Out at Sea
I am the worst of the hunt and peck sorts of Bible readers. I do, I have to admit, open my Bible on many mornings and turn until something meshes with my thought. I have decided to amend this bad habit of mine by reading straight through several books of Scripture. Word by word, action by action, I want to discern the story that grows up from the disparate statements and events. I’ve been at the Psalms and Matthew for three weeks now and today, I was hugely rewarded. The hunt and peck method of study has has always made Jesus’ life a little enigmatic to me. Read out of context, his miracles, parables, and occasional rants to the Pharisees can seem vehement, but random. Today though, I discovered that there is almost always a thread tying one miracle to the next. Until now, I saw the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water after as two miracles simply narrated next to each other; a merely chronological connection with no meaning between them. Then, a little note in my Bible informed me that Jesus had compelled his disciples to leave him after the feast for five thousand. Compelled, noted my notes, meant he pretty much marched them down to the waterside and shoved their boat off himself. What, I asked, could have prompted Jesus to this action?
Revolution, apparently. After that miraculous feast, the crowds decided that Jesus ought to be crowned on the spot. With zap like that, Jesus could could multiply power like bread. Rome would be thrown in a day and the crowd was ready to begin. The disciples agreed. For once, they were on the side of the rebel rousers, the stragglers always tagging at Jesus’ heels. The craze of a feast of a miracle hinted at the fulfillment of the freedom they had so long desired. If Jesus could be king now they could all have everything they wanted. I can see them, in a hot, sweaty crowd, grabbing at his shoulders and hands, begging him to please, finally, drop the servant guise and act like the Messiah he claimed to be.
Jesus responded with force; he sent them all packing. He slapped their hands away, stared down the crowds, and very calmly strong-armed his disciples into an evening sail. “Leave me alone!” he said and headed, literally, for the hills. But those words set the stage for the next miracle. The flamobyant spectacle of a walk across the sea was intricately connected with the drama of the feast and fight of the day before. For the first time in reading that passage, I understood why, and it was because I realized how those men felt as they set sail, and how it shaped their hearts for the storm and splendor to come that night.
They were furious. They were his right hand men. They had left all and followed this bright-eyed, beguiling bachelor because he claimed to be the Messiah. He was supposed to free them from Rome, take Israel by inspired storm and get them the freedom they desired. And that day, it had all been within their grasp. That miraculous feast had set the stage for Jesus to march into the city at the head of a miracle-drunk mob. Jesus threw it away. Not a thought, not a glance at the glorious chance they had all been waiting for. How maddeningly like him. He always drew back. He swore anyone who saw his miracles to silence, he healed blind beggars instead of rich merchants, and wasted his time with children. The twelve had stood it until now, but the big chance had come and been spurned and it was all too much. Peter, I’m sure, all but tipped the boat in his furor, oaths on his breath, his big feet in a stomp up and down the decks. He must have said what everyone else was thinking: Jesus had let them down.
He didn’t mean to say it. Only the heat of possibility in that crowd, and the chill, clear cut refusal on Jesus' face had forced the words out. But the doubt was spoken, and suddenly Peter, and each man there, was bewildered. If Jesus didn't want to be king, what did he want? If his goal was not a palace, where was he headed? Dark pooled in water and sky, a stillness crept in that is day when it is bereft of light. Jesus was absent and there, in the dark, the disciples sighed and knew again that Jesus was not to be followed with ease.
Why did they follow? He never gave them the riches or power they thought they wanted. He never promised them places of honor; he told them to be humble as babies instead. Of course, life was a thrill with Jesus. Dramatic arguments with stuck-up religious leaders, demons careening out of wild men; it all kept them with him. And for a few, for Peter in his headlong devotion, and John, with his watchful hush, there was the mystery. A tantalizing secret seemed always alight in Jesus’ eyes, a flame that rose in his face every time he healed a blind man, held a child. To see it was to be struck with hunger, the ache of young, first love. There was shadow too, a swift darkness that came into his face, a look they did not often want to meet. That too, held them, for it spoke to some blackness in themselves. But where was it leading them? The facts must now be faced. They had left jobs for him. Dropped friends and neglected lovely wives and little children. They stood to loose all, they stood to die a martyrs death at the hands of Rome or the rabbis if Jesus said the wrong thing. The plans they had made for Jesus to fill their dreams had fallen dead. Jesus had refused.
That’s when the storm came. They glanced up, suddenly aware of the clouds striding in like black, wild spirits. The pitch of the wind rose to the wail of their own fevered hearts. The waves rose in a swell as if their questions had grown huge hands to reach up and pry them loose from everything safe. A drenching of rain slammed down on their heads, ripped away warmth and calm until everything they thought they knew about Jesus, about themselves, about the life they lived in following him was blown away. And they were afraid.
Not merely of the storm, but of the road they now walked in following Christ. Of the unpredictable future to which this Master led them, a man whose whims and words were subject to no one’s expectation or demand. Afraid of this man who held the glory and honor of the world so lightly. Afraid of what the alternative to glory might be. Afraid of the fact that they had cast in their lot with him and he didn’t care a jot for any of the power or favor or strength they thought important. Afraid, finally, of him. Jesus would not bend to their wills, bow to their ways. Their desires would not sway him. All power was his; he healed, his spoke words that led crowds in whatever dance he chose, he rebuked, he forgave. He could captivate any number of compliant men to replace them any who failed him. Those rain-drenched men felt suddenly expendable. After all, Jesus had sent them packing. The thought must have come, sly, quick, a serpent's whisper in their hearts as the wind rattled their thought: Maybe he’s through with us. Maybe we have pushed him to far, bumbled too badly. Maybe he doesn’t care about us or our plans at all. No longer able to predict or comprehend Him, I am quite sure they were terrified of their enigmatic Christ. Cold came upon them. The sea reached merciless hands to grasp them and the sky screamed with blackness.
What a moment for Jesus to show up. Hale and red-faced, striding across the writhing water, his face lighted by laughter. He was as rain-stung and wind-tangled as any of them, but his face was in a grin. Always a reveler, always full of more joy, more grief, more life than anyone else, he threw back his head to the unbridled stroke of wind and grinned a hello to his crouching, craven disciples. What a way for him to show up too. Here was a gaudy display of the sort they were always wanting; just for them. They thought they had been sentenced and abandoned, yet here he came with a joke on his holy face, hands held out to them through the roar of the rain, and the louder clamor of their doubts.
Peter leapt up first; Peter, whose muscles and heart were always swifter than his mind. All he knew was gladness like the sun jumping up to day. Jesus was there after all. The master might love him still. “Command me to come,” he shouted, timid and bold all at once. “Come!” laughed the Messiah. Of course come. Always come. Always walk to where I am, be it over dawn-washed sands or raging seas, over your happiness or your doubt. And Peter did, splashing five times as much as any other man could, drenching every cranny of himself still dry, running twenty feet out from the boat with his first leap and breath. Then his brain caught up. Every doubt of the night, every voice that had whispered his cause to despair, every question over his tremulous future mobbed him, all at once. Especially the thought that he, Peter, might be a nuisance, a child his master would shove aside. Peter dropped his eyes. Peter sank.
“Save me Master!” he cried in what I think was abject terror. I honestly don’t think Peter knew if Jesus would save him. I think that day of miracles and raised hopes and shouting and “compellments” had so upended his neat expectations of his Master and his future, not to mention the brain benumbing sight of Jesus walking on water, that Peter probably felt that the blackness of space was yawning beneath him and overhead too. Jesus simply reached down, pulled him to his feet, made the water firm beneath him, and saved him.
“You of little faith,” Jesus said gently, his hand on Peter's shoulder. “Why, why did you doubt?”
The question encompassed far more than a query about a stumble in the water. Jesus knew every thought that had filled Peter’s mind. He knew the questions that had filled him with darkness. He knew Peter’s doubt, his resentment of his master’s mystery, his guilt. Jesus knew the terror that had almost convinced Peter he was abandoned. It was to the soul and center of the man that Jesus asked: why did you ever doubt me? Why did a little shaking of your expectations, a refusal on my part to cow tow to a riled crowd throw my love for you into question? Why did the craze of a people swayed as easily as a flock of sheep sway you from confidence in my plan? You have seen kindness in my touch, love in my words and heart each day. I am the humble, the gentle, the meek God you never expected. I have loved you, I have made you breakfast and kissed your children and healed your sin. You have desired a glitzy deity, a Hebrew Zeus to conquer your enemies, but I have come to conquer your heart with mercy. How could a bad-tempered spit of a storm, one small refusal of your desire ever make you believe that I did not love you and that my kingdom will not triumph?
Peter; my son and student, my disciple and friend. All of you crouched there in the boat, drenched and staring with eyes like black pits. You cannot confine my love by petty power. You cannot save the world with a sword, or bend my grace to your own shortsighted will. You can only follow me. Come to me, walk unharmed over raging doubt, and the upending of earthly expectations. Come to me now, as you did at first, because of the love you found in my face and the joy it brought to your heart. That is what my kingdom is made of. That is what I seek and that is what you will find if you follow me. When Peter finally looked up, I am quite sure the storm was gone and the stars glinted out, fresh, and sweet, and clean.
Now, I hear the same question of Christ in my own heart. Why do you doubt? And oh, I do. Like those opinionated disciples, I have expectations of how a good God ought to behave. I think his love ought to guarantee my happiness; make money and good friends easy to come by, open paths like golden highways up at my feet. I’ve followed him so it’s only fair he shield me from sickness, rejection, or the little agonies of life in a fallen world. When he doesn’t, I feel at sea. And the waves that rock my little boat of self are the same ones that tumbled Peter and the disciples over a sea of deep despair. I begin to doubt everything I ever believed about my Master. I question his goodness, his presence; convince myself he might have left me. Nothing has turned out as I expected; how can I believe he still loves me?
Just as I’m drowning in my own dramatic despair, tossed on the waves of my unsteady heart, he comes. Happy and heedless of my thunder, eyes alight, hand outstretched. I am the unsteady one, this world is the unsteady place. But he is sure, astride the waves, light beyond all the shouting darkness. I look at him for just a second, eyebrow cocked as I ponder. I cannot predict any part of my life with him except his unfailing presence with me. I cannot plan on any outcome except that he will love me. I can’t bank on any riches but his those of his grace. I sigh. He holds out his hand.
I leap out of that boat and hope I never look back.