Jesus’ disciples mistake him for a ghost on more than one occasion.
However, considering that the disciples have witnessed Jesus do the impossible again and again – calming a storm at sea, turning water into wine, making blind people see and paralytics walk, and feeding thousands of people with only five loaves of bread and two fish – the disciples should be used to expecting the impossible. And yet, here we find them in the middle of a storm completely terrified because they think they’ve seen a ghost.
Despite Jesus identifying himself, the disciples remain paralyzed by fear, unsure if what they are seeing is truly real. So, Peter demands certainty in order to calm his fear: “Jesus, if that’s you, then call me to come out to you”. Jesus calls him and Peter gets out of the boat.
However, Peter’s demand for certainty will not be satisfied in a situation like this because certainty is concerned with the limits of the possible. Walking on water is impossible. So, Peter’s fear gets the best of him and he begins to drown. It is only when Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter that Peter’s life is saved. It is only when Jesus gets into the boat that the disciples’ fear disappears and their faith in him is restored – “Truly you are the Son of God!”
It is easy for us to criticize the disciples for their lack of faith in these stories. The disciples know who Jesus is and what he is capable of doing. Yet, time and again, the disciples are shown to have a flimsy faith that is often overwhelmed by fear.
You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is fear.
Jesus’ most repeated command to his disciples was “Do not be afraid”. Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually told his disciples to neither worry nor be afraid. Yet, once again, the disciples are consumed with fear. They are not having intellectual questions or doubts about a particular point of doctrine; they are scared out of their minds! It is precisely their fear that prevents them from seeing Jesus. Fear distorts the sight that comes through faith, the sight that fixes itself upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Fear is fixated upon the unknown because the unknown is beyond the limits of possibility. Therefore, anything that appears to be impossible must be an illusion or myth. Fear refuses to accept that with God all things are possible (cf. Matt. 19:26) and assumes that the limits of the possible are within my personal control.
The life of faith is learning to give up control, learning to fix our eyes on Jesus Christ.
This means that the life of faith is an ongoing process of conversion, of turning away from our fears and turning toward Christ, meeting him face-to-face and allowing him to touch us, healing our fear.
Amidst the storms of life, both staying in the boat and getting out of the boat are risky. The decision to stay in the boat is an attempt to control our environment in the midst of chaos; after all, the boat is the safest place to be, right? However, the reality is that in the storm, things are out of our control – the boat can capsize at any time, regardless of our sailing abilities.
The decision to get out of the boat requires a radical trust, a singular fixation on the one who calls us out of the boat, the one who comes to meet us. Drowning is only a possibility for those who allow fear to take hold of them. The beautiful risk of faith is the willingness to do the seemingly impossible because one’s eyes are fixed on Christ.
There is a back-and-forth relationship between fear and faith is at work in all of our lives. This dynamic is heightened by the fact that we cannot see Jesus; he is not physically present with us the way he was with the first disciples. Nevertheless, all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus find ourselves in the same situation amid the storms of life: out of fear we can stay in the boat or out of faith we can get out of the boat.
I cannot offer you a 5-point list on how to get out of the boat because there is no such list; God has already given us everything we need to worship him and follow Christ in and through the practices of the Church. One of these practices is the gift of witness, of sharing how God is at work in our lives, healing our fear and bringing us closer to him.
Although I grew up going to church every week and was raised by Christian parents, I intentionally spent my first two years of university outside of the church. I would occasionally visit various local congregations of different denominations, but, like many of my peers, I assumed that identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious’ was good enough. After all, I was too intelligent and too modern to believe the Sunday School stories I’d grown up with were actually true. In order to hedge my bets, I figured it was best to vaguely identify myself as a person of faith; not a particular faith, mind you, but a kind of faith in faith; the kind of faith that doesn’t require anything of me other than a positive assessment of faith itself in a general sense and, perhaps, going to church once and a while.
Looking back, I can see how this time of wandering and drifting was an important part of my faith formation. I experienced a profound sense of lack and meaninglessness in my life. Sure, life on my own terms was lots of fun, but even that got boring after a while. However, I slowly began to realize that I wasn’t even in the boat; I was drowning. It was with this realization that God pulled me out of the water and into the boat.
In the summer between my second and third year of university, I spent my time growing in my faith and made the resolution to immerse myself in a Christian community back in university. After some searching, I found a great community and a personal mentor, Graham, our university chaplain, who guided and challenged me in my faith. I was back in the boat; all was well and life was comfortable.
Everything changed one day during my third year of university. As I was walking past the library, I heard a voice in my head saying “You are going to do an M.Div. because you are going into the ministry”. I stopped in my tracks; I had no idea what an ‘M.Div.’ was. Plus, the idea of an audible voice in my head? That’s impossible; that’s something that happens to crazy people.
So, I stayed in the boat, content to ignore the voice I’d heard. But after a while, my curiosity got the better of me, so I researched what an ‘M.Div.’ was and learned that it is a Master of Divinity, a graduate degree for those preparing for ministry. Clearly this wasn’t my vocational path since I was preparing for law school. But the voice kept echoing in my head, so I sought Graham’s counsel, who affirmed my gifts for ministry. I, on the other hand, remained skeptical. However, by the end of my final year I applied to the M.Div. program at Regent College in B.C.
Upon my acceptance into the program, I panicked. There was absolutely no way that I was cut out for parish ministry. After all, I was way too young to lead a church. So, once again, I decided to stay in the boat. I applied to an M.A. program at the Toronto School of Theology, telling God that I would make a better professor than pastor, that I was too young, that I needed more time, that I needed to stay in the boat.
Thankfully, God is patient and once again used this time to form my faith. Once again God placed a person in my life who worked to gently nudge me out of the boat. The Academic Dean, who also happens to be an Anglican Priest, told me that despite high grades, academic work was not my true calling because I’m focused on where-the-rubber-hits-the-road; she suggested parish ministry was the place I was called to put the rubber of my theological training onto the road of life.
Upon returning home from two years teaching English in Japan, once again, that voice was back. On the advice of a close friend, I applied for and was hired as the Pastor of Youth and Outreach. I figured that this must be good enough for God. I learned a great deal in 16 months at that parish before moving to Newmarket where I was hired by a different church. Once again, I figured that this must be good enough for God. Once again, I learned a great deal. And yet, once again, the voice I heard when walking by the library started to echo.
The voice began to get louder as my time at the church in Newmarket was drawing to a close. Resigning from that church, I conditionally took an offer at another church. I knew it was the wrong decision to make, but it was the decision I made because I felt most comfortable staying in the boat; I was afraid of what would happen if I got out of the boat.
God is patient. But by this point, he was ready to push me out of the boat. At the advice and encouragement of parishioners, friends, and family members, I turned down the job offer and enrolled in the M.Div. program at Wycliffe College in Toronto. In faith, I stepped out of the boat, completely unsure of what the future would hold. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that learning to walk on water is difficult; it is hard and often exhausting because it requires a full and complete trust in the one who calls me out of the boat. There are times when fear does start to creep up, threatening to drown me. There are times when I want to run back to the boat. But I’m learning to walk on water by focusing on Christ alone, trusting that he will give me everything I need to follow his call.
All Christians share two similarities: the one who calls us and the calling to which we are called. Christ calls all of his followers to get out of the boat and join him on the water.
Not everyone is called to be a parish priest; yet through baptism, we become part of what the Reformers call the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers argued that having faith in the faith of the parish priest was not adequate because Christ calls all those who follow him to participate in his mission of reconciliation, to be his body on earth. We are to have faith in the faithfulness of Christ, to put our trust in him alone and his promise to be with us always, never leaving or forsaking us.
So, the question is: where is Christ calling you to get out of your comfortable boat and to take the risk in following him on to the water? How are you called to minister in your daily life at home, school, work, and play? With whom are you called to share the gospel? Who is the person in your life that is hungry to know Jesus?
Learning to walk on water is learning to rely on the God who makes the impossible possible. However, we do not walk alone – we walk with each other and we walk toward the one who is walking toward us, the one who will not let us drown, the one who provides us with everything we need to follow him onto the water.
Come, let us take the beautiful risk of faith by getting out of the boat and learning to walk on water.
Come, let us learn to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (cf. Heb. 12:2).