Summary: In the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water, we find good news in the fact that it is Jesus who is the key actor and Lord of all.
Psychologists tell us that when we are presented with an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening, we tend to behave in one of two ways—fight or flight. That means that we either tend to gird our loins (to use a Biblical phrase), stare down, and attack that which is scaring us OR we run in the opposite direction.
These two responses represent the options that were available to our ancient ancestors when faced with a threat. No longer hunters and gatherers foraging in the wilderness, we have continued to respond to stress in similar ways whether that stress is real or just perceived.
Recent work out of the National Institute for Health and Harvard University has proposed adding two more categories to our fear responses and these are flail or freeze. When things are overwhelming, rather than fighting or fleeing, some people freeze up. They can’t make decisions because they are absolutely overwhelmed with information and negative stressful stimuli. So, they do nothing. Flail on the other hand, happens when people are so overwhelmed with negative stressful stimuli that they try to do everything at once—simultaneously trying to fight and flee and do anything else that they might be able to think of in the moment. The result is a mismatched flurry of activity that sends anxiety upward and productivity downward.
In today’s gospel reading, we find the disciples presented with their own fight-flight-freeze-flail situation as they are in a boat that is being bombarded or pummeled by waves on a stormy sea. The storm alone has put their nervous system on edge when suddenly they see something strange. They see something or someone walking toward them on the water. They are terrified and think it a ghost. The flight-fight-freeze-flail response sets in and I imagine them fearfully trying to row faster to get away from whatever it is that they are seeing out there.
But that is when they hear these words “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” spoken by Jesus.
The thing is though, the flight-fight-freeze-flail response that we humans have doesn’t just dissipate the very second that we realize that the stressful situation before us isn’t the threat that we thought it could be. It takes time for our heart rates to return to normal and our thoughts and actions to become more rational. And if we are a highly emotional and reactive type, it takes even longer.
Take Peter, for example. He hears the words of Jesus, but in his stressed out state he has to do something…. Because as we know from the gospels Peter is the type of fellow who tends to do before he thinks. So, he answers Jesus with what seems to be somewhat of a strange request…. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus replies by inviting him to come.
Truthfully, I am not completely sure what to make of Peter’s request to Jesus. Is he testing Jesus, trying to get Jesus to prove that he is who he says he is by enabling him to do the impossible? Or is it a faith-filled response? We might miss it in the English translations, but the words “It is I” that Jesus speaks are the very same words that God gives for God’s own name in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Thus, Jesus is making an extremely specific claim of who he is and what power he has. Is Peter’s response then a way of stepping into Jesus’ promises and claiming his identity as a follower of Christ?
Whatever his motivation is, once on the water, Peter starts to flail. He takes a look at the fact that the winds and the waves still have not died down and he panics. And when he panics, he begins to sink. He anxiously cries out for Christ to save him and he soon finds himself caught in the strong hands of the Lord. Together they return to the boat where upon their return the wind and waves cease. In all this, the disciples realize that the words Jesus has spoken “It is I” are true and that Christ truly is the Son of God. On a stormy sea, the disciples (including flailing Peter) have gone from fear to faith. This is the first time in the gospel of Matthew that they specifically recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. It will take a little longer for them to flesh out fully what that means, but this is the start.
I wonder this morning, what the effect of this story is on you, on us. Does it inspire faith in you? Does it make you long for Jesus to calm the seas of your life right now? Does it enable you to look back and see where seas have been calmed and wind has ceased in your journey of faith? Or do you, perhaps see yourself in it, in the fear of the disciples or the brashness of Peter?