Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Long before the Gospel account heard today, the psalmist spoke these words, almost prophetically so it seems:
Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters, They have seen the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. . . . Shaken, they staggered like drunken men, all their wise skills swallowed up, And in affliction they cried out to the Lord, and He led them out from their anguish. At His command the winds became breezes, the raging billows fell into silence. Then they rejoiced for their stillness, for His guiding them to His will’s haven. Let them thank the Lord for His mercies, His wonders worked for the sons of men, Let them lift up a song to Him in the assembly of the people, let them give praise to Him in the council of the elders (Ps. 106 :23-32).
What we have before us this morning is a second account of our Lord involving His terrified Disciples, a raging storm engulfing their boat, and the stilling of those same angry waters by our Lord, either explicitly or implicitly (Mt. 8:23-27). St. Matthew, as an Evangelist, oftentimes doubles up on persons and stories such as we have today or the healing of two blind men instead of one (Mt.9:27-31) or the two Gergesene demoniacs (Mt. 8:28-34) or the miraculous feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000 (Mt. 14:13-21; 15:32-39). Why he does so isn’t known for sure except to say that it may have something to do with the Hebrew understanding that a true testimony is established by two or three witnesses (Dt. 17:6; 2 Cr. 13:1). And, St. Matthew, of the four Evangelists, is perhaps the most characteristically Jewish.
Today’s account follows on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000. Having fed the multitudes who had followed Him out into the deserted place, our Lord sends His Disciples off by boat across the Sea of Galilee. It is compassion that moved the heart of our Lord to feed the multitude who had wandered like sheep after their shepherd, and necessity that compelled Him to send His Disciples on ahead of Him to the other side of the lake. Once He wrapped up whatever loose ends there were, St. Matthew tells us that our Lord ascended the mountain to pray, something we find Him doing quite often in the Gospels. Though God-in-the-flesh, Jesus nonetheless finds it necessary for His soul to withdraw and pray. If our Lord finds prayer so essential for His own well-being, how much more for us who are mere mortals, and sinners to boot?
In the meantime, however, as He prays, we are told that the boat with His Disciples is now a great way out into the waters and that they are being buffeted by a turbulent storm, not at all uncommon for this lake noted for its fickleness and sudden weather changes. A trip that might have started out as routine suddenly without warning turns into anything but routine. And these experienced fishermen, these veterans of the sea, are being hard pressed so that they are at a loss as to what to do. It is now about the fourth watch of the night, the Evangelist tells us, which means it’s between 3:00 and 6:00 in the morning. In many cultures, those are the bewitching hours when strange and other-worldly things purportedly happen. And, indeed, they find Jesus “walking on the sea.” In St. Mark’s account of this expedition, he notes that Jesus “would have passed them by” had they not cried out (Mk. 6:45-52). It seems that these Disciples were more afraid that they were seeing an apparition than they were of the danger they were in! To their credit, Jesus is doing something other-worldly, something no man has done or can do, at least not by himself or by his own power.
Human logic, trying to make sense of out of this divine phenomenon, understands it as ghostly. But, it is, once more, St. Mark who notes that upon experiencing this miracle the Disciples “had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.” In other words, what Jesus did in the feeding of the multitudes, the miraculous power manifested by Him, fulfilling the very words of the psalmist: “All eyes look to Thee in hope, Thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest Thy hand and all living things are satisfied in Thy good pleasure” (Ps. 144 :16-17). Their shared experience of God manifesting His divine power didn’t sink in! Though they have now been close intimates of our Lord for some time now, these 12 still didn’t know Who they were dealing with. Could any of us – would any of us – having had the same or similar experiences of Jesus as these Disciples been any different in our response? Indeed, are we any better off than them though we have been walking with Jesus now quite some time? How often do we forget just Who it is we’re dealing with when the seas get rough and the turbulence of this fickle life picks up producing anxiety and fear in us? How often, using our fallen human logic, we see ghosts and not God at work?
“’Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid,’” our Lord calls out above the din of the storm to His most fearful Disciples in the boat. What Jesus is really saying – and our English just doesn’t capture it – is, “’Be of good cheer! I AM; do not be afraid.’” “’I AM!’” This is the very Name of God given to Moses as evidence when he wonders how in the world he can deliver Israel from Egypt:
And God said unto Moses, ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: “The Lord God of your Fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob hath sent me unto you.” This is My Name forever, and this is My memorial unto all generations’ (Ex. 3:13-15).
Jesus is re-assuring His beleaguered 12 – and us today! – “I AM. Rejoice and be glad! I AM! Believe the Gospel. I AM! Do not be afraid.” Jesus fulfills the words of the psalmist, “The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Ps. 144 :19).
Peter tests the waters, so to speak. His request – his prayer, if you will – isn’t so much a way of dispelling whether this is a ghost or God or of being a show-off, but of wanting to draw closer to his Lord and God. At least, that’s what some of the Fathers suggest. I’m not sure I’d be wanting to abandon a perfectly good boat for the surging waves in an effort to prove or disprove the paranormal. For that, I’d probably wait for Jesus to come to the boat.
But, there is faith in Peter that this is Jesus, that this is the Master Himself. Faith enlightened by the Spirit of God makes sense. And so, Jesus, recognizing Peter’s faith, bids His Disciple to come to Him . . . on the water. “’Come,’” and Peter obeys. And, lo and behold, Peter, like his Lord God and Saviour, walks on the water with Him! Peter is enabled by our Lord and our God to participate with Him in the divine miracle. So long as Peter’s faith holds steadfast and does not waver or become distracted, he shares in the grace of Jesus’ divinity. He becomes, as Peter will note in his Epistle, a “partaker of the divine nature.” This act bears Peter and us witness that “[God’s] divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him Who called us by glory and virtue, . . . .” (2 Pe. 1:3-4). Do we believe that we have been granted “exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these [we] may be partakers of the divine nature,” with our Lord? Do we believe this in the midst of the surging, foamy waves of the sea?
Herein is the test for us all, just as it was for the impetuous Peter. So long as we are “looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Hb. 12:2), we, too, can participate in the divine miracle because God has commanded it; God has willed it to His good pleasure. So long as Peter’s gaze is squarely fixed on Jesus Who transcends the stormy waters of the sea, he is empowered to walk with his Lord. But, what happens? What happens is what so often happens to us and to all who get distracted from God, including the prince of the Apostles himself – to Peter – who in but a chapter or so will confess the Faith upon which the Church is founded and eternally sustained, by which the Church conquers Hades, “’Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Mt. 16:16-19).
Somewhere along the line, however, Peter allowed himself to get distracted. We know that “he saw that the wind was boisterous.” But, this wasn’t what “sinks” him. We, too, as all the saints bear witness, can see the raging effects of the wind: the churning seas, the white caps, and feel the spray stinging our faces and eyes. We can hear the howling winds. But, even in this, Peter was at peace. The Fathers teach us that interior peace doesn’t equate to stilled storms. Interior peace has everything to do with Jesus and His grace. Peter is at peace in the midst of the stormy waters because his eye, his faith, his hope, his love is transfixed on Jesus Christ. It is nailed to Christ God and to the Cross. Remember, beloved, how each of these storms experienced by the Disciples happen well within the providence of God. The first time, Jesus was with them in the boat; the second time He was not far from them. I wonder if, perhaps, Peter might have recalled that first experience and how Jesus as God rebuked the storm and had brought peace? So often, as Sacred Scriptures attests, God permits these things so that we can learn spiritually Who He is and then draw on our spiritual experiences for sustenance (Jm. 1:2-4). That we can grow in our faith, hope, and love.
What got Peter wasn’t the wind, but his fear. St. Matthew specifically says he “was afraid.” Fear took over and dominated his soul. Nothing had changed except Peter’s faith. He became what St. James describes as “double-minded” which leads to instability of faith. It is to have two minds at war within us, opposing each other, fragmenting our faith. It creates doubt – real doubt that doubts God and His promises, not the kind that wonders but continues to believe. “’Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mk. 9:24). It is doubt! “[H]e who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (Jm. 1:6-8). Peter became of two minds and he began to sink beneath the waves, his faith no longer having the firm foundation. St. Theophylact states that “Peter prevailed over the greater – the sea – but feared the lesser – the wind.” Doesn’t that happen even to us? God is blessing us, our faith seems stable, and then out of nowhere, so it seems, something small, something seemingly insignificant, torpedoes us.
Thank God, Peter remembered his catechism! He cries out to Jesus, “’Lord, save me!’” And, true to His divine nature, Christ our God hears the prayers of His beleaguered children, just as the psalmist tells us, “The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.” In truth, Peter is perishing; in truth, Peter cries out for salvation. “He shall do the will of those fearing Him, He shall hear their supplication, and He shall save them” (Ps. 144 :19-20). “And immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand and caught him and said unto him, ‘O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?’”
The future Bishop of Rome was far from weak or little faith when he stepped out of a perfectly safe boat onto the waves to walk with his Lord and Saviour. It took faith indeed to do so. Would we have done that? But, Peter falters, stumbles. He allows other things to cloud his vision, gain control of his heart, and introduced doubt or double-mindedness in him. When our Lord asks him, “’O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?,’” some of the Fathers suggest these are not words of condemnation coming from the lips of Jesus, though many of us perceive them as such. In fact, given our modern sensibilities, we take umbrage at them. But rather, they are words of correction intended to re-orient the double-minded Disciple to be once more of a single mind recalling for us the words of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ in His Beatitudes, “’Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’” (Mt. 5:8). To be “’pure in heart’” is to be of one undivided heart, one devotion to God, single-minded. Only such are granted to see God. “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in His Holy Place?,” asks the psalmist to which he replies, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, . . . He shall receive blessing from the Lord, great mercy from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek the face of Jacob’s God” (Ps. 23 :3-6). Our Lord doesn’t condemn us who are of little faith. But, He does correct us so that next time – and there will be a next time – we might be reinforced in faith by faith. And faith, beloved, worships the Son of God.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 3:9-17