So, one of the (many, many) things that made me cross last year was a less than dutiful approach to guidance in a book by John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
In this book, Mr Ortberg uses the passage in Matthew 14, when Peter attempts to walk on water, as the basis for promoting more active discipleship. The book is not a great one, and contains a number of rather dubious examples and, while I believe Mr Ortberg is right to try and mobilise Christians and to promote active commitment to discipleship, I am not happy that he chose a very good approach to the task.
Having done a little Google/Amazon research on other people’s responses to this book, I seem to be in a minority, but I am still arrogant and stubborn enough to think that me being wrong is not the reason for this…
The book is very American, and rather light-weight, but when it comes down to it, I have two real issues with it…
The first problem I have, is Mr Ortberg’s interpretation of Peter’s action and the fact that he holds it up to be an example to follow.
25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
So, you’re Peter and you see Jesus walking on the lake, what do you do? Well, it appears that, for no real reason, you decide to test him.
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
Now, I don’t know if I am a little too cynical here (based on past experience, it’s certainly possible) but, from this, I get more than a hint of Peter’s typical, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to following the Lord. I do not believe Peter is testing Jesus in a calculated way, I think he is just over-excited and in awe, think: happy puppy.
Anyway, Jesus’ reply is as brief as it could possibly be.
29 “Come,” he said.
I can easily picture my Lord, and Peter’s, smiling wryly and raising an eyebrow as he speaks. (Admittedly, he could just as easily be saying “Come” with arms outstretched and joy in his eyes but there is no evidence of that and it simply does not seem very effusive…)
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
To me, this looks like one of those times Peter made a mistake.
There seems to me, and as far as my research has revealed, to a number of commentators, no evidence that the Lord approved of Peter’s actions. Motive is never ascribed to Peter in this instance and different commentators range from considering it an act of bravado to an act originating from a praiseworthy desire to be near his Lord. One thing seems clear however, Peter is not thinking in a considered way about how he can serve Jesus best, in fact he does not seem to be thinking much at all.
Again, I just see a puppy jumping out of a boat when it sees its master. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a lovely example of love and excitement, but it is not, I believe, it is not an example of discipleship.
Don’t get me wrong, I am convinced of Peter’s bravery and of his faith. He is a far better disciple than I and I am in awe of him even at this early stage in his discipleship.
What I am not so convinced of is that, here in Matthew 14, Peter was setting an example to follow.
It appears to me as a specific action in a specific context. It is Peter seeing Jesus walking on water amidst a terrible storm. To take it out of this context and use it as a guiding example is simply odd.
I am in no doubt that should I see Jesus walking on water towards me, all bets are off. I might not even ask his permission!