19th Sunday ordinary time. cycle a.
Matthew: 14: 22-33.
Rev Tony van Vuuren
Last weekend we heard about Jesus curing the sick and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. It immediately precedes today’s account of the storm at sea. Imagine the excitement that would have accompanied that miracle. Many people might have concluded, “Here we have someone who can take care of all our ills and hungers!” Religion sometimes sounds like that; If we could only “get it right”; and be on the right side of God by doing our religious practices faithfully and properly—then maybe God will take care of our problems. If you’ve “got religion” and do things “properly” you’ve got protection and life will work out for you. Just do what you are supposed to do and do it in the right way.
Well, many of us here knew a man in his fifties who did things properly. A fellow parishioner. A good man, he was a regular church goer, loving husband. He was sincere in his religious practices and generous with his time for the Church and the needy. This very special man was struck down with motor neuron disease, fought a painful battle with it and within a couple of years died. Didn’t he say the right prayers? What about the prayers we said for his healing? What about his visit toLourdes? What more could we have done? Where was Jesus in his and our storm? We know lots of people with similar stories. When things turn out poorly for us or someone we love, we wonder what happened. We may even blame ourselves for not praying correctly or enough. Didn’t we follow the directions, say the right prayers, have the proper attitude, get enough people to pray with us?
Look at the disciples in today’s story. They listened and responded to Jesus’ directions; he gave them an explicit order and they followed it. He “MADE the disciples get into a boat”— it sounds like they wanted to stay where the miracles had just happened and bask in some of the reflected glory that must have been coming their way as Jesus’ disciples. But they went ahead and got into the boat, without Jesus, whilst He went to the hills to pray. Do we feel that at times? That we have responded to Jesus and tried to follow where he leads, but storms arise that make us feel like we are separated from him and on our own to work things out? “The boat was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a strong headwind.” All of us can identify with that line, just fill in the blanks with our own personal struggles to serve the Lord on, what sometimes can feel like, stormy seas “with the wind against” us.
We can even name the individual stormy waves; the specific moments we feel adrift and at sea. The story speaks immediately to our lives; if not today, then yesterday; if not yesterday, then tomorrow.
We are tempted to ask a question faithful people have always faced: Where is God when I am in need? Where is Jesus in the midst of the storm? Matthew tells us he came to his disciples “in the fourth watch of the night.” That’s between 3 and 4am. What took him so long? We don’t understand the delay, especially considering the intensity of the struggle.
Maybe Jesus is not supposed to be “Mr. Fix-it.” He may not immediately end the storm, but instead enables us, together with him, to walk on the stormy seas.
Peter walks on a stormy sea, not one that has been made calm by Jesus. Jesus is there to help us in the storms and the reprimand he gives Peter speaks to us too, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Only when he is in the boat with them does he calm the storm; Jesus expected them to trust while the storm was in full fury; he expected Peter to trust while he was walking on the raging waters.
The disciples may not have felt his presence, but they were safe and getting through the storm while Jesus was still up in the hills praying for them.
Would some of the storms we face be more manageable if we put aside time for prayer? To some that might seem like a waste of time during an emergency. But the prayers and expressions of dependency on Christ aren’t made on a retreat in the mountains somewhere, but in the midst of the crisis—brief prayers expressing trust and dependency on the God who speaks to us in whispers of assurance; just as He whispered in the wind and reassured Elijah hiding in the cave.
The stormy voices around us shout, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” But another voice whispers from this gospel today, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Whether this is a stormy time of our lives or not, we could practice some form of trusting, quiet prayer. We could take a few more moments each day just to be conscious of Christ’s presence in the ordinary events of our lives; after all we haven’t left him behind at church on Sunday. He isn’t off on some mountaintop a long way from us. We could pause a few times this week and replay this story in our memories, especially as we face the ruffled waters of even routine events; when we are being blown about in our own boats of life; by winds of temptation, winds of despair, winds of sadness, winds of anger, winds of jealousy.
The real heart of this Gospel story is the interaction between Jesus and Peter. Peter knows that whatever Jesus commands is made possible. Peter has witnessed all day long Jesus commanding cures to be worked and loaves and fishes multiplied. Peter has no doubt that what Jesus commands will happen. However, the command requires a response, and we learn that the success of the response is dependent upon faith. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer states that Peter had to leave the boat and risk his life in order to learn perhaps the most valuable lesson and straightest path in his spiritual journey: the realization of both his own weakness and the almighty power of Jesus. Bonhoeffer says that, had Peter remained in the boat and not taken the first step, his faith would have been worthless.
The response to follow Jesus requires a definitive and unavoidable step, and those who think they can follow Jesus without making this step are deceiving themselves. Jesus gives Peter the courage and power to come forward and whilst his faith in Christ lasted he walked on water. But he returns to reality and his faith weakens when he sees the large wave approaching. However, the response by Peter — Lord, save me! — is in a sense one of two perfect prayers when nothing else comes to mind in prayer (the other one is — Thank you, Lord). Jesus catches him and lifts him up, remarking that it was the wavering of his faith that caused him to sink; “Man of little faith; why did you doubt?”
Peter is the model of a very human journey of faith. He seeks, He steps, he sinks, he is saved, he praises. One could propose that the faith of Peter returns when he refixes his gaze on Jesus and says — Lord, save me! — not, Lord, save me IF you can; but Lord save me!
Peter trusts in the immediate saving help of Jesus. Weakness which leads to the awareness of the saving power of Jesus is always beneficial. Have we moved our gaze from Jesus? Has our gaze turned toward fears or distractions that cause our faith to falter?
What we should take away from this interaction between Peter and Jesus is the courage Peter displayed in first asking Jesus to command, and second, responding to that command. We should also be mindful of the pure request of help from Peter (Lord, save me!), and the immediate response from Jesus.
Why do we come here to church week after week? Apart from it being our Catholic obligation; We are storm walkers—asked to walk the stormy seas of involvement in complex issues, as well as family and community needs. The waters we Christians face are seldom calm and coming here reminds us that we are not alone. In this place we have so many examples around us of people who have strong faith despite the turmoil life has thrown at them. Those faithful ones give us courage that when our testing time comes we will not be alone. Just as he did for Peter, Jesus reaches out a hand to us. We gather here to remind ourselves that we have companions—people who break and eat bread with us and help us when the going gets rough. We remember with gratitude the times we did need a hand for courage and support and we received it from a fellow parishioner in the boat with us. Other times we are the helping hands for others.
Let us look back on any tough times and be comforted. Let us continue forward with courage knowing that the blessed assurance we have in Jesus’ presence and care is unconditional.