At first, they thought it was a ghost.
In Matthew 14, we find the disciples once again caught in a storm out at sea. Jesus had just finished feeding the five thousand and had withdrawn to a mountain to pray, leaving the disciples alone in the storm. Night falls and many hours pass.
Finally, sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. they see it.
During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear (Matthew 14:25-26).
Picture the scene for a moment: the disciples are already afraid because of the storm. And, worse, night has fallen. To see a figure walking on the waves must have melted whatever fortitude the disciples had left.
To be sure this is not the first time we see the disciples caught in a storm. It had happened before, in Matthew 8. But then there had been no walking on water by Jesus. Instead, He had rebuked the waves, calming the storm. This time He does something far more dramatic: He comes to them walking on the sea—amid a storm no less! As St. John Chrysostom notes, “He had before rebuked the sea, now He shows forth His power yet more by walking upon the sea.”
Christ’s command over the forces of nature is an important part of his redemption mission. Recall that in Genesis 3, it was not only Adam and Eve who were punished—a curse fell on all of creation because of their sin. Adam and Eve had been created as the king and queen of creation, mediators between the visible world and the invisible God. Once their relationship with God was broken, all creation fell into disorder.
Christ then came not only to redeem us, but to save all creation.
His power over the forces of nature, especially over natural disasters and diseases also confirms that he has the greater power to forgive us our sins. This, after all, was Christ’s message in the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9. After Christ forgives the sins of the paralytic, the scribes rightly recognize that He is exercising a divine prerogative. Jesus responds by healing the paralytic:
Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” (Matthew 9:5-6).
The stories are linked, not just in terms of a common theme—Christ’s power over disordered nature—but by a key word of encouragement. When Christ first sees the paralytic, he urges him to take courage. In English the full line reads this way: Courage, child, your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2). This is the same admonition that Christ makes to the disciples as He approaches them on the water: At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid (Matthew 14:27). (For those who are wondering, the word for courage in the Greek text is the same in both places as well.)
The message suggested in these texts is that the courage with which the disciples were urged to face the stormy seas is the same courage with which we should confront our sins. Courage, of course, can be both active and passive. The disciples were called to be courageous in weathering the storm. But Peter took matters one step further. Just as Christ had full command over the seas, so Peter asked to be commanded to walk out on the waves.
Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water (Matthew 14:28).
His request was granted. Now most of us, were we to step out onto uncertain footing—a tightrope, a rickety bridge over a chasm, or thin ice, not to mention waves—might immediately look down to be sure of our steps. The gospel story suggests Peter did something different.
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus (Matthew 14:29).
Peter does not get out and walk around the boat. He doesn’t dance on the waves. He recognizes that the power he has is temporary, on loan from God. His response is to acknowledge His Lord, putting his faith so fully in Him that he doesn’t even look down at the waves. But then, of course, Peter falters: having succeeded in trampling the waves, he gets distracted by the winds.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30).
Once Peter took his eyes off Christ, he began sinking.
St. Augustine, in reading this story, sees the stormy waters as a metaphor for the temptations of this world:
[T]o each of us our lusts are as a tempest. Do you love God? You walk on the sea; the fear of this world is under your feet. Do you love the world? It swallows you up. But when your heart is tossed with desire, then that you may overcome your lust, call upon the divine person of Christ (St. Augustine, as cited in the Catena Aurea).
In the story of Peter walking on the water we have a model for how to respond to temptation and the inclination to sin. The proper response is not to become fixated on the desire to sin—what we might call concupiscence—but to seek out Christ, to never lose sight of our redeemer.
While it is sometimes told as a story of a faith that failed, the ultimate message here is positive: Peter, even when he has lost sight of Christ, calls out to him, crying out for salvation. And Christ, even though he rebukes Peter for the weakness of his faith, also responds to the faith that is there and rescues him. How extraordinarily encouraging this is: even when we have given into temptation, when we are sinking into sin, it is not too late to call upon Christ.
(Note: For more on the specific topic of courage and crying out to Christ, see Dawn Eden’s recently revised edition of her wonderfully helpful book, The Thrill of the Chaste, especially chapter 16. Full disclaimer: yours truly is quoted in this chapter.)