a reflection on Matthew 14:22-33 for a season of rough waters…
Imagine, for a moment, that you are out in the middle of a big lake. You’re out on that lake with your friends in a fishing boat—just a little one that somebody’s uncle made. There you are in a small boat out in the middle of a big lake when all of a sudden, the sky goes dark and a storm comes up. Next thing you know, the wind is blowing so hard that no matter how hard you row, you can’t get any closer to shore. The waves are crashing over the sides of the boat now, and your friends are taking turns rowing and bailing, rowing and bailing, each one thinking the same dark thought: you may never make it back to land. And there in that boat, you see it all unravelling: your life, the lives of the ones you love, all the bright and beautiful plans you had for your life, all dashed to pieces by a storm you never planned for. I don’t know about you, but these days, when I hear this story, I can’t help but think that perhaps we humans are in a similar boat, all of us bailing as fast as we can, wondering when this storm will be over.
But back to that lake. Just as you’re about to give up hope, something, or someone, begins to make its way toward you, walking across the waves. Something that looks like a ghost. Something that looks even more terrifying than the storm. Until suddenly… you realize who it is. Sure enough, it’s Jesus, calmly striding across the surface of the lake.
So here’s the $64,000 question: What will you do? Remember that the waves are still crashing; the wind is still howling. Do you call out for help? Do you pray? Do you invite Jesus into the boat?
All of those sound like pretty good ideas to me. But if you’re Peter, you have a different idea. If you’re Peter, you decide to step out of the boat and take a stroll yourself.
Who does that? In the middle of a storm, while your little boat and all your friends are about to go down, you decide to get out and walk? I’m pretty sure that the Safe Boating Handbook published by the Holy Land Coast Guard does not recommend this course of action.
So, what in the world could Peter have been thinking?
Friends, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. I’m convinced that at this moment, Peter isn’t thinking at all. At least not with the rational mind we use every day—the cautious, logical mind that knows very well that a human being cannot walk across the surface of a lake.
At this moment—who knows why?—Peter slips out of his cautious, everyday mind. And when he does, he suddenly realizes beyond any doubt not only who Jesus really is, but who he, Peter, really is: ONE with GOD. One with God! In that moment, Peter knows the astonishing fact that there is no separation, no distance, between himself and God. And in that sure knowledge, he steps out of the boat and strides across the waves.
As Jesus himself might explain it, what happens to Peter in this moment is that he steps into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, as Jesus tells us many times, is not somewhere far away; it’s not some place we go to when we die; in fact, it’s not a place at all. For Jesus, the kingdom of God, the realm of Heaven, is right here, closer than our own breathing. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a state of mind, a state of consciousness, in which we know beyond any doubt that just like Jesus, we too are one with God, one with each other, and one with the power of life flowing through all of creation—the power of God’s own life that is now flowing through our bodies and lifting our feet above those waves!
What kind of a shift does it take to enter the kingdom of God? The answer may surprise us, but it’s right here—it’s all right here in this little boat if we take a close look at what happens at the very end of this passage. The disciples see Jesus walking across the water, they see Peter do the same, and they decide right then and there what to do: They worship Jesus! They bow down and worship him. Which is a tempting thing to do, especially when we are afraid. So tempting that the institutional church has encouraged this activity for the better part of two thousand years. Which is a little strange. It’s strange because, as we know, Jesus never thought much of institutional religion. In fact, he spent his whole life trying to teach us that religious institutions and rigid religious traditions serve to prevent us from directly encountering the liberating, life-giving, presence of the living God.
This worshipping reflex is also a little strange because we know that never—not once, not ever, not in any Gospel—does Jesus say “worship me.” Never. What he does say is “Follow me.” Follow me. Be as I am: one with the living God. And of all the disciples, it is only Peter who dares to take Jesus at his word. It is Peter who dares to leap out of that rickety boat—the very human boat of habit and fear—and actually follow the Christ of God into the state of Oneness. Oneness with God, with neighbor and stranger, and with all of creation, including those waves.
For Peter, and for us, moments like this are the high points of our individual and collective journeys; moments when we suddenly find ourselves in the kingdom of God—a state in which the center of our consciousness escapes the tiny boat of the small, individual mind and flies into the larger Mind of God: the state of consciousness that Paul calls the Mind of Christ, and that turns out to be our own right mind.
And…then we forget. Sometimes in mid air. Sometimes not until we are safely back on land. But sooner or later, we fall back into our much more familiar, and much smaller, everyday mind. This is the egoic, or dualistic, mind: a state of consciousness in which we are always on the alert for difference, separation, and danger. Neuroscience calls this smaller mind the “reptilian brain,” and tells us that it is the job of this part of the brain to keep watch for anything that might threaten our survival. Ancient and primal, this is the mind of fear, the mind our earliest ancestors relied on to survive, and the mind we slip into as our default state of consciousness. Without our conscious effort, attention, and deep spiritual practice, we see our world through the lens of the often paranoid and always suspicious egoic mind: a mind that is constantly dividing the world into “us” and “them;” a mind that is constantly urging us to defend whatever it is we think we own.
And so, in the wake of our glorious leaps into the kingdom of God, religious people fall back into egoic mind and then frantically get to work: developing doctrines, making rules about right and wrong belief, making rules about who may and who may not join us at the communion table. Even in the wake of our encounter with Jesus—the teacher who spent his whole life breaking down the rigid walls of religious tradition and habit—even in the name of Jesus, Christians have gone on to build religious institutions to try and protect that stunning, miraculous insight we had into the very heart of God.
The problem, of course, is that the systems we create with our profoundly dualistic egoic mind are directly opposed to the very nature of the God we have encountered and whom long to meet again. The God we keep meeting out there on the afternoon lake is not, after all, the possessive, tribal God our ancestors once presumed. Rather, the God who keeps finding us is the God whom our deepest, most shocking insight tells us is profoundly One: the undivided, indivisible God of all creation. A God who can never be contained in any institutional or doctrinal boat. Just try and imagine Jesus being content to spend his life inside the tiny boat of religious doctrine. Any doctrine! On the contrary, the Christ who calls us over the sides of our boats is the One who is always one step ahead of us, calling us to let go of everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world; the One who leads us out of our rickety boat of belief and habit; a Christ who calls us to join him out on the water, and who loves us right through the fears that contain our safe, small lives.
And that’s why, even though organized religion gets it wrong so often, it’s also true that all the world’s religious traditions, somewhere in their tool kits, offer spiritual practices designed to sweep us out of the isolation of the egoic mind and into the liberating power and joy of our oneness with God, with each other, and with all of creation.
In Christian tradition, some of our most powerful spiritual practices are those acts that we recognize as sacraments: physical acts that invite us to experience our fundamental oneness with God in and through the material body of the world and our own physical bodies. For instance, the sacrament of baptism. Tamed to a trickle from an indoor font, it may not look like an act of union with the waters of the world. But remember that baptism began as an immersion in—an ecstatic reunion with—the rivers and lakes and oceans of the earth. Following Jesus back to the water, we are invited to leap once again out of our habitual mind of separation and fear, and into a deep experience of oneness with God, with other human beings, and with all of creation.
What Peter knows as he leaps out of that boat is that our bodies can recognize our oneness with God in ways that our everyday mind can never comprehend or explain. And it is the great insight of Christianity to understand that our communion with God and one another must, by necessity, circumvent the logic of the rational mind and plunge us into an experience of union by way of the physical body. The way of sacrament.
But first, we have to step out of the boat. Or, perhaps, the boat itself has to fall apart. Either one will do. Either way, we are invited, this season and always, to step out beyond our familiar habits of thought and action. Out into the body of the world. Follow me, whispers the Christ of God, even as our boat is tossed by the waves. Be as I am, Jesus whispers. Know that you, too, are One: with God, with your neighbor, with all of Creation. Throw yourself overboard into the arms of grace. I’ll catch you, he whispers. Fall in! Fall in!