The Gospel today from St. Matthew centers around the familiar scene of Jesus walking on the water. On a personal note, this passage from Scripture has great meaning for me. Although I was familiar with the story from my youth, it wasn’t until my third year of theological studies, while on retreat by the sea, that I came to reflect more deeply on just what is going on in this passage, and what it means for us today. I had to laugh when I first had a scene flash through my head of the movie “Jaws.” At the first glimpse of the shark out on the open sea, Chief Brody, petrified with fright, backs away from the edge of the boat into the cabin and says, half to himself, half to the others, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
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 Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
So, what’s going on here? We have a scene where the Apostles are out on the sea in a boat at night, and the wind has picked up. The boat is probably being tossed about, the waves are high, and Apostles—only a couple of whom are fishermen and used to being on the water—are frightened. Then they see a ghost off in the distance—hardly reassuring to them…at least until they hear Jesus identify himself.
Much like the Transfiguration, which we celebrated yesterday, this event is a deliberate, intentional manifestation of Jesus’ divinity and His power over nature, intended to bolster the faith of the Apostles. Without them realizing it, He is preparing their hearts and minds for the doubt and pain they will endure at His Passion. Why else would Jesus have sent them on ahead in a boat while He remains in solitude on the mountain? There would have been no other need for Him to separate from them.
At the Transfiguration, He would reveal His glory to Peter, James, and John. And here we see Him showing forth his power to the Twelve as a collective group. And Peter—the Prince of the Apostles, the first to confess the Divinity of Jesus, and one of the few who will see Jesus Transfigured on Mt. Tabor —becomes the first to seek to firmly establish that it is Jesus walking toward them. “Lord, if it really is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Jesus issues the simple command: “Come.” And without hesitation, Peter climbs out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus.
Now, one can imagine what’s going on in the boat. Most of the Apostles, frightened beyond belief, begin to try to coax Peter back into the boat, probably thinking to themselves or saying out lout “Are you insane?!” It cannot be expected that any of the others had the same degree of Faith as Peter at this point. But Peter ignores them, and makes this great leap of Faith onto (not into) the waters of the sea, and begins to walk toward Jesus.
This is the same act of Faith that God requires all of us to make. It’s not enough for us to sit idly in the boat and look at Jesus from afar. Jesus calls us all to come to Him, to walk by Faith across the waters of doubt. And if our Faith is strong enough, we can succeed.
|"Oh you of little faith! Why did you doubt?"|
But look at what happens to Peter. Here is Peter, a man looking Jesus right in the face, and still he loses Faith when he feels the strong wind and sees the waves crashing around him. He loses Faith, and he begins to sink. We suffer the same sort of doubt and lack of Faith when we leave the comfort of our proverbial “boats” and wander into the treacherous territory that is the modern world. The waves and wind that we face are the hate-filled secular attitudes that seek to shake and destroy our Faith. This world despises what we believe. This world hates what we profess. This world wants nothing more than to tear from us the very Faith that we hold so dear. This world would have us believe that our Faith is not important; that we should simply give up our conviction and believe that anything and everything is a-okay “so long as we’re nice people.” The goal of this world is simple: to destroy belief in the One True God in favor of belief in the fleeting social trends of the day, which promote the worship of money, of pleasure, of selfishness and self-indulgence, of greed, of violence, of a hate-filled rationalistic relativism that tells us that we are horrible people for upholding the most fundamental aspects of God’s own Natural and Divine Law. THIS WORLD THAT SEEKS TO DESTROY US IS MORE IN NEED OF US NOW THAN EVER BEFORE—in need of a people who firmly believe in the Truth that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are willing to “get out of the boat” and to bring peace through Christ Jesus!
And when we being to sink, what choice do we have but to call out to The Lord to save us, just as Peter did?! In our distress, we must acknowledge that we have lost faith, and then—and only then—will Jesus reach down and pull us up from our lack of faith.
So, what’s the point? Are we supposed simply to stay in the boat and never venture beyond the confines of our own meager Faith? NO! To do so would squander the very gift of Faith that has been given to us. Rather, we are obliged to get out of the boat at every single opportunity, to actuate our Faith in the sure and certain hope that even when we begin to sink, Jesus will be right there to pick us up, to confirm us in our Faith, and to give us the strength we require to keep walking on the water!
The scene from “Jaws” that I referenced earlier is exactly the attitude of those who lack Faith. We need to stay as far away from the perils of the sea as possible, and we’re going to need a bigger boat to keep us even safer. But for the Christian, in the context of the life of Faith, this is precisely the attitude we must not adopt. We don’t need a bigger boat! If anything we need a smaller boat in order to compel more people to seek the confirmation in their Faith that only Christ can give—the Faith to get out of the boat and to walk on the water as Peter did!