Thursday 29 September 2022

Stepping Out

Author Douglas Adams always had a unique and quirky way of looking at the world. His work is a source of many pop culture references, including this interesting observation about the ability of human beings to fly: "there is an art to flying, or rather a knack.  Its knack lies in learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties."

Sure, that probably sounds silly. At first. But think about it for a moment. If it were at all possible to throw yourself at the ground and miss, you would be airborne. It’s true. There’s a couple of things in the way, of course, like the ground itself. It’s big and hard to avoid. And then there’s gravity. But, if you could do it - miss the ground, I mean - you would indeed be flying. It’d be a miracle.

The story of Jesus walking on water is a similar kind of miracle. It defies the laws of physics and ought not to be possible. Not the way magicians or illusionists might do it, of course, I mean the real thing. It just isn’t scientifically possible. It must be a miracle, one that demonstrates Jesus’ power over nature, the power of God. The disciples knew it: “and those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). And that’s how we might see the story, too, as a miracle of Jesus. The only one to be able to walk on water.

Except he isn’t. Not, at least, according to Matthew.

While the story appears in Luke and John as well, Matthew adds a twist. The story’s a simple enough miracle. The disciples have gone ahead on the lake in a boat while Jesus takes some personal time. A storm comes up and Jesus sees they’re in trouble so he walks out on the water to save them. 

But Matthew adds that, as Jesus approached them, they didn’t recognize Jesus at first. Peter, realizing it’s Jesus says “if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water with you.” Jesus says come and join me and Peter steps out of the boat. And walks on the water. Peter is walking on the water, too. At first. But then Peter sees the wind and the sea and the storm and he’s afraid and then he begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus to save him, Jesus does and then - only then - Jesus says “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14: 31).

Yes, it could be a miracle story displaying Jesus’ divine power of nature. But what if Matthew thought it was something more, something about us? What if Matthew told it as a myth story, one that, like all myths, has a fundamental truth at its core, even if the narrative itself might not have really happened?

What if Jesus comment about faith and doubt wasn’t a criticism or a disappointment, but a compliment and an encouragement? What if Jesus meant “look, Peter, see what you could do with even a little faith? It was only when you began to doubt yourself that you began to sink.” What if Jesus called Peter out of the boat because he knew Peter wasn’t in any danger? What if he knew Peter could do it?

What if the core truth of this story isn’t the miracle of Jesus’ uniqueness, but the miracle of Jesus showing us, once again, what we are capable of: that we too are both human and divine, and we are capable of everything Jesus shows us. The divinity and the humanity, the love and the grace, the justice and the compassion, all these are within us, too. What keeps us from being just like Jesus is our fear.