22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Last year, Bulgarian artist Christo unveiled his Floating Piers installation—100,000 square meters of yellow fabric that created a modular dock over Italy’s Lake Iseo. This art installation swayed with the tide, giving visitors the feeling of “walking on water.”
Commenting on the popular appeal of this sort of installation art, visual culture expert Amy Bryzgel notes the controversial nature of the form in general, the meaning of which “was no longer just about what the artist wanted to express, but about the viewer’s experience of and interaction with it.” In the case of the Floating Piers, this means that the beauty of the exhibit extended beyond the impressive expanse of fabric across the lake, to include the emotional response of visitors to the sensation of “walking on water”—a response that may have been anticipated by, but ultimately could not be controlled by the artist.
In Matthew’s gospel text, a similar interaction occurs between Jesus and Peter. At the same time, Jesus is totally in control of (including the presumed ability to anticipate Peter’s reaction to) the entire situation as it unfolds on the Sea of Galilee; on the other hand, Peter’s reaction is entirely external and thus outside of the control of Jesus.
Early on in the episode Jesus sets the scene, first by sending the disciples ahead of him in the boat (Matthew 14:22) and then by walking out towards them on the lake, both against the wind and atop the tumultuous water (Matthew 14:25).
Even before this particular episode, however, Jesus sets up the relationships involved by inviting the disciples to come and follow him. In the top-down worlds of both the Roman Empire and Rabbinic Judaism, acceptance of this invitation meant the disciples’ submission to Jesus’ authority. This was the sort of authority that demanded unquestioned obedience: when your teacher said, “Go out and heal,” you went out and healed and when your teacher said, “Come,” you came.
Within these parameters, then, Peter exercises his freedom in beckoning his teacher to “command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). It’s important to remember this relationship and dialogue, so as to understand that Peter does not rush carelessly into the water—though, perhaps, from what we know of Peter in other episodes, he may have liked to have done just that. Instead, Peter observes the parameters Jesus has laid out. He seems consciously concerned about what, in this impressive moment, Jesus is seeking to express.
Within this dual context of desire and restraint,
[Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Even in Peter’s fear, the relationship is maintained—Jesus is Lord and Peter is student. Jesus’ authority, along with the initial parameters of Jesus’ action, are intact. However, the strength of Peter’s emotion remains outside of Jesus’ control. He cannot command Peter to “fear not!” In fact, he already did (Matt. 14:27) and that has not prevented Peter’s predicament.
Power, then, whether it is the power of a teacher over a student or an artist over an installation, ends at the emotional response of the “other.” Imagine the parent of a hysterical toddler telling the child, “Don’t be upset.” The child may have every reason to believe that their parent is trustworthy in saying there is nothing to be upset about; however, this knowledge or intuition cannot change the way they feel.
This is the power of art installations—they draw their life and thus their beauty from the uncontrolled emotional response of those who encounter them. The same can be said about faith.
An all-powerful God could simply have made people to have faith. Jesus certainly could have steadied Peter on the water. But to do so means to cross the boundary of the self—it means to extend the control beyond the conditions of the experience into the experience of a person themselves. It means to diminish or take away our sense of self—our self-awareness and autonomy, the very things that make us human.
And so Jesus does not calm Peter’s fears. He does not steady Peter’s feet beneath the unsteady waters. He does not cross that line of self. But neither does Jesus abandon Peter. Jesus extends his hand towards Peter. Jesus preserves Peter in all of his fear and all of his doubt.
This is the gospel, indeed the beauty, of Matthew’s text for me. In the midst of whatever tumultuous seas that we are bound to encounter, our Lord gives us the space to walk, to experience the sensation, and then the grace to catch us and pull us back ashore when we flounder.
It is not as perfect as an already “finished” piece of art. Perhaps we are not as “obedient” as a perfectly executed computer code. But in our free-will, in our emotions, in our response to the scenes which God has set before us, the power and the majesty of our Lord and creator are perhaps most beautifully revealed.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.