus spoke to them. 'Rest your hearts. It's me. Don't be afraid.'"
6. According to what he wrote here about the event which the disciples experienced, Matthew was relating an important matter regarding the church. The church is the ship heading for the opposite shore and the understanding that the flock of disciples is riding in it is reiterated in this story.
7. They are the disciples that were sent out on the lake having been compelled by Christ to get in the boat. Around Christ there had been a great multitude of people. However, the church is not the same as the multitude around Christ. Before this event the account of the miracle with the loaves is recorded. The people were satiated with food. They saw again the power of Christ and subsequently tried to crown this Jesus as king. They had considered him the person who was to be their political liberator. Having sought for some bread that is for now, they sought for a libertion that is for now. Certainly Christ had compassion on the people and gave them bread. But, what Christ was seeking for was not to have a multitude flocking around him himself. Christ was seeking for persons to become his disciples. Therefore Christ turned the people free. Christ turned the people down. He separated the disciples from the multitude. And he sent them off on a ship. He sent them on a lake that has typical winds. Then the winds could take them across to the opposite shore. The church is a ship being made to head for the Kingdom of Heaven which is its other shore, its historical goal, and the church is the flock of disciples sharing a destiny on that ship.
8. The ship meets up with head winds and gets tossed by waves. When one is on shore the wind has no real significance. When one is aboard a ship heading for the opposite shore, the wind is troubling and the waves jostle one about. Next, they are spending the night under such conditions. In verse 25 it says "when the night lightens" or "when day breaks." This is not accurate. It says "the fourth hour of night watch." The Roman way of counting time divides the night into four parts. It is that "fourth hour." Therefore what is being said here is "before daybreak." It is still just before daybreak. The ship is still undergoing trouble after trouble even up to the hour of daybreak. During this time the disciples are attacked by fear, which is to be expected. Then Jesus comes walking towards them. They cry aloud that it is "a ghost." He understands how they had suffered and were troubled by a night spent in such head winds and great waves and had come to be gripped by fear. So to those men under such conditions the Lord has a word. "Rest your hearts. It's me. Don't be afraid."
9. To ancient people the sea (or lake) was understood as a symbol of the power of chaos. In the Old Testament there is a belief expressed that says God controls the seas as well as every thing else. God controls the influence of darkness and the forces of chaos which destroy human life. So when Christ comes walking on the water it symbolizes that he has God's authority to govern over the power of chaos. Christ comes stepping on the sea. Then he speaks a word. "Rest your hearts. It's me. Don't be afraid."
10. This is the figure of Christ which Matthew is trying to transmit. And the one who is hearing this story is the church. The readers of this narrative must have first had some questions about it. Are you aboard this boat? Are you truly heading for that shore on the other side? If you are a person heading for the shore on the other side, even though there will be troubles from the wind and the waves you will arrive for sure on the opposite shore. Even though you pass long hours trembling in fear in the midst of darkness until the break of dawn, the night will certainly clear and the dawn will break. Stop, because the Bible says there is no need for deep fear. Persons who are governed by the power of chaos have to hear Christ speak to them saying, "Rest your hearts. It's me. Don't be afraid." Therefore, we will not be taken down by the things before our eyes. For us truly the important thing is not whether or not we are currently in the midst of the winds. The decisively important question which we ought to keep before our hearts regularly is whether or not I am a disciple of Christ in the boat and heading for the shore on the other side?
You, man of watered down faith, why did you doubt?
11. In addition, the story continues to narrow its focus more and more on Peter. Verses 28-31 say: "So Peter answered him, 'Lord, if it is really you out there, command me to walk on the water and let me please come to where you are.' So Jesus said 'come on,' and Peter left the boat and walked on the water advancing towards Jesus. But, when he noticed a strong wind he became afraid and as he began to sink he cried out 'Lord, please help me.' Jesus immediately extended his hand and took hold of him and said 'You, man of watered down faith, why did you doubt?'"
12. In the boat there is one person of faith. The relationship between Christ and his disciple is illustrated. Peter heard the word from Christ "come on." He goes to walking to Christ on the top of the water. What is emphasized here is not the courage of Peter. The emphasis is the word of Christ and the power connected with it. Peter hears the word of Christ and when he obeys he is stepping on water with the bottom of his feet. He is on top of the water together with Christ. The forces of chaos are under the believer and no longer destroy the believer. He has become a person who is governing together with Christ. But the center of this scenario does not seem to be just about when Peter walked on top of the water. Rather it is about when Peter sunk. And what did Christ do as he sunk? After a while walking, Peter notices the strong winds blowing away. He is taken hold of by fear. So he begins to sink into the water. Christ called what was going on in Peter's heart "doubt." "Why did you doubt?" asks Jesus. What might "doubt" be? This word originally means when a person tries to go in two directions. Would it be similar to the word "double hearted?" Peter's heart had been divided in two. On the one side he is heading for and looking towards Christ and his word. But on the other side his heart is heading for and looking at the conditions around him consisting of being in the midst of blowing winds and on top of the water. So he begins to sink.
13. But I wouldn't necessarily say that beginning to sink is a bad thing. Because while Peter is sinking he doesn't have two hearts. He looks to Christ and yells out, "O Lord, help me." This word literally is "O Lord, save me." When Peter goes to sinking he is a happy man who can still seek Christ. A man is happy who already knows that without Christ he just sinks. Christ extends the grace of his hand. What is written here? It is written that "Jesus immediately extends his hand and takes hold of him. It says "immediately." So it is that Christ took hold of Peter and it is not that Peter grabbed hold of the extended hand.
14. For persons of the early church in the midst of persecutions, this must have been a message with great significance. As I said before, when Matthew recorded this narrative Peter was already dead. Having already been martyred during persecutions Peter was already out of the picture. Also other leaders were dying one after another. In such times doubts would surely come upon them. Wouldn't they come to the conclusion that amidst the winds of persecution where one is swallowed up by the forces of chaos one should end up destroyed? Shouldn't there be victory for the powers of darkness? Isn't there a win for death? But, Matthew answers that through this story. "No, that is not the end. The Christ who grasped Peter's hand back then still even now will not release Peter. No matter how powerful the times are, no matter the forces of darkness or even death itself, nothng can separate a disciple from the love of Christ."
15. Certainly Christ said to Peter "O person of weak faith, why did you doubt?" But who in the world could say that he would not be in the same disposition as Peter? We repeat it also. We are definitely a people who must hear the message "O you of weak faith." It may certainly be that the church is only a group of people with weak faith. We may just be a flock of people who must repeat "Lord, save me." It seems to be a fact. But, even if that were so Christ never lets his hand go. If you are a person who is with him on the boat heading for the other shore, some day you will arrive there. Some day we will inherit the heavenly kingdom with him.
16. I repeat what I said before. What is really important for us is not whether we are in the winds of today or yesterday. Again, it is not a question of how we ought to behave in a stormy situation. We ought to throw this decisively important question at ourselves, "Am I a disciple of Christ in the boat heading for the opposite shore of heaven or not?" For the person who does not think about the opposite shore, he doesn't even grasp the meaning of being in the boat.