Were Peter and the disciples just peeved?
Rather than inviting them to share an intimate dinner together on the lakeshore with just barely enough bread and fish for their party, Jesus had made it a humongous banquet for about 10,000 or so people (the 5,000 men plus the women and children).
And rather than relaxing after a taxing day of dishing out compassion and healing as the physician’s assistants, Jesus had commandeered the disciples into being waiters and then the clean-up crew (12 baskets full of broken loaves of bread).
If that weren’t enough, Jesus had rather briskly demanded that the disciples leave him alone, insisting that they get into the boat and head out into the sea.
He dismissed the hangers-on from the banquet and headed up a nearby mountain so he could pray by himself.
Peter and the disciples probably didn’t understand that Jesus had made a momentous decision earlier in the day and was working out the implications of it all.
Earlier Jesus had received word of the death of his compatriot, John (the baptizer). He had been beheaded at Herod Antipas’ directive, after having been imprisoned by this Herod Jr. for being a threat to his rule and the unjust order he had inherited from his father, Herod the Great.
Now Jesus had to decide if he – like John – would continue to announce the coming new and different reign of God.
Both Jesus and John had drawn massive crowds with their shared call for repentance from loyalties to lesser gods and belief in the incredibly good news that God was near to establish a completely new order of justice and peace.
Would he stay the course, even with the knowledge of what had just happened to John?
Or would he quietly retreat to Nazareth to pick up his father’s carpenter’s tools, blending in with the hometown folk who had rejected him as a false prophet?
Actually, the decision had already been made. He had decided that morning when he saw the crowds coming toward him on foot and “he had compassion toward them.”
The decision had been made when he chose to invite the crowds to stay rather than send them away, and when he chose to cure their sick and feed them all.
He knew that when word about all this got back to Herod Jr., he would find himself in the same peril that John had faced.
But he still needed some time by himself to work out what would be his strategy going forward.
That’s what Peter and the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus commanded them to get in the boat and head out to sea.
After he prayed, Jesus returned from the mountain to the shoreline. It was early in the morning, in the range of 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.
He realized that a storm had taken the disciples’ boat far from land. He was fairly sure that his followers on that boat would be full of fear, given the wind and the waves.
So he went to them to give assurance that everything would be all right.
In their state of mind – a combination now of being both peeved and fearful – the disciples thought the figure they saw coming toward them was a ghost.
Jesus told them to take heart, to realize that it was him, their leader, and to not be afraid.
But that didn’t help. They still doubted what they were seeing and hearing.
Acting and speaking for the whole crew, Peter decided to test and tempt Jesus: “If you really are who you say you are, command me to come to you out there on the water in all this wind and keep me safe.”
Jesus told Peter to “come.”
Peter was safely making his way to Jesus on the water until he noticed the wind and waves and immediately began to sink.
Jesus, of course, rescued Peter and everyone on board. He said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
That was another way of saying: “Why did you have to test and tempt me, when it was you who were being tested and tempted?”
It’s not a perfect analogy by any means, even at a very formal level.
But haven’t we been experiencing this same kind of behavior by peeved disciples in our American democracy?
Peeved that the meal isn’t restricted to the chosen few but extended to all?
Peeved that public servants have to give the meal to everyone?
Peeved that, yes, some have to assume the janitorial duties of picking up the pieces afterward?
Peeved that compassion is extended to everyone in need and healing to all who are ill, lame and diseased?
Peeved enough to threaten the well-being of all by trying to save only their own limited political and economic interests?
The analogy, of course, completely breaks down when it comes to a savior figure: Who will be the one (or ones) not only saving but also telling those peeved disciples just how little faith they have in democracy?
Maybe at least some of those who could save American democracy are the once-doubting disciples of Jesus who believe that God calls them now, even in finite and approximate ways, to work for the common good and an inclusive beloved community.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.