Today, in the 14th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time, and in fact the disciples are no strangers to this lake. Actually, it’s almost home-from-home to them, and they’re out on it all the time. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt constantly risking life and limb for a good catch.
A quick look back at Chapter Eight reminds us of one traumatic experience they’d had not so very long before. You may well recall the story: A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped, and it begins to sink. Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the stern, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are gob-smacked. ‘Who is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. By now, they can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that. No, today they are frightened by something else—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry, but Jesus reassures them. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Alas, these comforting words (let alone the ability to defy gravity) typically do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus agrees, “C’mon.”, he calls. And so, Peter does. But after just a few steps, the wind unnerves him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in Chapter Eight. It’s déjà vu—right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Make no mistake; these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.
So, why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would we ever lack faith?
Well, one answer is fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives too, and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to its mother when it sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road.
But it’s not just wind and rainstorms that frighten us; so do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and family discord can all shake us to the core. In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, and it’s exactly what the disciples did back in Chapter Eight. All Jesus does is to ask, ‘why’? Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer to the question, but he wants us to know it, too.
Simply put, it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, an instinct. Humans are hard-wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways. When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind in our blind panic. For that reason, we often need some assistance in getting back to a more faithful and balanced frame of mind.
Anyone who has ever taken a public speaking class knows that one of the things you learn is just how important it is to engage your audience. Speakers have many tools for doing this, but perhaps the most important is the rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions engage members of an audience, because asking a question gets each of us to think of our own answers. And as they do, they become personally connected to the matter in hand.
This is to say, Jesus is not asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter, or cause him to lose face. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a rather frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than salvation. Faith is the foundation of human life, every bit as important as food, water, clothing and shelter. Only after faith is secured can security add value to living. This is the message of the Cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. And faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come, as inevitably thy will.
Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. In other words, even in the most turbulent times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith.
We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in, but the important thing is to recover from those doubts and return to a place of faith. Our faith is strengthened and sustained by our relationship with God and nurtured by participating in our life in Christ through things like reading scripture, praying, and receiving Holy Communion. Speaking of which, each Sunday when we confess our sins, we admit that we don’t always get everything quite right, but we repent, and recommit ourselves to walking in God’s ways once again.
Repent and recommit: This is the true nature of the Christian life. Peter is a prime example of what it means to live a life of holy imperfection. He has misunderstood before, and he will do so—and even deny—again. But today, we see him refocusing on faith (with a little help from Jesus, of course). Watching his journey reminds us of our pilgrimage through life, a journey on which we can—and should—choose faithfulness. And a journey on which we, just like Peter, repent, recommit, and refocus on a faithfulness that comes from the certain knowledge and love of Jesus, through whom we have experienced the grace of God time and time again, and will continue so to do until our lives’ end.