One of the phrases we've all heard is "come on in, the water is great!" The phrase can be used in a variety of contexts, but in its most practical sense, it is meant to reassure the listener that the water in a pool, lake or the ocean is comfortable and won't be painfully cold if and when he or she decides to get it. In my experience, however, most people are unwilling to accept the statement purely on faith and jump into the water, no matter how trustworthy the speaker (who is already in the water) may be. Instead, it seems much safer to dip a toe into the water first to check out the temperature for ourselves. Even then, many of us prefer to enter the water gradually rather than jump in.
This phrase came to mind recently as I was reading St. John's Gospel. In Chapter 21, St. John records an appearance of our Risen Lord in Galilee, at the Sea of Tiberias, to seven of the apostles, including Peter, John (the "disciple whom Jesus loved") and Thomas. In the account, Peter decides to go fishing one night, accompanied by the six other apostles. The fish weren't biting that night, and St. John tell us that the apostles "caught nothing." (John 21:3). As dawn broke, while the apostles were still in the boat, Jesus--whom they did not recognize yet--called to them from the shore asking if they had "caught anything to eat." (John 21:4-5). When they answer "no," Jesus tells them to cast their net over the right side of the boat, and upon so doing "they were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish." (John 21:5-6). The following verses are what really caught my attention:
"So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord.' When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish." (John 21:7-9).
Once Peter realized it was Jesus on the shore, he dove into the sea without hesitation in order to get to his (our) Lord. St. John tell us that the boat was "only about a hundred yards" from the shore, but that certainly isn't an insignificant distance--just think of swimming the length of a football field. Peter obviously had no concern about the distance or the temperature of the water. At that moment, all he cared about was getting to Jesus as quickly as possible in order to be in His presence.
As I reflected on these verses, I immediately thought of another instance from Sacred Scripture where Peter was in a boat and saw Jesus--the "walking on water" account from St. Matthew's Gospel. There, the apostles were also in a boat without Jesus. Later that night, the wind picked up and began to toss the boat about. St. Matthew then tells us:
"During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. 'It is a ghost,' they said, and they cried out in fear. At once [Jesus] spoke to them, 'Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.' Peter said to him in reply, 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.' He said 'Come." Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'" (Matthew 14:25-31)
Obviously, the circumstances surrounding this account are different from that of Peter jumping into the sea in St. John's Gospel. But the similarities in the stories are significant enough to notice the stark difference in Peter's reactions. Unlike in John 21, Peter here has great hesitation, first wanting confirmation that it is in fact Jesus he sees on the water. Only upon Jesus saying "come" does Peter get out of the boat. I can envision Peter slowly climbing over the edge of the boat at that point, hesitant to leap into the water or take that first step toward our Blessed Lord. Even after being given the miraculous ability to walk on the water for a time, Peter was unable to set aside his doubts and fears and continue moving towards Jesus. As He does with us so often, it was only Jesus reaching out his hand and catching Peter that saved him from sinking.
Most of my life, I've been the Peter from Matthew 14: scared, hesitant, unwilling to jump out of the boat to get to Jesus. Even when He has told me "come on in, the water is great," I've preferred to keep one foot in the boat while testing the waters with the other. It seems much safer to keep one foot in the boat (i.e. the world) and one foot in the water (i.e. the kingdom of God). At times, I've put both feet in the water or even gradually waded in, only to succumb to my fear and doubt of what a life totally devoted to Christ would cost me, and crawled back into the boat completely. But as Jesus tells us, "[n]o servant can serve two masters." (Luke 16:13) We either stay in the boat or dive in the water--there is no in between.
That is why we must jump completely out of the boat and into the sea for Christ as Peter did in John 21. But what changed in Peter between Matthew 14 and John 21, and what does it that mean for us? Remember, the account in Matthew 14 occurred during Jesus's earthly ministry, before His passion, death and resurrection. Although Peter certainly had seen Jesus perform many miracles by that time and had been given the gift of faith to realize that Jesus was the eternal Son of God, he did not yet understand the fullness of Jesus's mission to conquer sin and death. (See, e.g. Matthew 16:21-23). By the time the events in John 21 unfold, however, Peter has already seen and experienced our risen Lord. Indeed, the risen Jesus had breathed the Holy Spirit onto Peter and the other apostles, sending them forth "as the Father has sent me." (John 20:21)
It is easy to identify with the Peter of Matthew 14. Many of us have experienced Jesus in our lives in a variety of ways, maybe even through small miracles here and there. But although we believe in Christ's divinity and proclaim Him as the Son of God, we might not fully understand or grasp what his death and resurrection mean for us. Even when we hear Jesus say "come," the world tells us that diving in would be a foolish decision.
In reality, however, we have much more in common with the Peter in John 21. Jesus has risen! This is a reality as true today as it was for Peter then. Further, the Holy Spirit has come and is present, working in our lives if only we let Him. Indeed, the fullness and glory of Christ's passion, death and resurrection has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit and maintained throughout the ages by the Church that Christ founded.
So staying in the boat simply won't do. Dipping a toe into the water every now and then won't do. Even sitting on the edge of the boat with both feet in the water won't do. No! Only by diving into the sea to get to Jesus will we reach Him and obtain the graces and true joy He has waiting for us. Still, the waters may get rough; tribulations, temptations, sufferings will no doubt come. But we must stay vigilant, for as Fulton Sheen once said: "No one can ever expect to be without trials or crosses, for these are the very condition of victory and incorporation with Him."
These words from Peter's first epistle seem appropriate to end with:
"Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet you believe in him; you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of faith, the salvation of your souls." (1 Peter 1:8-9)
Come on in, the water is great!