Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”
But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”
Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.”
“Yes, come,” Jesus said.
So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.
Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”
When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed. (MT 14.22-34|MK 6.45-53|JN 6.15-21)
I’d like to offer this incident as an illustration of our understanding of the doctrine of apatheia. It has particular relevance as an illustration of the manner in which passibilists mistake the doctrine’s meaning and relevance. To be sure, I’m not offering apatheia as an interpretation of this text’s meaning per se. But I do find it to be a particularly powerful metaphor for apatheia as Dwayne and I have come to understand it, that is, as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (Boyd’s formerly preferred phrase), as the experience of imperturbable triune beatitude, the fully realized life of God.
One concern of passibilists regarding such undisturbed divine beatitude is that it leaves us with a God who doesn’t share our pain, feel our feelings, suffer in our sufferings, etc. It seems rather impossible, so the argument goes, to relate to such a God. If God doesn’t share our plight, the specific plight from which we need rescuing, God is just ‘pretending’ to be human. It’s a concern possessing considerable relevance, one which we’ve taken up repeatedly here. But I can’t here repeat previous arguments we’ve presented for why we find the passibilist’s conclusions unconvincing. I’d like instead only to suggest that Jesus’ walking on the water and his rescue of Peter together provide us a helpful analogy for wrapping our heads around how apatheia works (and why passibilism doesn’t).
A bit of poetic appreciation of the event will open us up to see its relevance here. On the one hand we have the disciples caught helpless in a storm. Matthew describes the boat as “tormented” by the waves. The disciples are victims of the storm and defined by its threat. Boats, after all, are imperiled by such storms. People, after all, drown in such waves. And into this enters Jesus, walking on water. Not in peril of his life. Not afraid. Not sinking. Not even needing a boat to stay afloat. Defying (transcending, pick your term) the laws of nature. In the storm but not reduced to it. And thus Christ appears in the storm and assures his disciples:
“Don’t be afraid.” Right.
“Take courage.” Sure thing.
“I am here.” That’s nice, but look where I am.
You know the rest. Peter overcomes his shock and answers Jesus’ invitation to see something different, to share Jesus’ world and walk to him, and with him, on the water. Peter does so. (Apatheia, by the way, is our destiny too, not just a divine attribute forever out of reach and beyond comprehension.) When the object of Peter’s focus is no longer Jesus but Archimedes, Peter sinks. He becomes subject ‘to’ creation rather than subject ‘of’ creation.
How—pray tell—does Jesus rescue Peter? Does Jesus share Peter’s plight? Does Peter take a passibilist line and insist that since Jesus can’t sink, or doesn’t first sink to demonstrate his shared vulnerability to drowning, that Jesus is disqualified from rescuing him? Does Peter complain about being rescued from drowning by someone whom the waves cannot engulf? Many passibilist objections proceed along such lines, as if wanting Jesus to be a lifeguard who though he has superior training and swimming ability is nevertheless at risk in all the ways we are at risk and on that basis alone is able to rescue us. But to be pulled out of our drowning peril by someone walking on water? Walking on the very water in which we’re drowning? Many find this unacceptable, even offensive. But if apatheia – understood as God’s uncreated, triune beatitude – comes to us transcendently within our chaotic storms, what good reason is there to object if it comes walking upon the surface of our suffering rather than as subject to its engulfing chaos?
Careful. I am not suggesting some docetic apparition. Jesus is born, grows in stature through the same developmental stages as we do, gets hungry, fatigued, etc. He submits himself to a truly material existence and learns to construct his own identity within the same limited natural constraints that define personal development for us. And yet he shines in transfiguration. He walks on water. And he takes to the nth degree his identification as God’s beloved Son upon the Cross with what drives us insane. But the Cross is just a storm of immeasurably greater proportion which fails no less than the Sea of Galilee to swallow Jesus and within its pain deconstruct his identity as beloved Son and master of any chaos (real or mythical). The Son could have shone transfigured on the Cross just as truly as upon the mount. And where Peter views the waves and wind and so becomes their subject, Jesus submits himself to their full force as well (and on the Cross to an immeasurable degree) and remains his own subject. That’s the material point. And that is an apatheia which saves.