Walking on Water (Part 2)
After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. "It is a ghost," they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter said to him in reply, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come."
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God."
We are often told that God demands faith - interpreted as belief in God or belief in Jesus’s status as the Incarnation. But an easily overlooked detail of this story is that it is Peter who challenges his own faith - Jesus does not. Peter invites Jesus to command him to walk on the water. Jesus merely complies and says, “come.”
That God would demand belief has always seemed unfair to me. We believe things because the evidence that has been presented to us is compelling to us. In a real sense, we cannot be commanded to believe something that we are not inclined to credit as true. If you demand that I believe that the sky is purple in honor of some laudable social concern, I may act as though I believe it in order to mollify you, or to indicate my allegiance to that concern, but no amount of desire on my part will allow me to actually believe it.
Abraham Heschel wrote that in trying to understand God we have to apply ‘first principles’. If God is anything like what we think of Him, He must be fair. Fairness prohibits Him from rewarding behavior that cannot be chosen. Whether we believe in God or believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God really isn’t something we choose. A fair God cannot reward belief or punish non-belief. In this story, there is an affirmation of that fact. Human beings may demand belief from themselves and one another, but we can be reasonably sure God does not.