Heart-stopping faith leaps may look like one-time miracles. Like a recent race car jumping stunt, though, deep faith takes rehearsal and teamwork. Christians call this discipleship.
Peter answered [Jesus], “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus.
– Matthew 14:28-29
In the early dawn on a racetrack in Mexico City, Damien Walters, a movie stuntman, performed what seemed like a miracle. He stood almost casually on the track, in the shadows of the grandstands, as a race car hurtled toward him at 60 miles an hour. His back was to the car. Then, at precisely the right moment, he leapt up, did a backflip, and the race car streaked beneath Damien, as he came out of his tucked position and landed effortlessly on his feet.
It is an awesome stunt by any measure. Yet if you look at what went into performing this stunt, this was not just about the miracle of Damien Walters’ amazing talent: it’s also the celebration of the exhausting rehearsal that Damien and his support team put into creating it. What we see as the end result – a phenomenal “leap of faith” – is actually the result of careful and dedicated work that turned dozens of rehearsal jumps into one jump that just happened to have a race car passing beneath him.
Discipline that leads to miracles
No, this wasn’t just a miracle – this was something that everyone was ready to risk, not because they were just working on “blind faith,” but because they had done everything that they could do to make the stunt a success. In fact they had failed many times – with the race car passing by a few feet away from Damien’s rehearsal jumps. Damien also had a countdown monitor, just out of sight of the main cameras recording the event, which gave him an exact sense of where the car was. A leap of faith, yes – but the miracle was that everyone was humble enough to have the discipline and the tools to practice what success would look like again and again, to the point that it seemed effortless.
Peter’s leap of faith
When I saw the video of this amazing stunt, I thought of Peter’s walk on the stormy waters of the sea of Galilee at the invitation of Jesus. This scene from Matthew’s gospel comes right after Jesus has nudged his disciples into feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. The disciples then find Jesus making then get into a boat on their own to head to the other side of the sea of Galilee. Wow, talk about rigorous training! Like the team supporting Damien’s stunt, it takes a lot of practice to be a disciple.
In the meantime, Jesus heads off to catch up with his prayer life disciplines. Centering himself in the remote reaches of his Father’s creation, Jesus, the Son of God, recharges his mortal flesh and his eternal being, and finds himself filled with the Spirit. Sometimes when our own spirits are high, we say that we’re “walking on air.” Well, Jesus was so filled with the Holy Spirit, he was ready to walk on water!
In the middle of a storm, the disciples are exhausted from fighting the bad weather in their little boat. They work together, without Jesus, but they are starting to flounder. Jesus comes to them, walking over the waves, ready to lead them in faith by example. It is at this moment that we first meet Peter as an individual disciple in Matthew’s gospel. Peter has seen Jesus perform miracles, even in the face of John the Baptist’s death; he has followed Jesus in learning how to be a disciple. He is ready to be the first to step out of the boat and to try to lead others like Jesus.
But getting out of the boat is just the first step
Very soon, though, Peter begins to have doubts about what he is doing. He wants to be different than the other disciples and more like Jesus, and he is – for a moment. Then he begins to sink beneath the waves! Imagine if someone on Damien’s support team decided to take his place in the stunt at the last minute. It can’t be that hard, right…right? Oops. Maybe it is. Peter has declared himself to be a leader in faith, but faith leadership is not a solo act. We see Damien on the race track, jumping over that car, but as the video shows us in more detail, the track is filled with supporters, trainers, and assistants. Peter was able to take that faith walk on the water not just because of Jesus, but because he was one of many disciples willing to brave the storms to get there.
Discipleship gets us to the middle of the lake
The world “disciple” has the same origin as the word “discipline.” Discipline is about having the willingness to do what’s challenging again and again – and being willing to take on new challenges. Like Damien’s leap on the racetrack or Jesus walk on the water, the payoff for discipline is clear, but not easy to duplicate. We come to love God, to learn from God, to help God bring his kingdom to earth – and then God makes us get into a boat to go further. We try to be like Jesus on our own, but we discover that it takes a shared discipline, with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and others. This is what gets us to the place where the miracles happen. Discipleship gets us to the middle of a stormy lake, where humble people learn how to walk on the water, and where Jesus will join us all in the boat of discipleship to share the calm of true faith with us all.
Learning how miracles are made
If I think of how I got on this path to ordained ministries, I remember all of the people whose discipleship inspired me along the way – Christians who had practiced being Christians for so long they had long ago make it seem effortless to those of us who were just “learning the ropes.” I remember Rev. George Jackson, the pastor of the church in Summit, New Jersey where I was confirmed as a United Methodist. His sermon about Jonah still rings in my ears, and I have consciously adopted his benediction when I lead services (with a little adaptation). I recall members of Golden Hill United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, CT, where I came back to faith as an adult – people who who would “walk the talk” of faith with every step they took. Like Damien, their own mentors, and endless practice, made their discipleship seem like second nature.
Don’t worry about the walking – just get in the boat
If taking your faith to a deeper level of discipleship seems like a big challenge, don’t get discouraged – you’re not alone. It’s hard for everyone to break out of their isolation and to trust in both God and others to take a new approach to life. If you’re new to faith, don’t worry about whether you’re going to find yourself needing a life preserver because you took a foolish step – just get in the boat. It’s about the journey, not the destination. We all have different roles in God’s faith journey together. Some will have a steady dedication that helps everyone to get from one point in the journey to another, some will try extraordinary acts in the midst of the storms, but we all need God and one another to make it together. Jesus wasn’t showing off when he appeared to those disciples, just as Damien wasn’t showing off with his stunt – both of them were just showing others how it’s done, leading the way through an inspiring presence.
Through faith in Jesus Christ, the disciples got in the boat. And so can we. The willingness to get in the boat, and to keep on traveling with discipline, is the real miracle of faith. Who knows who we’ll see out on the waves. It just might be us. Ready to take the leap?