Have you ever been around truly exuberant people? They just seem to overflow with enthusiasm. They’re continually coming up with new ideas and plans, and they are super excited about trying to get you to come along on their adventure. Chances are that they love-love-love everything—people, food, music, travel, nature—and they always seem ready to celebrate anything, no matter how small. An exuberant person might be a big dreamer, a change-maker, a cheerleader, or all of the above.
And if you aren’t a particularly exuberant person yourself, you might feel inspired—and perhaps a little worn out–after spending time with them.
Some people just seem to embody a big energy for life. Jesus’ disciple Peter was a person like that. You probably remember him as the one who couldn’t keep his thoughts to himself, who didn’t have a particularly good filter, and who would regularly blurt out comments that sometimes drew approval—and sometimes derision—from Jesus.
Peter was one of the first disciples Jesus called out to as he walked along the Sea of Galilee that day in the beginning of his ministry. Peter and his brother Andrew—who would later be known as the shy disciple—were casting their nets into the sea and Jesus walked by and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, the story tells us, they left their nets and followed him. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? What do you think you would have done that day, busy earning your living, focusing on what was in front of you, when a stranger walks by and says, “Hey, come with me and change your life.” As I think about that scene, I imagine that Peter and Andrew must have felt something remarkable, something that told them this man—with his words, his eyes, his presence, his energy—this man was more real and more pure than anyone else they’d ever met. Perhaps he was the one they’d been waiting for. Whatever it was, they didn’t even for a moment hesitate. He invited them, and they went.
They were soon joined by another pair of brothers, James and John, who some scholars believe may have been their partners in a local fishing business. Jesus also calls to them, and they drop everything and come along, leaving their father, sitting in the boat. These first four disciples would become a kind of “inner circle” for Jesus; they were invited along for some of the most transformative moments in his ministry, including the Transfiguration—when Jesus was changed on the mountaintop as he talked with Moses and Elijah—and Jesus’ night of agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus at daybreak the next day, it was impulsive Peter who cut off the soldier’s ear with his sword.
Throughout the gospel accounts, Peter is the impetuous, unrestrained one. He regularly speaks for the disciples as a group and is often the only one listed by name in descriptions of events. He is impulsive and exuberant. He says what he thinks. He risks being wrong—and often is. He passionately speaks and acts and loves and believes. He pushes back on parables, he questions decisions, he confidently claims his faith will stand up to any challenge.
That is, until it doesn’t.
In our New Testament reading today, we see what I think of as the best of Peter—his exuberant heart of faith that is willing to leap into action without a second thought. After what must have been an exhausting day of feeding five thousand hungry people on the hillside with only five loaves and two fish, Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee while he hikes back up the mountainside to pray alone through the night.
Under the cover of darkness, the winds on the sea grow fierce and the disciples are struggling, rowing hard and getting nowhere. The story says they were “battered by the waves.” They had tried their hardest but made little progress, out beyond the reach of land, when in the early morning light, they see a figure coming toward them across the water. They are terrified, thinking it’s a ghost. Richard Foster’s commentary tells us here that in that time the Jewish people believed that bodies of water were dwelling places of spirits and demons. That adds even more weight to the shocking sight of seeing a figure walking toward them across the waves.
It also says something about Peter’s high level of trust, that he was able to do what he does next.
When he hears Jesus’ voice, reassuring the frightened disciples in the boat—“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” Jesus says—Peter stood up in the boat and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus simply said, “Come,” and Peter was out of the boat, stepping high across the waves, moving quickly toward Jesus.
And then a gust of wind hit him and he felt himself waver, so vulnerable, so mortal out there doing an impossible thing. The scripture says it was when he became frightened that he started to sink. Exuberance launched him out of the boat but doubt and fear weighed him down. As he sank, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” and immediately, the story says—immediately Jesus reached and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Without that doubt, Jesus seems to imply, you would have made it the whole way.
Can you imagine being there? The waves, the wind, the sense of hopelessness and futility, having rowed all night into the wind and being no closer to the shore. We would surely be exhausted and worried about whether we will even make it back to shore alive.
And here’s an interesting question: which disciple would you have been? Maybe Peter, jumping out of the boat and heading across the waves toward Jesus. Most people—myself included—would likely be one of the other disciples in the boat, clinging to the seats or to each other, holding on for dear life.
This story is a colorful and dramatic one, telling of yet another baffling miracle that Jesus was able to perform, but it also points to a common experience most of us have had at some point in our lives: getting hit with a big problem and not knowing what to do to solve it. Like when big bills come and we don’t know how we’ll pay them. Or when we have a worrisome symptom, or a concern about a loved one, or we face some kind of challenge that feels too big and too wide for us to handle on our own.
Those are the moments when life’s waves really kick up, and often it happens quickly, with little warning. We feel adrift, afraid, and small, launched out to sea—or up the creek, as the saying goes, without a paddle. We turn to God for answers as best we know how, praying, sitting in silence, or seeking the counsel of Friends. Turning toward our faith may well light a spark of exuberance, almost enough to coax us out of the boat. We feel we can trust God to solve our problem, more sure that with God’s help, things will work out. Our sense of confidence and relief is real and well-justified, but it also could be short-lived. Because we’re human and because we do this, when we don’t see immediate results, a quick answer to our problem, our doubts and fears may come rushing back, and we begin to sink. Hope on to your hope and your peace, Jesus would say in that moment, and you’ll make it all the way.
But we’re learning something really important here: our exuberance isn’t what brings us safely through our troubles. Our safety comes from knowing that Jesus is close, no matter how big the waves or how fierce the wind. Realizing that, trying to live by that, our faith gets strengthened—and we come to believe, slowly, that anything really is possible with God. If we try and fail, no matter—his hand is within reach. As we feel ourselves sinking, we ask for help, and immediately—immediately, remember, the scripture said—God’s help is there.
The more we try and trust, step out and sink, the more we are met by God’s care and grace, and the deeper our faith grows. The next time we step out on the waves it will be with a surer confidence that will likely last a little longer. I think that’s what Isaiah means by “waiting for the Lord.” As trials come, we learn to take a breath and calm down, watching to see God walking toward us on the turbulent waters. We learn gradually that our needs are met, our strength renewed, our exuberance justified, our safety in this wide world of God’s making assured.
It reminds me of a bronze plaque John F. Kennedy kept on his desk in the oval office, which said, “Thy sea, O God, so great; My boat so small.” There is a comfort in knowing that it all belongs to God: It’s God’s sea, God’s waves, God’s boat, and God’s help leading us home. The full poem, by Winfred Ernest Garrison, is this:
Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.
Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?
Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.
So how does this story end? Everyone is safely in the boat, their minds no doubt numb with awe and wonder. They say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Thanks to Peter’s rash exuberance, everyone there that day—and hopefully those of us here today—can see not only the divinity of God, able to transcend any limit in this material world, but also that of God in us, impetuously willing and able even to try walking on water as we do our best to respond faithfully to the calling of the Light.
- OT Isaiah 40:31
- NT Matthew 14: 22-33