First century Jewish disciples learned by imitating their rabbis. Following a rabbi did not resemble sitting at a desk, taking notes, and passing exams about Torah, the Hebrew Bible.

Disciples devoted themselves to learning how to live. And you learned how to live by staying close to wise and holy rabbis and by copying their patterns of acting and talking in surprisingly minute detail.

Learning to SwimHow does the rabbi wash hands? Which sandal does the rabbi put on first? Does the rabbi travel on the Sabbath? How far and by what means?

I read somewhere that some disciples hid in the rabbi’s bedroom to learn the proper expression of marital intimacy. Others peeked into the rabbi’s bathroom to learn, well…. These stories may not be true, but they make the point.

Rabbis certainly taught Torah by discussing it. But most importantly, they imparted Torah to the next generation by embodying it. Their everyday actions, their common words, their habitual demeanor provided lessons in Torah.

Studying the Torah is learning how to live. And disciples got the hang of how to live by emulating their rabbi. In all likelihood, watching the disciples struggle with their early lessons resembled listening to a beginning violin student. There were painful, awkward moments along the way.

When Peter, James, John, and the rest of the Twelve accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him, they dedicated themselves to patterning their lives on his. In ways they would understand more fully over time, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s word. And they would struggle to take in the lesson of his life.

But struggling to follow Jesus’ example doesn’t make them losers or blockheads. On the contrary, their mistakes and missteps show us an important dimension of what it means to follow Jesus. And I think that may be why Matthew tells the story of Peter’s attempt to walk on water.

Like Mark, Matthew shares the story of Jesus walking on water. In both Gospels, the disciples have gone ahead of Jesus in a boat. The weather gets rough. In the predawn hours the disciples spot Jesus strolling across the lake.

If we stick with Mark and stop with that, the passage tells us only that Jesus is divine. That’s an important message, and Matthew conveys it as well. But then Matthew adds the bit about Peter getting out of the boat. And it’s important to ask why he included it.

Scholars have concluded that he had a source that Mark lacked. But that still doesn’t explain why Matthew decided to include the episode in the larger story he was telling. My hunch is that he wanted to show us what discipleship meant in light of what we had just learned about Jesus’ identity.

Following an incarnate God means that we would be set what would seem like an impossible example to most ordinary people. Jesus is urging us to walk on water. And he knows what that will mean for us. Let’s look more closely at the passage.

Peter says to Jesus, “If that’s you, tell me to come out there with you.” Peter climbs over the gunwales, takes a few steps, and then he sinks. Jesus grabs him up and hauls him into the boat. He says, “Oh you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

You’ve probably heard lots of sermons about Peter’s faith deficit. Me, too. If he had only had enough faith, preachers have said, he would never have sunk. Frequently we’re harangued about our own puny faith and told to buck up.Favim.com-9689

Well, baloney!

For starters, remember that Peter was a disciple. He took the risk of imitating Jesus doing something impossible. It’s what he had signed up for. Besides, Peter had already come to expect Jesus to do and say unthinkable things:

Turn the other cheek. Don’t imagine that violence will solve anything.

Forgive the unrepentant. Repeatedly. How you feel about it isn’t the point.

Love your enemy. Even the dangerous one who hates your guts.

Give your stuff away because someone else needs it. Don’t even ask about who deserves it.

See everybody—simply everybody—as infinitely valuable in themselves. Nobody is here to serve your agenda, gratify your desires, or live up to your expectations.

Eat with sinners. Befriend outcasts. Get over yourself.

For Jesus, this is what it means to live. This is eternal life. This is love that resembles God.

And, yes, at first it will be like walking on water. Impossible! You will sink. And that is where the growth begins. Once you’ve been brought back to the safety of the boat, will you step back out on the waves again?

woman in poolWhen Jesus welcomed Peter out on the waves, he probably knew that Peter would sink. Who wouldn’t!

Jesus wasn’t setting a test for Peter, waiting to see if his faith measured up. At Peter’s own request, Jesus encouraged his insanely risky behavior.

When Jesus talks about Peter’s little faith, he’s not saying “deficient faith.” Sure, Peter’s faith isn’t where it will eventually be. But neither is he utterly faithless. His faith has room to grow. Just like ours.

Faith does not grow by spiritual strain. It grows when we stretch ourselves to walk on water again and again. To do those things that Jesus teaches us to do when everybody around tells us we’re naive or just plain crazy. In a word, we grow in faith when we love our neighbor as if our own life depended on it.

Well, actually, I suppose our own life does depend on it. As it turns out, learning how to live comes down to learning how to love.

20 Comments

  1. Jesus “made” them get into the boat and Peter asks Jesus to “command” him to come to him. There is nothing about choice here. To have Jesus compel us to get into the boat with others and then command us to get out to follow him means risking all. Following Jesus has never been safe, but Jesus has always reached out to lift us up in our attempts to do the impossible. “To learn to live is to learn to love.” Beautiful. I think it is also to learn to risk.

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  2. Where to start with all the thoughts this generates for me! One of the things I am finding is that as I volunteer at a local church outreach I am looked to as an example of Christian living for the women there. Never, ever thought that was a place I would be! It makes me so much more cautious about actions, words – even facial expressions. It isn’t an easy or enviable position to be in …. I fall flat on my face more often than not. But I am encouraged by your assurance that to do so is following in the steps of the disciples! 😉

    And then the reminder to turn the other cheek and love our enemies – even the dangerous ones who hate our guts. Makes me wonder about the way we are responding to ISIS. I mourn for the civilian lives lost and the ancient cities ruined and wonder how different things would look if we had spent the money we spent for war on humanitarian aid instead.

    Your blog is thought-provoking as usual. Thank you.

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    1. I’ve come to believe that the humble (and humbling) process of falling, getting back up, dusting ourselves off, and starting up again is the essence of the Christian Way. You’re showing all of us courage and perseverance.

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  3. To heed the call, to respond with courage, to step out of the boat comes from entrusting the outcome, no matter what it might be, to God. Thank you +Bishop.

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  4. Thankyou yet again Jake . In Australia right now we are having a vigorous debate as in a few weeks we are also a having a nation wide vote on marriage equality for LGBT people . I’m praying through my response and how to vote from a Christlike perspective aa in Australia , to disagree with marriage for people who are LGBT is to be labelled a nasty, small minded bigot . And to be honest , some in the forefront of the Christian politics do come across as nasty , small minded bigots as they unfortunately are not exhibiting much Christlikeness .
    But, your message today embodies how I feel I should represent Christ in this difficult situation – ie ” to love my neighbour like my life depends on it ” . I think I’m going to vote “no” , but also simultaneously , want to be able to embody Gods love to the LGBT people who I have in my life, who are my friends and coworkers and basically people I care about ! It’s not an easy road and feels duplicitous , but I know Gods love conquers all. Thankyou again so much ! I love your blog !

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    1. Hi Sandy – I’m from NZ. Glad you bought this up because its very difficult. I read your comment to my husband and he pointed out when authorities treat one minority group differently, whichever that group is (any minorities), that if others don’t stand up for those people, the authorities tend to just move up the “food chain” and eventually restrict your own liberties. So we feel this is a very difficult thing – as you’ve said.

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      1. Hi ! Lovely to get your comment ! Yes, it’s very very tricky . I feel quite convicted to make sure I’m loving in all I do . Isn’t Jake Owensby wonderful ? I seek his blog out when I need a “God boost ” . So nice to connect with you also as my hubby and I really love NZ , especially the South Island .

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    2. Thank you for walking along with me, Sandy! You are creative in ways that really work for me, so I’m happy to learn that my writing can be of help to you from time to time.
      As for marriage equality, I understand that this represents quite a struggle for you. As for me, I voted in favor of marriage equality and have authorized my clergy to use the Episcopal Church’s approved liturgy for marriage between same-gender persons. I don’t tell you this to change your mind so much as to share honestly with you the path I have chose to follow with the best lights of faith I have available to me. My friend and colleague Matt Gunter, Bishop of Fond du Lac here in the US, has written extensively about this at his blog. I’m providing for you a link to his final post (number 19!) on the subject in case you would like to hear his thinking (he’s a deeper thinker than I am): http://anoddworkofgrace.blogspot.com/search/label/Same-sex%20Unions
      In any event, your emphasis on love for neighbor is spot on. And like you I trust that God’s love truly conquers all.

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      1. Hi Jake . I’m very interested to hear that you are pro marriage equality and am really glad you could share your opinion with me . I will read the link as I’m interested in all points of view . And yes, I do want love for neighbour to underpin all that I do and say ! Thanks again me keep writing Jake !

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