What was Peter’s mistake in this passage? There’s a tendency to think that it is he becomes afraid and doubts. People like to say that if Peter had kept his eyes on Jesus, if he had kept the faith, he wouldn’t have sunk. Let’s think for a second about how that sounds to people we know who feel like they’re drowning in their circumstances, “If you keep your eyes on Jesus… if you just believe… don’t worry or be scared…”
Those phrases make it sound like it is always your fault if you can’t keep your head above water. Sometimes our choices or other people’s choices cause us to falter, to sink, to become afraid. However, just because those things happen does not mean they are God’s will.
Peter’s mistake happened before he even got out of the boat. In the ancient world up through the time of Christ and even into more recent history, the sea represents chaos. In Judaism and Christianity, the sea is a realm of unknown dark, wherein life disappears. The sea was unpredictable and could be confusing, defying patterns people learned to read. With this in mind, the sea becomes what only God can tame. Only God can bring order out of chaos and triumph over the unknown.
When Jesus comes walking across the water, the writer of the gospel (Matthew) is creating a scene to help the reader understand that Jesus is God. Furthermore, when the terrified disciples see Jesus, but don’t know it is he; Jesus uses the words that echo the story of the burning bush. God spoke to Moses in Exodus from the burning bush, saying, “I am.” Jesus says exactly the same thing to the disciples, “I am. Do not be afraid.”
With Jesus walking on top of the water, demonstrating control over chaos, AND using the words that would have been familiar to the disciples from a story they would have known well, it is clearly demonstrated that Jesus is God. God is present in Jesus. Me explaining all this to you is the set up to recognizing Peter’s mistake.
While he is still in the boat, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” If it is you… Peter is testing Jesus. Despite seeing and hearing things that Peter knows can only be true if Jesus is God, Peter decides to set up a test. Peter’s mistake is not when he becomes afraid or when he doubts or when he asks for help. His mistake is in testing what he already knows to be true about God. Just before this story in Matthew, Peter has been witness to the feeding of more than five thousand people through Jesus’ blessing and effort. This was certainly not the first miracle Peter witnessed nor was “I am” the first time that Jesus used words that echoed the words of God from Hebrew Scripture.
But Peter tested him. Peter tested God. Rather than trusting the relationship he had with Jesus or relying on his own experience of God’s mercy, Peter pressed into asking Jesus to prove himself, as though he hadn’t ever done so before.
What does this look like in our time? Surely we who are Easter people, who have heard of Jesus’ resurrection, his restoration to life from death, wouldn’t test God. Yet, in this day, it is not unusual to hear people who have been diagnosed with cancer to examine their faith. It is not far-fetched to hear abused women or children or isolated men to reflect on what they did wrong. It is not out of the ordinary to hear people assured that if they have maintained a relationship with God in exactly the right way, with precisely the right words, at the correct church, then surely they would not suffer. “If it be your will, O God…”
We KNOW the will of God. It has been revealed to us through the life, teaching, healing, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know that God’s desire is for life, for mercy, for hope, for wholeness, for community, for relationship with every person and all creation. We know that there are forces that oppose God and try to interfere with those plans.
Yet, the testing of God continues as though God had not shown these things to be true. In the midst of tragedy and chaos, wars and diseases, poverty and struggle, when we wonder why God doesn’t do something, we act as though it is God’s job to prove that God does not want these things to happen.
Let me tell you definitively here and now, God does not want these things to happen. Jesus is the proof of that. The sustaining of the witness of the disciples by the Holy Spirit through two thousand years is additional confirmation. Our own experiences with God, not what we’ve read, not what we’ve heard, but the truths of our own encounters tell us that God’s plans are for life and that abundantly.
Oh, Peter. You saw Jesus coming to you over the sea, taming the chaos. You heard the words that you knew belonged to God, “I am.” The taste of bread and fish miraculously multiplied is still in your mouth. And yet you ask for proof. Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
You know the truth. What more can God say to you than has already been said and done through Jesus for your salvation, your hope, and your faith. The will of God is that you will live, grow, serve, be whole. There is no need to test that, only to live trusting in its truth and power.