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In thinking about St Peter, I want to challenge you not to take a simplistic approach to religion. There is a tendency in our world, particularly in Australia, to think, “Either you accept everything about religion without thinking about it, or, you reject it all.” That’s the temptation: to think in simplistic, binary terms. It’s much like the simplistic conflict often falsely depicted as occurring between science and religion.

My challenge to you is not to fall into that simplistic, child-like way of thinking, because there is a third option, which I’m inviting you to explore. Take a risk that faith might be true and apply your God-given brains to examine it thoroughly.

You may know that the analytical approaches used to interpret all kinds of literary texts were first used by scholars of the Bible. Using some of those techniques, I would like to analyse a text that trips many people up. It’s the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14: 22–33), while the disciples are out on the lake. It’s exactly the sort of text that causes people to doubt everything about Christianity, but before you dismiss it straight away, let’s treat the Bible as a piece of literature, crying out to be interpreted. When we read the Bible, there is almost always a deeper meaning behind the text, just waiting to be discovered.

There is some evidence that the story is a resurrection story, that is, that it occurred after Jesus’ resurrection, but that Matthew placed it earlier in his account. It would certainly make sense of Jesus just appearing, walking towards the disciples on the sea. It would also help explain why the disciples are out on the lake in the boat by themselves, without him. They are finding it tough going, just like the first Christians did following Jesus’ death. This image of them being battered by the waves with the wind against them is a powerful one. The image of a boat was a common one for the early Church. It’s the reason that many traditional church ceilings, especially if they’re made of wood, look like the hulls of upside-down boats. The early Church saw itself as a little boat, struggling to survive in a brutal and unforgiving world, being battered by the wind and the waves. Life was tough in the first century and the first Christians certainly found it tough. Most of the 12 apostles were martyred for the faith; probably only Thomas and John survived into old age and died of natural causes – and there is some doubt even about Thomas. Peter most certainly did not – he was martyred in Rome in 64 AD, while Emperor Nero was attempting to wipe out Christianity. Life was difficult and this image of the church being a little boat, just surviving in a hostile world, was a common one.

So, if I’m right and this story occurs after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have this picture of the disciples just surviving on the lake in their fishing boat. The storm has come out of nowhere, but then Jesus appears and his message is one the disciples desperately need to hear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter, in a misguided attempt to show just how brave he is, volunteers to go to Jesus on the water, but when he notices the strong wind his fear overcomes him and he starts to sink.

What a powerful image this is. “He became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”’ There is something beautifully human about St Peter. Sometimes I ponder why Bishop Short, the first bishop of Adelaide after whom Short house is named, chose St Peter as our patron saint. What is it about St Peter that made Bishop Short feel that he would be an appropriate patron saint for our school?

I think it is partly the fact that he is very human. He feels fear. He sinks when he’s being battered by the wind and the waves. When Jesus is arrested, his cowardice gets the better of him and he denies knowing Jesus three times. There is something vulnerable and all too human about him. And yet … in the end, Peter reaches point when he refuses to be defined by his fear. He becomes a key leader in the spread of the new movement of Christianity. In the end, he does trust Jesus. He realises that a new day is beginning; a new world order of peace, justice, and love is emerging. He chooses to be part of it. You can choose to be part of that. You don’t have to believe every last word of Christianity – often the truth is found in the mystery at the centre, in the place that binary thinking doesn’t exist – but you can choose to be part of what it stands for.

You may find, as I have, that it gives you courage you didn’t know you had.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain

Stain glass window of Jesus walking in the Sea of Galilee in the School Chapel.