The old man smiles at me and his eyes crinkle at the corners, the lines and wrinkles creasing in their well-worn paths. The years of wind, waves, sun and smiling have etched his face like the wind etches the rocks where we live.
And it is appropriate that his face is etched with lines like stone, because he is a rock. It is the meaning of his name – but it is also who he is. Peter. The Rock.
I have just returned from a hard, hard journey myself, one filled with tension and regret. A while back, I made a choice that has dogged my steps ever since. I was on a trip with Paul and got overwhelmed by fear. The government was against us. Most of the people didn’t really like what we had to say. And we were daily in danger of being arrested, or worse, simply because we were talking about Jesus. I got overwhelmed. I got scared. And I bailed.
But then came another opportunity. A chance to prove myself again. A chance to show them that I had grown. My mentor and cousin, Barnabas, had asked Paul if I could join them again on their travels. And Paul said, “No.” They argued about it – in fact, they argued so much that we split up and went in two different directions.
That trip was hard. In so many ways, it was hard. Disappointment in myself. Disappointment in Paul. And still the same dangers. Imprisonment. Beatings. Death. But we made it back to Jerusalem and I have been trying to recover ever since. I decided that I would like to spend some time with Peter. After all, he had walked with Jesus. He knew him personally. I wanted to know what that was like. So I asked Peter if I could interview him.
At first he laughed. He said, “You want to interview me, a common fisherman? Go talk to James – he is Jesus’ brother after all!” But I knew Peter was the conversation I needed.
So today we are sitting on the roof of his home in Jerusalem. The breeze ruffles the olive groves nearby and takes a bit of the heat away. We may be on a rooftop – but I can tell that Peter isn’t really there. In his mind he is somewhere else. I share with him my battles, my fears – and the fact that I can’t seem to get past them. And now I wait for his reply, wondering what he will say.
After a long silence, he smiles at me and says, “So you are afraid?”
I nod my head, not willing to look him in the eye. After all, he is one of the main leaders of the fellowship of the followers of The Way. People come to him for decisions. For healing. For wisdom. I am in awe that he has agreed to spend time with me, a failure.
Peter says, “I know what it is to be afraid. You must have heard the stories about what a coward I am at heart.”
I shake my head. “Yes, I’ve heard the stories – but I have a hard time believing them. I have a hard time believing that you were ever afraid! Look at all you’ve done. All the preaching. All the teaching. All the leading.”
He gently says, “That’s only because I have learned the secret of dealing with fear.”
I am intrigued. “Tell me more, please.”
“I know you have heard this story many times. But let me tell you it from my point of view. Maybe then you’ll understand.
It had been a very, very long day. We had started that day with the Master receiving bad news. His cousin, John, was dead. Killed by King Herod. The guys and I had not known what to say. How do you comfort the Son of God? We just looked at each other and shrugged, sad for him but really at a loss for what to do.
Jesus said he wanted to go spend some time with the Father and so we headed out to the hills. We knew that if we stayed in the village, there would be nothing but people wanting healing or just wanting to catch a glimpse of Jesus. So we all started hiking out into the hills. We crested a hill and I glanced back. Hundreds and hundreds of people had followed us out there! Jesus, of course, put their needs before his own. He spent the day healing people. All day long, they came. That evening he asked us to feed them dinner. But that is a story for another day.”
Peter smiles again, a far off look in his eye as he relives that day on the hill.
“So, anyway, when we had finally sent all the people away at the end of the day, Jesus tells the 12 of us to get in a boat and cross the Galilee. There was the usual grumbling from the land lubbers in the crowd but James, John, Andrew and I were fine with it. Night was falling fast but we had often been out on the Galilee at night. After all, that’s the best fishing! James looked up at the sky, trying to read the weather. It seemed clear to all of us, although we also knew from experience that the Galilee is fickle. She can be calm one instant and treacherous the next. But Jesus had given us instructions, so off we went. As we rowed out we could see him starting to wearily climb further into the hills.
Everything was fine at first. A few of the guys even settled in to sleep. Us fishing guys took turns at the oars. It was a beautiful evening! But then it happened. Out of nowhere, Miss Galilee changed her mind and suddenly we were in the middle of one of the worst storms I have ever seen! Everyone was awake now and those who weren’t straining at the oars were using their hands and their coats to bail water. My eyes locked with John’s at one point and I saw the fear I felt reflected there. This was a bad one!
Suddenly one of the men gave a shout! Really, it was more of choked scream. We all turned to look at him and saw him pointing with a shaky finger. There in the middle of the wind and waves, there was a gray, shrouded figure steadily coming towards us. The waves would hide it from view for a moment and then it would come into sight again, always a little closer. It was a ghost! We really thought we were done for then! We thought it was a spirit or even an angel coming to escort us to Paradise. You should have heard the weeping and wailing then!
But I wasn’t screaming – I was staring. Hard. And as I looked, I realized an amazing thing. It was Jesus! I started laughing and shouting. James stared at me like I had gone mad but then I shook his arm and said, “It is the Lord! And he’s walking on the water!”
I was filled with such joy, such awe, I can’t even begin to describe it, John Mark. And then, all of a sudden, I knew. I knew I wanted to walk on water, too. I wanted to go to Jesus, to meet him. Such a crazy compulsion came over me! I called out to Jesus, “Lord, can I come to you?” And he smiled that smile of his and said, “Come!”
I will never forget what happened next. I put my hands on the side and the boat and swung my leg over, just like I had a thousand times before. My eyes said I was stepping into water but my heart said it would be OK. And it was! That water was like walking on a smooth, hard-packed dirt road! Most incredible thing I have felt in my life. My eyes looked at Jesus and he was grinning from ear to ear. We both laughed as I took a few steps towards him. I could tell that the shouting had stopped, although it was hard to hear over the wind.
And that’s when it hit me. The wind. I could see the wind. No – not it, actually – but what it was doing. The immense waves. The rushing, swirling wind. And panic seized me. What was I thinking? What was I doing? You can’t walk on water! And just like that, I went down. The water that had been rock solid beneath suddenly gave way. I went under and thrashed my way back to the surface, gasping and flailing. I am a strong swimmer, but those waves were stronger than me! I cried out, “Jesus, save me!” And the next thing I knew, I felt his hand grip my forearm and he pulled me up. As I looked into his eyes, the water became rock solid once again. He looked at me with a mixture of great love and great exasperation. “Your faith in me is so small. Why did you doubt me?”
“And there you have it, John Mark. The secret.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“John Mark, the secret to dealing with fear – the secret to walking on water – really, the secret to all of your life – is keeping your eyes on Jesus. If you do that, you won’t have it in you to focus on the wind and waves. Focus on those – your fears, your circumstances, your feelings – and you will sink like a rock every time. Focus on Him and you will find that you can do anything He has asked you to do! Trust me – if I had kept my focus on Him all the time while He was here, I never would have betrayed him the way I did. When that girl asked me in the courtyard if I had been with Jesus, I would have had a different answer if I had focused on him instead of my fears!”
I sit in silence, taking it in.
But then I just have to ask.
“Peter, I don’t know how to do that. He’s gone, ascended into heaven. We both saw him go. So how in the world can I keep my eyes on him? That sounds good – but he’s not here.”
A fire leaps to Peter’s eyes as he grips my arm with a surprisingly strong hand. “Oh, my young friend, you are wrong! He IS here. He sent his Holy Spirit to live inside you, inside me. I have all the power in me for all that I need to live a godly life. And so do you! Not because we are special – but because He dwells inside us. You are right – I cannot see him with these eyes in my head. But I can see him with the eyes of my heart. I still have to choose. I choose to remember all he did, all he has done, all he said. I focus on that and not on my fears. And that is fixing my eyes on him. That is the secret to not being afraid!”
A slow warmth invades my heart. Perhaps I, too, can be unafraid. I know I want to be. I want to focus on the Master and not on my fears. And I want to learn all I can about him.
“Yes, my young friend?
“Can I come back another day to hear more?
“Of course! I love nothing more than to tell you about the Lord.”
I was afraid this morning.
The wind and waves are high in my life at the moment.
But then I thought about Peter. And about John Mark. The young man who deserted Paul (Acts 15) is, as tradition tells us, the same young man who interviewed Peter and then wrote what we call the book of Mark. We don’t actually know why he left Paul on his first journey. It may have been fear – it may have been something else. But for all I don’t know, this I do know:
I want to keep my eyes on Jesus.
I want to walk on water.
I don’t want fear to make me stay in the boat.
My prayer for both of us today:
“…let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us, [looking away from all that will distract us and] focusing our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Perfecter of faith…”
Hebrews 12:1b, 2a