Right now, our world seems to be living through a storm of fear that stirs up, irrational actions, denial of proven facts, suspicion, tribalism, increased xenophobia, leading to increased violence. We do have intellect and logical ways to help us deal with this, but fear can make these evaporate.
Fear is a basic animal instinct, stimulating a fight or flight response in us. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when there is a threat to our identity, we are sometimes inclined to react without regard for how our actions hurt others. When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind. For that reason, we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.
In today’s Gospel, we hear an account of faith tested, of doubt, and divine rescue, and true worship.
After the miracle of Jesus‘ Feeding the multitudes, Jesus has the 12 pile into their boat and row to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus then goes up a mountain to be alone and pray. Jesus prays into the night comes down and sees his disciples in the middle of the lake, struggling against a powerful headwind.
Jesus decides to walk on the surface of the sea out to the trapped disciples. In Mark‘s account, Jesus intends to walk past them, but in Matthews’s account, he walked out to the boat. The disciples see Jesus and become very frightened and agitated, thinking he is a ghost.
I don‘t know about you, but seeing a human being walking on the surface of the water in the predawn light would undoubtedly ratchet up my heart rate.
Jesus calms their fear by saying to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter called out to him from the boat that if it is Jesus bid him come out and walk with him. Jesus tells Peter to come. Peter gets out walks a few steps on the water then is distracted by the wind and waves takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink. Peter cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me,” at which point Jesus grabs Peter by the arm, pulled him up, and says to him, you of little faith, why did you doubt. Once in the boat, the wind stops, and those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “truly you are the son of God.”
In the tradition of Hebrew Scripture, the sea was especially associated with evil powers. The storm was a symbol of all the tribulations and disasters that can happen to the individual and community. For the most part, they wrote at times of tribulation and disaster, both personal and communal. But through the storms, they clung to the conviction that simply because God is God, he was able to bring them through.
In our modern translation of the Bible, Jesus calms the fears of the disciples by saying it is I, but a more accurate translation from the Greek ego eimi is I AM. Jesus is himself seen to be none other than Yahweh the great I AM the source and end of all that is.
There can hardly be a Christian today who cannot immediately identify with Peter, losing faith in the face of fear and trouble, sinking in panic, then gathered up and rescued by forgiving love.
Peter had doubt when the wind and waves took his eyes off Jesus. But it was fear that shook his faith for fear is the opposite of faith. Fear that makes us doubt not in Jesus but doubts that we are good enough for God to work through us. Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
The author, John M. Sweeny, wrote, “Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. Doubt connects us. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover, Explore, Question. Challenge, Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.” If doubt creeps in, as it sometimes does, our faith will hold firm, if we have each other on our journey of faith.
If the feeding of the five thousand is a picture of Christian vocation, this story can is a picture of the life of faith – or rather, the life of half-faith, faith mixed with fear and doubt, which is the typical state of so many of us, as it was with the disciples.
One of the oldest symbols of the Church is a ship or boat. It is the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching a safe harbor with its cargo of human souls. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah’s family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21). Jesus protecting Peter’s boat and the apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). It was also a great symbol during times when Christians needed to disguise the cross since the ship’s mast forms a cross in many of its depictions. Many churches are designed like an overturned keel. Indeed, the space we gather to worship is called the nave, Latin for a ship.
If the Church is a ship, then it follows that we are the ship’s crew, each with our own calling, talents, and strengths. We are called by the Holy Spirit to step out of the comfort of our ship and onto the water. Into the wind and rainstorms that scare us, the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core. Amid painful setbacks like these, it is not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God, but we will be rescued by our Lord when we cry out for help. We are called to work for justice, both economic and social, for all people. Called to speak truth to power even when it is unpopular. Called to care for the destitute feed the poor and hungry and protect and house refugees. Of course, if like Peter we look at the waves being lashed by the wind, we will conclude that it is indeed impossible. What we are called to do – it’s so basic and obvious, but so hard to do in practice – is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and our ears open for his encouragement (even if it does contain some rebuke as well). And our wills and hearts must be ready to do what he says, even if it seems crazy at the time.
However much we may wonder what did or didn’t happen on the Sea of Galilee over 2000 years ago; however much we may struggle to understand what it means to say that Jesus was God on earth, as the early Church were so unshakably clear he was – it remains a fact of Christian experience that these miracles ‘work’. Their message is true. Not usually, perhaps, in the sense that physical storms are calmed, or that Christians walk on water. But certainly in the sense that Christ’s words still have extraordinary power to bring ‘a great calm’ in times of turmoil and chaos – when we have faith, however faltering, that he is who he is: ‘Peace, be still. Do not be afraid. I AM.’