'Simon Peter always walked on water'

The Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

10.30am

Sung Eucharist

Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

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!’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

 

            Poor Peter.  He really is the Patron Saint, to use Francis Spufford’s wonderful phrase (adapted for liturgical use) of the ‘Human Propensity to “F” things up’:  rash, thick-headed, boastful and cowardly in turn, entitled, attention-seeking (as in our gospel today).[1]  He is so unlike the rest of us, of course.

 

Last Sunday the gospel was Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000+, earlier in chapter 14.  If you recall Matthew’s take on that story, the disciples are none too concerned with the hunger of the crowd – they are not their responsibility.  I think we can assume that Peter’s voice was among those who said (I’m paraphrasing here):  ‘Look, Lord, we’re in the middle of nowhere, so send these folks into town, so they can pay for their own food’.  Jesus isn’t having it.  ‘You don’t have to send them away.’  ‘Oh yeah, well all we’ve got is five loaves and two fishes – what are you going to do about that, then?’  Jesus says, ‘Sit down and pay attention’. 

 

And sure enough, from scarcity comes abundance; from ‘we can’t do anything about it’ comes ‘yikes – where are the baskets for all the leftovers?’  And note, Jesus hands over to the disciples the bread and fishes to administer, he doesn’t do it himself.  So those bad-tempered, short-sighted disciples are actually the ‘conveyers’, the ‘administrators’, of the very abundance they didn’t think was possible and, truth to tell, weren’t all that concerned about in the first place.  Jesus does love irony.

 

Our gospel for today follows straight on.  After all that, Jesus needs some down time and sends his ‘senior leadership team’ (that’s the way we love to talk in the Church of England) for an away day on a boat, presumably to give them some team building time but probably more because he needs a break from them.  Needless to say, left to their own devices, they get in trouble; their boat is battered by waves and wind.

 Next thing, they see Jesus walking to them across the water.  Is it a ghost?  No, Jesus’ voice reassures them.  Peter, characteristically attempting to over-achieve and yet under-perform at the same time, wants to try walking on water for himself.  Notice that he phrases it as a sort of test to see if it really is Jesus:  ‘Lord, if it is you…’  This walking on water is not so much a demonstration of the faith of Peter, but rather Peter’s test of Jesus – and remember, this follows the amazing feeding of the 5000+ miracle but Peter needs something a bit more bespoke – something more about him.

 

As some of the St Mary’s regulars know, I have an interest in the literary heritage of Anglicanism, and recently completed a project with a colleague, Anglican Women Novelists.  I’m now starting to think about Anglican Women poets and I have started research on a 20th c American poet who nobody now has much heard of, Vassar Miller.  Yet in her lifetime she was a Pulitzer nominee for poetry, poet Laureate of Texas (a native of Houston), a devout Episcopalian, and an early campaigner for disability rights.  Miller lived her whole life with severe cerebral palsy and the themes of faith and disability permeate her verse.  I’m afraid that the congregations of St Mary’s and Corpus Chapel will probably be hearing more about her over the next few years.  But we are a University town, after all and I promise, she’ll be worth it.

 

And this is illustrated by a poem of hers called ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ which alludes precisely to the gospel passage we’re engaging with today.[2]  Over the summer, I’ve been making a list of biblical allusions in her poetry and I thought, perfect – sermon sorted!  But when I returned to the poem, it struck me that it also couldn’t be more timely.  She speaks of the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ – a hard concept in our pandemic context.  And remember, all her poetry comes from a place of faith tested by suffering.

 

There’s no abiding city, no, not one.

The towers of stone and steel are fairy stories.

God will not play our games nor join our fun,

Does not give tit for tat, parade His glories.

And chance is chance, not providence dressed neat,

Credentials hidden in his wooden leg.

When the earth opens underneath our feet,

It is a waste of brain and breath to beg.

No angel intervenes but shouts that matter

Has been forever mostly full of holes.

 

Into this picture of an absence of safety, of danger, risk, uncertainty and apparent randomness, Miller places Peter’s walk on water.  Miller says Peter was always walking on water, that is, always walking on uncertainty, danger, risk – he just didn’t know it:

 

So Simon Peter always walked on water,

Not merely when the lake waves licked his soles.

And when at last he saw he would not drown,

The shining knowledge turned him upside-down.

 

An early legend about St Peter, from the late 2nd century, says that when it came time for his martyrdom, Peter insisted that he was not worthy to be crucified like Christ and asked to be crucified upside-down, to which Miller makes allusion, her phrase turning ‘ him upside-down’.[3]

 

            Miller’s poem is a tough poem:  unsentimental, eschewing the easy comfort that comes from a glib understanding of God’s providence.   Like many of you, my life seems full of planning meetings and conversations about the future; anxiety and danger just below the surface of the water; just what is in store for us in the coming months – or is it years – as the waves lick the soles of our shoes?

 

We don’t know.  But we are learning to live with that uncertainty which, Miller wants us to reflect, was always there.  A hard message for hard times.  But uncertainty does not cancel out trust or the hand of Christ that reaches out to us, so we can reach out to each other. 

 

So Simon Peter always walked on water,

Not merely when the lake waves licked his soles.

And when at last he saw he would not drown,

The shining knowledge turned him upside-down.

 

Amen.

 

[1] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (2013).

[2] From her Onions and Roses (1968); If I had Wheels or Love:  collected poems of Vassar Miller, p. 139.

[3] Acts of St Peter (c 180-90).