Sharing Christ’s Love Theme

“Peter (Almost) Walks on Water”

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Matthew 14:22-33

Kickoff Sunday, August 13, 2023


Even Peter, an expert of the sea, needed a saving hand from Jesus.

We need his hand to save us as well.

Jesus had just heard about the tragic death of his colleague, John the Baptizer. .  John had died at the hands of Herod the Great, so Jesus, grieving, got in a boat on the Sea of Galilee in order to withdraw from the crowds.

Jesus and his disciples began to sail across the lake, probably departing from Capernaum and heading toward Tabgha. Some of us visited Tabgha.  It is a beautiful wilderness place, a place of ten springs, a place of natural beauty where, in the first century or the 21st century, people can get away from the crowds for a bit of respite from their worries and grief.

However, when the crowds heard the news about John the Baptizer, they wanted nothing more than to be close to Jesus.  They longed to find hope and comfort in his presence. They saw his boat depart from the docking area in Capernaum, and they decided to follow on foot around the shore of the lake. 

From the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, one can still recognize the direction of a boat on the lake and follow in the direction it is heading. So the crowds walked toward the far shore, where Jesus and the others would land. By the time Jesus arrived at the grassy slopes, already a crowd had gathered. 

Many hundreds of people, if not thousands, had arrived from the surrounding villages. When the boat was pulled onto the sandy shore, a crowd was waiting for Jesus. Instead of avoiding the crowd, as he could have done, instead of dispersing the crowd, as he may have wanted to do, Jesus, in the midst of his own grief, had compassion upon them, and he began to heal all those who were ill.

When they had been there some time and the sun had began to descend  over the nearby mountain, the disciples wanted Jesus to send everyone away.  Let them go to the nearby villages, they said, so that they could buy food for themselves. Jesus told his disciples, “you give them something to eat.”

 The disciples replied:  We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. That’s not in our budget. Then Jesus told the disciples to have the crowd to sit down on the grass, and there he fed them, beginning with those five loaves and two fish. After all had been fed and all the leftovers collected, twelve baskets full, one for each disciple, then it was then time for the crowd to be dispersed,

 Jesus and his disciples needed to receive a much needed break. They must have worn out, physically, emotionally, spiritually.  This is where our text for today begins…

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning (between 3 and 6am Jesus) came walking towards them on the lake.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying,  ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said,  ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’  He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him,  ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


Many years ago, I spent a difficult afternoon on a windy lake in the upstate of South Carolina.

 A high school friend of mine, whose name happens to be Peter, was a student at the time at Furman University, and Peter had secured a small sailing boat for us to enjoy a beautiful afternoon on the lake.

Oh, it was a beautiful day, for sure, but it also became unusually windy. At the time, I knew just enough about sailing to realize there was a lot that I did not know. My friend, Peter, knew a bit more from his summer camp experiences, but he didn’t know quite enough for us to fare very well that long afternoon on the lake.

The best I can remember, we put out from a small dock that was protected from the wind by a peninsula to our right. On our left, not very far away, was the dam. The dam was a long sloping hill, extending up from the water some 20 yards or so,  and extending down the lake a good half mile.

The dam was covered entirely with large rocks, making any sort of landing on that shore impossible.

As soon as we got clear of the point on our right, the wind came howling. Before long, the waves increased to whitecaps, pushing us without relief toward the rocky dam.

We had no motor on the little sail boat. We had only one small paddle.

Between the two of us, we had one heck of a time trying to keep that boat away from the dam.     

We struggled to get the boat turned into the wind, so we could tack our way out of trouble.  Suffice it to say that for what seemed like hours,  we wrestled with our little boat, fighting against wind and waves.

 On some other spring afternoon, it may have been a glorious experience. But on that windy day, we found ourselves fighting chaos. At times, we almost gave in to certain defeat.

We did our best to keep that little boat from being dashed against the rocks. After a long, long struggle, finally, as if out of nowhere, the wind let up just a bit. We had just enough of a reprieve to get the sail up and the tiller turned in the right direction.

We caught the wind and came around, just missing the large rocks of the dam. Finally, we were able to pull away, saved by the wind from the rocky shore.

The Apostle Peter was a fisherman and a sailor. Simon Peter and his brother had grown up on the lake.    They had spent their lives on their father’s fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.

They knew the wind and the water; they knew the waves.  They had tremendous experience with afternoon storms upon the sea. In our text for today, however, Peter and the others had been struggling for hours, in the middle of the night, against the wind.

They had left the Tagba area and headed back toward Capernaum. But the wind was against them.  They had rowed for hours and they all must have been exhausted. It had been a difficult and frustrating night.

When the figure came walking toward them in the darkness, unaffected by the wind and waves, they were afraid. How can this be?! When Peter realized that it was Jesus, he wanted to do what Jesus was doing. He wanted the same power over the uncontrollable forces of nature and chaos.

So, Peter stepped out of the boat. He imagined himself on par with his teacher, his rabbi. He thought he might also walk unencumbered over the chaotic seas. But then Peter noticed the wind. He paid attention to the waves.

He took his eyes off of Jesus. He remembered his own frailty, his own vulnerability. And inevitably, he began to sink.   

There is nothing wrong with being human, with realizing our own vulnerability. All of the other disciples had the good sense to stay in the boat. Peter alone dared to venture out onto the open sea, to try to do more, to be more, than either you or I or Peter were created to do or be.

If there is one thing that becomes clear in this story – Peter is not Jesus.  Oh, Peter is something special, no doubt. He was a man of strength, a man of strong convictions.  He became the Rock upon which Jesus built the Church.  But Peter was not Jesus. He did not hold power over the wind and the waves.

Peter may have spent his life seeking to bring order out of chaos, but the chaos would remain. None of us can control the forces of nature and chaos at work in our lives – the random violence, the cancer cells that grow, the trees that fall, the unexpected traumas in relationship, the fire that rages.

We are human, afterall, and it turns out that we all fare much better when we do not try to be the lord over our own life. We fare much better when we stay together in the boat.

When we try to be like God, when we think we don’t need Jesus, when we try to live life all on our own, we falter. We fail.  We eventually feel despair and begin to sink in the midst of the storm. 

Like Peter, if we look to Jesus, if we reach out to the hand offered to us, if we cry, “Lord, save us”, then we will be saved.

We may not be saved on our own time frame. We may not be saved in the manner which we were expecting.

Our salvation may not be of body, it may be of spirit.  Whatever the case, Peter learned that he could not and did not need to be Jesus.  He did need to reach out for Jesus’ saving hand.

You have heard that Wick and Kim Campbell’s son, Eric, is alive and well, thanks be to God. He lives in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. Eric escaped from his neighborhood with nothing but the clothes on his back, and fortunately for him, his wallet and his car.

His house is gone. His livelihood is gone. His worldly possessions are gone. But he is alive. And our prayers are with him and his friends and neighbors. None of us knows when the forces of nature and chaos will strike. None of us knows what lies around the next corner, or the next year.

None of us knows when the storms and winds of life will set us off course. Do not be afraid, Jesus says. I am with you, always, even in the midst of the storm. 

There is an ancient metaphor that hearkens back to those first disciples.  The metaphor is the comparison of the church to a boat. This is why the central part of a sanctuary is called the nave, as in navy. This is why some sanctuaries will even be shaped like a boat, like the chapel at AS Turner’s.

This is why the anchor is one of the oldest Christian symbols. The disciples in those early years felt that the church was like a small, storm-tossed vessel at sea among the forces of evil and chaos, susceptible to the conditions around them, dependent fully upon the breath of the Spirit.

 In a sailboat, you can grab the oars and row the boat, sure enough. You can hold the tiller and try to maintain a course.  You can set up and trim the sails, but if you really want to move, if you want to navigate a stormy sea, then you realize your full dependence upon the breath of the Holy Spirit.

On a windy, stormy sea, the boat is a place of refuge and safety.  At its best, the boat of the church is not adrift, nor sitting still, nor struggling with oars against the wind.

At its best, the church and its sailors are moving free on the wind of the Spirit, sailing toward the people and places where God beckons it to go, with collaborative work – and joy – among those together in the boat. 

The gospel text reminds us that Jesus did not need a boat, but we need the boat.   The boat is his gift to us. The boat is the Church. In the midst of troubled waters, as the whitecaps arise, when our lives are being “battered” by the waves, the boat is our place of refuge. When troubles brewing in our lives that threaten and shake us, the boat is where we belong.

Jesus knows that we desire to take control of our own lives, to be like him. He knows that we sometimes think that we are more than we are, when we try to do it all on our own or want to decide for ourselves   what is good and right and acceptable.

He realizes that we sometimes think that we can exert divine control over the winds and chaos of our lives, that we can overcome our enemies on our own, that we can heal our own diseases without help.

Jesus realizes that we sometimes think that we can walk on water.

And he also knows that eventually these fantasies will be shattered by the realities of life –  the unexpected accidents, the tragic diseases, the unforeseen circumstances,  the inevitable aging of our bodies.  (Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 329)

We realize that faith is not about being able to walk on water – only Jesus can do that. Faith is about keeping our eyes on Jesus, and seeking not to be overwhelmed, and not seeking to do it on our own when the wind and waves are raging.

Ultimately, this story about Peter and Jesus is a reminder that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot save ourselves from the chaos in which we live.  We cannot save ourselves from certain death.

 We are vulnerable, dependent creatures upon the earth, dependent upon the grace of God, dependent upon God and one another for rescue and relief.

Had that wind not died down a bit that fateful afternoon in South Carolina, my friend Peter and I would have lost our struggle. That little sailboat would have been dashed upon the rocks. We could not do it all on our own, not that day, not with those whitecaps and the power of a strong and unexpected wind.

Not even experienced sailors would have fared well had the winds continued to increase. We will all experience unexpected wind and chaotic waves in our lives. We will all experience dark nights that threaten our security, even our very existence.

The One who walks above the wind and waves, offers us a hand.  

He is there to lift us into the security and refuge of the boat. 

Even Peter, an expert of the sea, needed a saving hand from Jesus. And we need his hand to save us as well. Friends, when you find yourself in a challenging place, when the waves and wind are crashing about you, do not be afraid. He is with us, always. Receive the hand that is able to save you. And join him and your fellow disciples in the refuge of his boat.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia