Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Saint Peter invited to Walk on the Water
Cathédrale Saint-Louis, Versailles
François Boucher, was perfectly attuned to his audience, supplying them with frivolous, boudoir paintings, celebrating colour, emotion and merrymaking. Supplier to the Royal Courts of France (the painting is still housed at Versailles), he painted primarily what his patrons wanted to see. Although more known for his sensuous paintings, our painting shows a more restrained and more serious side to his work.
The edges of the canvas are dark, it is night. The sea is wild. The angels look down from the heavens. Saint Peter has left the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus is now putting out His hand. Peter looks at Jesus in total dependence. It is a moment of spiritual union shared by the two of them. The other Disciples are looking away from the scene, afraid still of the rough seas and storm.
Peter is the adventurous Disciple, he wanted to show his trust and love for Christ. Peter walked right up to Jesus, keeping entirely focused on Him. But then we are told he felt the force of the wind and started to sink. He took his eyes off His friend, lost focus and started doubting.
We can all identify with Peter. But Jesus did not let him begin to drown to teach him a lesson. We are told that Jesus put out his hand at once and held him … as we sink into our own seas of worries at times, Jesus takes us by the hand … All we have to do is keep our focus on Him.
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
Jesus was on his way to a lonely place with his Disciples. All of a sudden, a multitude appeared in the place where they had come ashore. Jesus had pity on them and cured some sick people. At the end of the day, He gave fed them: He blessed five loaves and two fish and “breaking the loaves He handed them to his Disciples, who gave them to the crowds” (Matt. 14:19).
It is now evening, and Jesus re-takes his original decision to be alone in a lonely place. He dismisses the Disciples and He climbs a hill to pray.
Matthew divides the following story in four parts:
1. Jesus dismisses his Disciples;
2. He approaches the boat where the Disciples are;
3. Jesus meets Peter;
4. The reaction of the Disciples.
Jesus at prayer
The Gospel of Matthew, on this occasion, does not reveal what the content of Jesus’ prayer was. We remember that this had not been a particularly easy day for Jesus: he had heard of the sad news of the death of John the Baptist (his death prefigured Jesus’ own death); He cured the sick and fed the multitude. However, Matthew is interested in showing that Jesus spent most of the night in prayer. When He moved towards the boat was “the fourth watch of the night” which ran between 3:00-6:00 a.m.
Jesus chooses to be alone. The Disciples are now far from him. The peace of Jesus in prayer contrasts with the distress of the Disciples, in the boat, battling with the wind. Jesus sent them ahead and He remained behind aware of their struggles and ready to come to their aid.
In the Old Testament Yahweh exercised dominion over the sea (evil) which represented chaos and disorder, and in the New Testament Jesus has power to calm the tempest and walks on the sea. Unlike the text earlier in Matthew when Jesus calmed the storm by his mighty words, here He walks on the lake unassumingly. Mark and Matthew describe Jesus walking on the sea as if it was a natural thing for him to do.
Both Evangelists, each in his own way, will emphasize the power of Jesus to calm the anxiety of the Disciples rather than His dominion over the elements.
Jesus and Peter
Up to this moment Matthew did not introduce Peter as the leader of the group. We can guess that there is something special about him, because he is the first to be chosen by Jesus, together with his brother Andrew. He is the first in the list of the Twelve. But apart from this Matthew did not yet show the primacy of Peter in the group of the Apostles.
This passage, however, is important because only Matthew contains the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. By including this story, Matthew wishes to tell us something important about Peter and his leadership in the group of Disciples.
The dialogue between Jesus and Peter
The dialogue between Jesus and Peter reminds us of the Second Temptation of Jesus in the desert at the beginning of the Gospel when the Tempter tells Jesus: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple”. Here, Peter is asking Jesus to empower him to do the same things that He does. Unlike in the Temptation in the desert, Jesus gives in to the request of Peter, but of course, Peter is not Jesus and by his own power he cannot walk on the water.
As the story goes, we see that it is only by relying on the power of Jesus that the miracle takes place.
Matthew is very succinct: Peter is about to be drown in the water, however, he is afraid of the wind (!), which seems actually harmless compared to the immediate death that awaits him if Jesus does not hold his hand.
This makes us think that when we face difficulties, our minds become so blurred that we are unable to properly see priorities (discern) and identify the real threat to our integrity and well-being.
Matthew shows us that Peter and Jesus had a very intense friendship, however, he shows the real human face of the First among the Apostles, with his virtues and his defects.
A resurrection story
The story we are contemplating is a story very similar to the apparitions of Jesus after his resurrection. In it we see all the elements that characterize the resurrection narratives:
1. The Disciples are not expecting Jesus;
2. They do not recognize him because He has a somehow ‘different’ appearance;
3. Jesus reveals himself to the Disciples not performing spectacular miracles, but in
the ordinary things of daily life: He eats, walks, talks, cooks …;
4. The profession of faith in the Risen Christ.
Although Jesus does not appear here passing through the walls of a room with closed doors, He is like a ghost walking on the troubled sea. His message is that of the Risen Christ with the greeting of peace: “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
We may ask ourselves: “Why does Matthew want to put this resurrection story so early in the Gospel?”
The answer can be found in the death of John the Baptist:
As the Baptist’s death is a prefiguring of the death of Jesus, Matthew wants to show the anticipation of his resurrection as well.
Finally, while the Disciples showed their amazement when Jesus calmed the storm (Matt. 8: 27) early in the Gospel, here they go beyond an emotional response and they bow down in attitude of adoration and profess faith in Jesus’ divine Sonship.
The boat and the Church
From early times, the boat was an icon of the Church battling through history amid difficulties and persecution. The Church seems to be journeying in history apparently abandoned to Her own fate.
The Gospel of Mark uses this icon as an image of the Church; however, in this text, Matthew compares the Church to the person of Peter. Peter is the Disciple to whom Jesus entrusted his Church. Peter on his side takes the initiative to venture into the humanly impossible. He feels that he is about to fail, but the Lord comes to rescue him.
In the history of the Church wo/men also passed through this experience of death and resurrection, and today’s disciples of Jesus are invited to be brave taking the challenge of trusting God who will hold them ‘by the hand’ and save them when all seems to be falling apart.
We make our own some of the pleas of people in front of Jesus:
“God, be merciful to me a sinner”.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”.
“Lord, remember me when You enter Your Kingdom”.
And now, out of the depths, Peter cries: “Lord, save me”.
This echoes the prayer of the Psalmist in his peril:
“Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me”. (Psalm 69:1-2).
Walking by faith in a storm-tossed world entails great risk, like skating on thin ice. But the Evangelist tells us that the risk of faith is worth taking. Not just for our personal salvation, but for countless others in peril and ‘at sea’.
Perhaps you have already taken the risk of faith and stepped out of your boat.
And now you are sinking in a storm of doubt and fear.
Cling to your faith like a life-jacket.
Don’t let panic rob you of abundant life in Christ and the adventure of faith.
Turn your eyes from the crisis to Christ.
Prayer is not a fine art but a desperate cry.
Like Peter, shout for help: Lord, save me!
A boat is symbol of the Church and a symbol of our life:
· We find both calm and stormy weather in life;
· During the storms it can seem that God has sent us on ahead and left us alone;
· In those difficult moments when we need to take important decisions, our mind
often becomes blurred and we lack the serenity we need;
· God will always be close at hand to rescue us.
The Gospels show Jesus taking very important decisions with simplicity. Every time He does, we find Him at prayer.
Peter lives up to his new name, ‘Cephas’ or ‘Rock’: He sinks like a stone.
The moment he turns his eyes from Christ to the crisis,
his faith fails and fear prevails.
When Peter first responded to the call of Jesus,
he left his boat behind. That was just practice for this.
Then it was a matter of bread and butter. Now, leaving his boat is a matter of life and death.
Like Peter, we are willing to serve the Lord.
Like Peter, we rely more on our own strengths and fail.
Peter had a special relationship with Jesus. Jesus led him to a service that demanded from him a complete surrender of his own self. Jesus invites us to surrender to his divine design as grace will lead us on.
 Matthew 8:23-27: “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’”