It is often the case that when dealing Divine, we find ourselves befuddled. For as relatable and surprisingly vulnerable God is as the man Jesus, he seems, at times, to retain a certain aloofness, a type of distance. Jesus is capable of great empathy and kindness, but even as he suffers his passion, he never is so attached to this world and the tyranny of the now that he fails to contextualize his present without reference to a promised future. Paul does the same when he speaks of “this present evil age” and the “hope of the age to come.” So Jesus acts as a model for us as to the extent that the urgent and immediate emergencies of life only find their end in the greater context of God’s rule and reign. The “now” is caught up in the “will be.”
Still, in order for the promises that, “God will work all things out for good” to have any real formative power in my chaotic “now,” a “now” that presses in and brings threats, stress and fear, I must strain to see beyond the clichés and patent answers that all seem to gather in, “It will all be OK.” Perhaps. Indeed, even. But what about “now?!”
This can take acute form when we weary pilgrims mine the Scriptures for comfort only to be surprised at the apparent insensitivity or unfairness of God. Often seeking to be soothed instead of being saved, Jesus’ actions and discourses often shock us for their refusal to play by the rules.
Particularly, what are we to do when Jesus seems unsympathetic and beat-up and tired we just want sympathy? Why, for example, does Jesus scold Peter for not having faith when he attempted to walk on water, while the other disciples who were safe in the boat hardly had the faith to even try? And how are we to risk “stepping out of the boat” if we believe what meets us is a stern God who appears to be more like Yoda than the Jesus we thought we knew, “Do or do not, there is no try”-- Jedi wisdom that lacks grace.
Jesus’ scolding of Peter reads, “You faithless man, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31b). The Greek word translated “faithless” is oligopistos and it’s the same word that is used in the famous passage about anxiety, birds and flowers (“Do not be anxious…6:30). The word means “ineffective faith” not “no faith” (“no faith” truly, “faithless” is apistia which is used in 13:58 to refer to the hardness of certain hearts). Peter has faith because he cries out to Jesus, but his faith is ineffective because (lit: ineffective, having little faith) it cannot accomplish what he was called to do.
Recall, it was Peter who asked to come out onto the water. He had the wisdom to know that he could only walk on water if God had called him. And Jesus did call him. Peter’s faith should have effectively grabbed hold of God’s call, an invitation in the form of promise. But it didn’t. The question lurking in the shadows, between the lines is, “What good is faith that cannot do what God has called it to do?”
This is what Jesus’ rebuke is all about. Faith, rather than being something like currency, of which you can have more or less, is instead about quality. The question is not so much how much faith I have, but what type of faith I have. Peter’s faith is real but weak. It has all the characteristic features of faith because it is “saving faith”. Peter’s faith gets him out of the boat, and it is genuine enough to cry to Jesus for salvation. Jesus shows us, by his response, the graceful and powerful care of God to rescue sinners out of the waters of doubt. Peter’s faith may not be healthy, but God makes up the difference.
Still, the point of the passage is to show God’s power and sovereignty. And part of this power is the gift of faith that God gives. Jesus’ rebuke is really a teaching lesson. Because faith means “trust”, Jesus points Peter back to himself. God gives faith, but that faith is given as gift so that one can do what one could not do otherwise—answer God’s call.
All of us Christians have the gift of faith whereby we are saved by grace, through faith. But Jesus wants us to reflect further. Instead of seeing faith primarily through the lens of salvation, Jesus spends years teaching the disciples, and particularly in this passage, that what God gives is effective for use.
If the Church, and Christians who make up it, are called to “go into the world” and to “take up our crosses, “be not afraid”, “make disciples”, “turn the other cheek”, and “be [his] witnesses” than Jesus’ rebuke makes sense. Jesus is saying to us, “To that which I have called you, to be my people in the world, I have equipped you. Faith looks to me. It does not look at the storm, it does not look at the circumstances, it does not put its trust in money (or lack thereof) or the odds, or anything else. Faith looks to me, the Powerful One who saves sinners, calms storms and makes a way where there is no way.” Ineffective faith then, the faith Peter exhibited here, trusts God up to a point, but then lets circumstances narrate the truth. But the faith Jesus wants us to have (in fact we do already have it) is the faith that relies on Jesus.
And that’s a good message for our “now”. It means that though God may appear to be less sympathetic than we’d expect or like, especially in the midst of a crisis, in reality his methods are genuinely care-giving. For Jesus teaches Peter that the present is not devoid of a saving –God close beside us, but the future is one where we walk by gifted faith and not sight. To that end, Jesus scolds Peter because he doesn’t use the gift that he so desperately seeks from God, but has already been gifted. And for us, that gift of faith is more than an insurance policy, it is the promise of God that gives us life, hope, peace and courage, to do the things God has invited and called us to do.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.