Why did Peter jump out of the boat?
He jumped out of the boat just because Jesus asked him to. You can read the story in Matthew 14. Peter would always do things like that. He was impulsive. He was also blustery, confident, energetic, and inyour- face. But he had a heart of gold. In fact, we like him better for his traits. He was always eager to jump forward and try something. And he often fell flat on his face.
Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. That was fine, but, when Jesus began to explain the nature of his messianic mission, Peter tried to talk him out of it so forcefully that Jesus compared him to Satan. At that last supper, Jesus said he would be betrayed. Peter immediately blurted out that he would never do such a thing; he would die first. But that same night, three times he denied ever knowing Jesus. Later, when Jesus asked him to pray with him before the arrest, Peter promptly fell asleep and left Jesus to pray alone.
Yes, Peter would fall flat on his face. But when he fell, he always fell in the front line. Sure, he was blustery, but he was willing. When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter jumped right overboard completely ignoring the fathoms of water beneath his feet. It was just like the cartoon coyote running off a cliff and not falling until he suddenly looks down and sees he is running on thin air. Peter looked down and, quite naturally, started to sink.
But Peter would do something like that. If Jesus said, “Jump,” Peter would not hesitate to jump. On the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said, “Come,” and Peter went, not counting the cost.
I’m painfully aware that I am no Peter. I would not have been the first one out of the boat. I’d want to see if someone else would try it first. If I were to identify myself with a disciple, it probably would be with someone like Bartholomew or Thaddaeus.
You will notice that they never jumped out of a boat to try walking on water. In fact, you can search the Gospels all you want and never find anything memorable about them. They weren’t flashy. They never asked impertinent questions, as did James and John. They didn’t fetch Greeks to meet Jesus like Philip and Andrew. They never made wild promises like Peter. Bartholomew and Thaddaeus were like me. But, despite the apparent timidity, they were part of the Twelve. They stayed with Jesus.
I read Mark 10:32: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” When I read this, I understand it. They were afraid, but they still followed. I have committed myself to following Jesus, but I am not Peter. I am aware of the voice of Jesus saying, “Come!” But I’m also aware that it is not entirely safe to walk on water.
Jesus has asked us to follow him. I believe he lived a life of utter truthfulness and unlimited love. I believe he lived a life of simplicity, compassion, and peace. I believe he completely renounced violence, pride, and security. And I believe he wants me to follow him. But I also believe that it is not entirely safe.
In Philippians 2:3-8, Paul urges us to “have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus.” And Paul describes that “mind of Jesus” by saying that Jesus “emptied himself” and that he “took the form of a servant.” “He humbled himself,” says Paul. But the sad truth is if you followed that advice when filling out applications for a position, or going to a job interview, then you’re just walking on water! If your job is in sales, you will lose the sale.
Do the qualities of humility, simplicity, and nonconformity work in our world? Is it not a paradox to be successful in life and also to be an imitator of Jesus?
When Jesus asks me to be a peacemaker, or feed the hungry, or welcome the stranger, sometimes he is asking me to walk on water. When Jesus asks me to stand up for values that are in conflict with our culture, it’s like walking on water.
One thing I believe is that I cannot follow Jesus on those more radical qualities of his life. Or, more accurately, I cannot follow alone. I desperately need to walk side by side with other Christians who are seeking to walk the way of Jesus on the roads of this world.
Peter did not hesitate when Jesus called him. Even if it were impossible to walk on water, when Jesus called, Peter would get out of the boat and try. He was unsuccessful, of course. He started to sink and he would certainly have drowned if Jesus had not reached out his hand and held him.
I wonder if, perhaps, there was one way in which Peter could have walked firmly all the way to the side of Jesus, water or no water. That is if the rest of us in that boat had gotten out and walked with him.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.