When faced with an event or a series of events which are a challenge or a struggle, or may even get to the point of being a confrontation, we may receive the sage (and rhetorical) advice, “it looks like you’ll have to sink or swim!” Realistically there is no middle ground when in a body of water, because one’s head is either above it and you can breathe, or else it falls below, and you cannot! Consider the fear of those in Primary School when first facing that dreaded deep-end of a swimming pool, and the nervous anxiety felt by the students as the teacher leads them to the blocks from which to jump into the watery abyss. The water appears about 40m deep, and the blocks feel like they are standing about 15m above the water. When the teacher instructs them to jump in, consider the implicit trust – trusting that they are capable of the challenge, trusting that they have been taught how to cope and trusting that the water is really just 3m deep (not 40m, as it appears!).

Given the variety of challenges we are faced with from single adulthood, to marriage, to parenthood and through to old age, those same lessons of trust in God are real and true. We are consistently reminded of the faith required in applying ourselves to God’s service, and of our insignificance compared to the vastness of what God is capable of creating within this vast universe. Yet often the trials we face feel so concentrated and intense that they result in very blinkered vision, meaning that we don’t see beyond the problem or problems we’re trying to deal with. They can fill our minds to the exclusion of all else. They can become our entire existence, and can lead us to make statements we’d never normally say to God; “I’m not capable of dealing with this … I don’t know what to do … this is too deep for me!”

Knowing what we do about God’s plan and the situation of the world, such problems are a positive sign of Christ’s imminent return. Across the ecclesial world we are experiencing numerous different issues, some of which are deep and severe – in personal, family and ecclesial matters. We are all able to identify large (even massive) and specific things we have had to address. In facing these issues it may be helpful to consider the lesson of ‘sinking or swimming’ based on the incident between Christ and Peter as provided in Matthew chapter 14.

Contrary winds

We first consider what led to a significant challenge to the disciples, and a massive challenge to Peter, at the beginning of that chapter. Christ used five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 men with more than they could wish (v19–21). In the parallel record in John, it’s at this point that the multitude wanted to take him by force to make him their king. However, Jesus’ response was firstly to send them away, and secondly to wander away on his own (John 6:14–15). In only the previous chapter in Matthew he had given a number of parables about the Kingdom, and these explanations caused people to marvel at his wisdom (Matt 13:54). To the disciples, here were thousands of people loving their Master, wanting to worship him, perhaps prompting their imaginations regarding how much better could life be, that maybe they would see him soon become their King … until he instructed them to jump in their boat and leave (v22).

In contrast to what the disciples were hoping for, they perhaps watched from off-shore as Jesus sent everyone home (v23). The happiness and joy of something divine having occurred was deflated by the man through whom that power was shown. Quite promptly he constrained them to leave, perhaps because he perceived that they would have taken part in the fervour and added to it (v22).

In case that wasn’t deflating enough, that night was a bad one out on Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is about 21km long and 13km wide, and is therefore neither a massive body of water nor a little lake – especially when being traversed in a small wooden sailing vessel. In about the middle of the sea (v24), with the wind blowing contrary, their progress was slow and difficult. The wind blowing “contrary”, however, does not mean they were sailing directly upwind. As experienced fishermen, they would have known how to handle that (by sailing at about 45° to the wind and tacking, or zigzagging in order to head in the desired direction). It relates more to the impact of the wind around them, because they were “tossed with waves,” and it literally means that the boat and passengers were being tortured.

Christ had retreated to a mountain to pray, and this was the first respite from the tragic events at the start of the chapter, where it is recorded that his cousin John had been murdered. He may have desired solitude when he departed by ship into a desert place apart (v13), but was instead “moved with compassion” for those who followed him (v14). Fifteen times this phrase is used in the Gospels, both of and by Christ. Perhaps this same sympathy was what caused him to come down from the mountain hours later, to go and meet his disciples, because somewhere between 3am and 6am, he miraculously walked on the water towards them (v25).

This is instructive for us. Elsewhere, Jesus taught his disciples to love one another as he loved them. The love he had for them was seen in his constant selflessness. In this case, for example, an ordinary person would not wish to feed lots of strangers after finding out about a death in their family, particularly one carried out by someone so evil and brutal. And here perhaps is the greatest principle on dealing with issues – our emotions and the issues that cause them are big to us, but others may be dealing with more and perhaps worse issues that God is asking of them. Christ fully appreciated that what he achieved inside himself, in fully controlling any negative emotions and reactions, changed reality for everyone beyond himself. He knew that with his Father’s help, guidance, encouragement and strength, he would conquer temptation that we might be saved from sin.

Staring death in the face

The disciples were in peril – deep life-threatening peril! Given their situation, it would be impossible for them to be objective. So much so that in the silvery light of the moon they made out a human shape on the water while they felt they were staring death in the face. Yet sadly they saw their beloved Master as someone to fear, and not as their truest friend. There were notions of spirit forms amongst the Pharisees, and especially of them being nocturnal, which may have made their fear even worse. Consider too the numerous stories and myths of ancient seafarers involving the supernatural – mermaids, siren-songs, sea-monsters and other beasts that call certain Scottish Lochs their home. The disciples were troubled! The disciples may not have had the chance to cry long or hard, given that Jesus quickly responded (v27). We note also that they shrieked, but he simply talked. Their attitude instantly changed when they realised they were faced with a source of courage, not of fear.

There are numerous points that arise from this simple exchange when dealing with an issue, either as a sufferer or a carer. We can feel so overawed, that a friend (as in this case their Master and the Son of God) is seen as a foe; someone to shout at and be fearful of. Emotional distress can be so strong that those we should be closest to are held off, pushed away, or bluntly (and perhaps hurtfully) told to stay away. It makes no sense at all that the disciples would be scared of Christ, unless they couldn’t see him for who he really was. It is sadly true that those we love the most may also be those we hurt the most – if we can’t see them giving us loving support.

And what of Christ who came to help? He said very, very little – “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” (v27). Yet these words ended up doing much more than dissolving their hardened fear.The direction of his care was outward towards his disciples; contrary to the normal, natural flow which is inward and about self. He showed no self-interest, but rather a divine example given by God. There was no mention of others whose life was harder, nor an inclination to describe his own difficult life. Peter’s response shows just how much a faithful friend can swing things in the right direction, which demonstrates two things; what friends can do for us, and what our closest friend (Christ) can do for us.

Reaching out to Christ

The disciples’ crisis was soothed by Christ, but he did more than just restore normality. Jesus then prompted what was abnormal. He had walked on that water which, in the middle of the lake, was over 40m deep. Yet Peter, as if looking for a final confirmation of Jesus’ identity, asked for something which only Christ would be able to grant him. Job describes to Bildad how great God is, including the phrase, “He treadeth upon the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). Consider then whether there is a deliberate connection between that passage and what we read here; the severity of Job’s challenge, the support from his friends, the patient trust Job had in God and the marvellous ‘impossibility’ of treading on the waves of the sea.

Jesus said one word, “come.” He invited Peter to move and he did (v29). While facing what they thought would be naturally fatal, he stepped onto the turbulent challenge of a raging sea, that he and his friends wanted to escape from! Consider the faith shown in walking to the edge, and then stepping over into the turbulent water! He faced that challenge, and was beating it while he strained with inner strength to focus on something greater – the Son of God. While looking towards the man who had given him a high calling, he was able to press towards that mark. He had to disconnect his thinking and actions from what was, up until then, sensible and natural. If only verse 30 then read: “And Peter reached Jesus, they then entered the boat together, the wind ceased, and they worshipped him saying he was the Son of God, and made their way to the land of Gennesaret.” But that didn’t happen. Peter’s orientation for action and demonstration showed a flaw in him and, unfortunately, it is a flaw we all share. Peter’s eyes were removed from him who was greater than the challenge, and focused only on the challenge itself – wind, waves, water, and thus he cried, “Help!” (v30). And yet he was so close to Christ, within arm’s reach! What went wrong?

The smallest crack in his faith, and the doubt flooded through. He was on water – deep water! He started to sink like a stone. Such a change in faith was seen when Israel came out of Egypt, where they commenced with a ‘can-do’ attitude in heading to the Promised Land. Yet when the Egyptians chased them, and all they could see and imagine were marauding chariots, horses, army, weapons, they asked, “Why are we here to die?” Our heavenly Father then moved the pillar of cloud behind them, blotting out the object of horror so that they could focus properly on God.

Whether it’s our physical, spiritual or emotional vision, it is very easy to rely on what’s natural. The natural seems to be the strongest sense from which we understand our environment, our surroundings and each other. Peter had overcome for a time, and then that time ran out. Even when the Son of God was at hand for inspiration, Peter failed and sank. We all face challenges, many of similar magnitude in terms of life and death, and it is very encouraging for us all when we are able to cope for longer than Peter did, yet without Christ physically standing there by our side – although, in reality he is always at our side!

Second guessing

Christ identifies why he sank, and why we sink, in verse 31. In order to eliminate doubt, our level of faith needs to be fairly high. The word for ‘doubt’ is unique to Matthew, and occurs only twice, with precisely the same significance. It means ‘to duplicate or waver’ and when considered in connection with little faith, the duplicity is seen in thinking twice, or what we would call ‘second-guessing.’ It means we start with some faith, but then think about it further, then question whether it is real, and finally conclude with none. This is Jesus’ observation of what Peter did within himself.

He thought he could go, and off he went. But then he realised the trouble he had made for himself by pushing himself into the ‘deep-end,’ and thought twice about whether he could swim. However, Peter is endearing to us because he did jump in. He admittedly took misguided action, but at least he acted. He pushed himself, he failed, but he learnt – and that is the life we are called to live. While our actions may need to be considered, if we move in the belief that God helps us, and have a community that supports us like floaties on a child, sinking is still possible, but not as likely.

We are all increasingly aware of how little the world possesses in terms of hope. Adults, teens and children seem to be increasingly without hope and turn to many activities and ‘substances’ to cloud that fact. Yet we are blessed to know the one true hope that will address global, national and local issues, and even personal ones. That hope comes from God, in what His Son has done for us, and will yet do for the whole world, if only we are able to focus on it.

That is why we meet week by week, to focus on that hope. We are encouraged and strengthened to face the remainder of the day and the week ahead … to keep that expectation of what is ahead rather than what we may be surrounded by … to grow that faith in ourselves, and to help develop that faith with our friends and family. Weekly we gather in halls or homes where the turbulence of life can cease for a time. We look at the bread and wine, and with solemn remembrance reflect that, of a truth these are symbols of the Son of God, whose solution to sinking was not to tell someone to swim – but rather, to walk towards him.