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 he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, 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 toward 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.” (Matthew 14:22-33 – NRSV)
Matthew’s story is clearly drawn from Mk 6:45–52, though he adds some details of his own. John has a similar story in 6:16-21. Each of the three accounts has Jesus going up on to “the mountain” to pray alone, the disciples were out on the lake in a boat struggling against the wind and the waves, Jesus walks on the sea towards them, the disciples are frightened/terrified and Jesus tells them not to be afraid.
Matthew is unique in the detail that has Peter attempting to walk to Jesus across the water.
The Sea of Galilee is nearly four and a half miles wide. Matthew uses the Greek word mesos (μέσος) meaning “in the midst”, to indicate where the boat is on the lake. The NRSV translation has “far from the land”.
The phrase “early in the morning” (NRSV) translates the Greek phrase tetartos phulake (τέταρτος φυλακή) which literally means “the fourth watch”. The fourth and last watch of the night was between 3am and 6am.
Matthew, like Mark, repeats the detail that Jesus came “walking toward them on the sea”. But Mark (6:48) adds the detail that Jesus intended to pass them by. Matthew omits this detail.
The disciples thought Jesus was a “ghost” but Jesus says, “It is I”. Perhaps this echoes the Prophet Isaiah, a favourite author for the Gospel writers: “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am first, and will be with the last.” (41:4). And again in Isaiah 43:4: “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.” We also find the phrase “fear not” in Isaiah 43 several times with “I am”. It may also be a reference to Exodus 3:14 (“I AM WHO AM”) and Deuteronomy 32:39 (“See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me.”)
For Matthew, Peter is clearly central to the relationship between Jesus and the disciples – see Matthew 15:15; 16:16; 17:4; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33 & 35.
When Peter cries out, “Lord save me!”, he is repeating the cry of the disciples in Matthew 8:25 when they were again in a storm at sea. But this cry also calls to mind the Psalmist: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. …. rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” (69:1-2 & 14-15)
Jesus’ statement, “You of little faith”, is said more than once by Jesus to the disciples in Matthew – see 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20.
Matthew, unlike Mark, where the disciples remain hard of heart, has the disciples acknowledge the divinity of Jesus: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.”
In Psalm 107:23-32 we find a text that is very similar to the Gospel story: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” (see also Jonah 1)
Who or what is at the centre of this story? The disciples? The boat in a storm? Jesus is the central person and the central fact of this and every other Gospel story. What makes him unambiguously central is who he is rather than what he does. It is his presence, his being there, that makes all the difference.
Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise: “I shall be with you!” (Exodus 3:12). Matthew’s Gospel finishes with the words of Jesus: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:20)
Awareness of this truth, this presence, is the heart and soul of the Christian life.
And the awareness is much, much more than an intellectual awareness. It is like the awareness that comes when you realise that someone really does love you. It is something you feel with your very being rather than intellectually apprehend. It cannot be proved or disproved. Like love it comes as gift, pure gift.
This is what it means to be alive. When you feel this in your bones, this presence, you will walk on water. And if you sink it does not matter!