Sunday Sermon: On Faith and Being Enough

And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:29-31)

There are two ways to look at Peter’s nautical adventures in the fourteenth chapter of Matthew.

We can look at the failure. Peter is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk on water, and he blows it. Christ stretches out His hand and assures Peter that it is going to be OK, and, after a few hesitant steps, Peter stops believing and starts thinking. He trusts his own reason and concludes that walking on water is impossible, so he begins to doubt Christ’s ability to sustain him. When he loses his faith, he sinks, fully earning the rebuke, “O thou of little faith” (33).

But we can read the same scene as a triumph and a miracle. While all of the other apostles huddle in the safety of the boat (a dubious safety because of the storm they are experiencing), Peter asks Christ to call him forth. And then Peter actually walks on water, becoming only the second person in the history of humanity to overcome the straightforward laws of physics.

Peter walks on water for an unspecified amount of time and does not sink until he sees the “wind boisterous.” The storm on the water overcomes his resolve, and he responds as any human being—and indeed any physical object of a certain weight and density—must respond. But he does not perish because Christ immediately “stretched forth his hand and caught him.”   

Which of these readings a person adopts tells us a lot about how one sees human nature. In the first reading, Peter is inherently not enough. His own efforts are futile and doomed to failure, and he is saved by Christ’s grace and mercy through no efforts of his own. Peter, as Everyman, is insufficient and can do nothing to effect his own salvation. He must rely wholly on Jesus Christ.

In the second reading, though, Peter is more than enough. He does incredible things on his own, and he experiences something that nobody else ever has. He goes beyond his limitations and expands his spiritual potential. And when those limitations reassert themselves, Christ steps in and saves him, giving him the opportunity to learn and grow without having to die in the process. Christ does not create his success; Christ allows him to create his own ultimate success by mitigating the consequences of failure.

I think that many of us judge our own efforts—as parents, partners, employees, or spiritual seekers—by the fact that we end up sinking and having to be saved rather than by the fact that we do amazing things in the process. We focus on the end result of our efforts rather than on the growth that we experience by making them. This is how business works, and it is how most employees are evaluated. But it does not appear to be how God works or how our spiritual journeys become meaningful. We are supposed to try hard things and fail. We are supposed to sink and have to be saved. That is the whole point of Atonement.

The Greek world gives us a close comparison to Peter in the story of Icarus, who, along with his father, Daedalus, King Minos’s labyrinth by fashioning wings out of wax and flying out of the labyrinth where they were. Icarus flies for a while, but he gets too close to the sun, and the wax melts, causing him to plummet into the sea and die.

Many hold that Icarus was wrong and should have taken a more balanced approach to flight, but a long tradition holds that Icarus did it right. While death is inevitable, we can choose to soar and go down in flames rather than slip away gently. Anne Sexton captures this element of the Icarus myth in her poem, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph”:

Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing that strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well.
Larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.

The heroes of these stories—Peter and Icarus—each do something remarkable that nobody has ever done before. In both cases, they succeed for a while; and, in both cases, they eventually fail and sink into the sea. But there is a crucial difference between the Greek myth and the New Testament narrative: Icarus has to choose between staying safe and soaring to the sun. When he fails, he dies.

Peter, though, had a safety net. He was able to try, learn, and eventually fail without dying. This is the difference that Christ makes. The Atonement does not make success inevitable; it just makes failure—especially spiritual failure—something other than fatal. And we can rejoice in our limited successes—walking a few steps on the water, moving only a part of a mountain, flapping around a few inches off the ground with our wax wings—without the overwhelming sense of failure that comes when we don’t get everything right the first time.  

The recent global pandemic has had an enormous and negative effect on many people’s mental health because it dramatically discounted the definition of “walking on water” and “soaring to the sun.” For several years, things that used to be normal—going to the store, getting an education, keeping our families safe—required such an enormous effort that many of us didn’t have time or energy for anything else. And we reinterpreted the overwhelming success of simply surviving as a disappointing failure to do anything else.  

By seeing Peter’s first steps on the water as the amazing miracle that they are, we can, I think, recognize the value of our own efforts—even when we don’t end up with the results we want or even need. Ultimate failure does not invalidate amazing efforts because there is no such thing as ultimate failure. We always get another chance. That is the “good news” that we call the gospel.

Comments

  1. I have had many opportunities recently to reflect on “the overwhelming success of simply surviving.” Thank you.

  2. Raymond Winn says:

    Such an interesting illumination of The Atonement. Thank you.

  3. May I offer a third reading? Peter did not walk on water by exerting self-discipline, gritting his teeth until the laws of physics yielded to the strength of his will. It was God’s power all along.

    That doesn’t mean he didn’t do something amazing: he looked into the raging storm and said (almost certainly not in so many words): “I have no idea how this will work. I can’t walk on water. But I love Jesus, I trust him, and I want to follow his example.”

    Then he got out of the boat.

    By making that choice, he used his agency to give God permission to make him far greater than he could have been on his own. Of course his focus wavered, his trust faded, and God’s power was briefly withdrawn. God knew that would happen–Peter probably needed the reminder that he wasn’t doing this himself. But Peter knew who to call out to for help, and all was well.

    Peter was never “enough” to walk on water. But he could choose to get out of the boat. God was enough to make Peter walk on water–both before and after Peter’s moment of wavering. As a wise person once said (at book length) “Grace is not God’s Backup Plan.” Peter walking on water was grace all along.

    Similarly, we will eventually learn that we can’t change ourselves. We don’t know how change will work–we can barely imagine being changed. But if we love Christ, trust him, and choose to follow his example, his grace will be enough to change us.

  4. Suzanne Hanna says:

    This reminds me of the famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt. “It’s not the critic that counts… but the man in the arena…“ I think one of the most beautiful parts of LDS teachings is the description of life before earth. The Gods prepared a Place of discovery. Jungles, rainforests, deserts, oceans. It is our privilege to enter into this amazing space and become transformed by all we learn. Your comparisons are such a wonderful way for us to get out of our capitalistic, competitive mindsets, And discover that we can be like Peter, taking risks because we have a Savior who says come follow me. The process, not the immediate result, is what leads us closer to Them. The process becomes the goal. We did it! We tried! We learned! We became new creatures.

  5. Peter walking on the water is my favorite scripture story. I love your reading of it because the important part for me is that Peter DID something. He didn’t just sit in the boat. He didn’t wait for Jesus to come to him. He put himself out there, took a risk, tried something new, tried something impossible. That makes him my hero. Well, and that he had the sense and humility to call out to Jesus when he needed help.

  6. I love this thought. Thanks.

  7. This came at a good time for me. Thank you.

  8. Thank you very much for this.

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