Matthew tells us that immediately after Jesus has fed the crowd “he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead [of him] to the other side.” He dismisses the crowds and goes, like Moses went up the mountain to ask the Lord to forgive the people for their idolatry (Exod. 32:30–34), up the mountain to pray. He was alone most of the night, but toward morning he comes to the disciples, whose boat is far from land and is being battered by the waves.
When the disciples see him walking on water they are terrified. People do not walk on water. And so they grasp for any explanation that would return their world to normality—he must be a ghost.
Jesus responds to their cry of fear and after identifying himself tells them not to be afraid. Just as God names himself to Moses in the burning bush, Jesus identifies himself as “I am.” This is the “I am” of Ps. 77:19, the “I am” who provides a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, leaving footprints unseen.
Peter asks Jesus to command him to meet him on the water, and Jesus does so with the single word, “Come.” Peter walks toward Jesus but notices the strong wind and begins to sink. He begs Jesus to save him. Peter does not begin to sink and then become frightened, but he becomes frightened and so he begins to sink. Losing sight of Jesus means that Peter, like all of us, cannot help but become frightened, which means we cannot survive. Jesus, as he has so often done, stretches out his hand and saves him.
Peter is often criticized for being impulsive, for having “little faith,” and for doubting, but such criticism should not overlook that he asks Jesus to command him to come to him. Peter begins his journey across the water toward Jesus with the recognition that this is not something he can do on his own initiative. He asks Jesus to command him to come, recognizing that he has no ability to come to Jesus unless his ability to come to Jesus comes from Jesus. Peter’s faith is little, but he at least is beginning to recognize that faith is obedience.
We are, of course, sympathetic with Peter because we too doubt. We doubt because, like Peter, we are frightened. Our fears are not governed by our fear of God, because we fear, like Herod, the opinions of others more than we fear God. As a result, we sink beneath the weight of our desires, hoping others will think us normal. But followers of Jesus, those who refuse to live in a world devoid of miracle, cannot be normal. We worship, as the disciples did, this Jesus whom they now recognize to be the Son of God.
Soon Jesus will rename Simon as Peter and declare that “on this rock” Jesus’s church will be built, making this story ripe with ecclesiological implications. The church is the ark of the kingdom, but often the church finds herself far from shore and threatened by strong winds and waves. Those in the boat often fail to understand that they are meant to be far from shore and that to be threatened by a storm is not unusual. If the church is faithful she will always be far from the shore. Some, moreover, will be commanded to leave even the safety of the boat to walk on water.