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.
How 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.
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?
When 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.