Sometimes, when a storm breaks out, we just have to hold in mind that the enemy of faith is fear. An excellent source of courage is community, which may not erase fear, but give us strength to endure it.
Let’s look at today’s gospel story.
In the middle of a storm, although the disciples see Jesus, they are too afraid to believe he is real. Peter calls Jesus by name, and it is not until he can reach out his hand that he knows his best friend is there.
We often hear these stories as a chastisement: we need to have greater faith, or to be more devoted in our following of Christ. Why ask ourselves why we cannot perceive the quiet voice of God. We wish we had enough faith so that we could walk on the water and through the storm. We joke that if only we could find the rocks to step on, we wouldn’t slip beneath the waves.
Loving reminder from a priest: Bible stories are less about us, and more about who and where God is.
Jesus needs some time to pray, so he tells his disciples go out in the boat, and he will catch up to them later. Then a storm wreaks havoc with the little group.
Even in our time, water is both the source of life and the location of chaos and death. Ask anyone who likes to vacation in the Outer Banks or who lives near a creek on eastern PA this last week. A storm on the Sea of Galilee was life threatening, even to fishermen who were strong swimmers. The powerful wind-driven waves were interpreted as a sign of diabolical attack. The monster Leviathan, an evil creature who was inclined to attack fishermen, was supposed to have lived in the sea.
Through the storm, over the waves, walks Jesus. What do you think was more frightening: seeing the man Jesus walk over the water, or considering the possibility that he might not be Jesus? Over the disciples’ cries of fear, Jesus calls to them. A more literal translation of this sentence would be, “Take heart, I am, do not be afraid” (15:27). In the middle of a storm, Jesus reveals himself — not simply as Jesus, their teacher, but as “I AM” – YHWH – the God of Abraham. This self-revelation is a disclosure of Jesus’ identity and the source of his power. For Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, Jesus’ words echo the divine name, which may have been as unsettling as it was comforting.
How does Peter respond? It is clear that he isn’t really listening. Lord, IF it is you, command me to come to you. And then he gets out of the boat. Jesus’ words of reproach – why did you doubt – are not because Peter has sunk into the sea. Jesus chastises his friend because Peter is too fearful to recognize him.
Take a moment to think. What frightens you? That thing that came to your mind right now – the thing you are too afraid to say aloud – that is your Leviathan. How could the Holy One help with that? How could a community of faith support you through that? Reach out and tell someone.
Do you know that the command that God articulates most often in the Bible is Do not be afraid. These stories do not ask us to work miracles or go walking on water. They ask us to remember that God IS. God does not expect us to perform tricks or to do impossible things on our own in order to earn grace. God does expect us to confront our fears, to listen for the voice of the Holy One, and to build relationships so we can support our neighbors. In ordinary times we do this in coffee hours and committees. In this time of dispersion, Coronatide, relationships may be built online (Sunday 10 am virtual coffee!) or by telephone contact or by physically distanced conversations.
We will have many crises and storms in our lives, both personally and collectively. When we are terrified about all the possible outcomes, we are not irredeemable failures. We are having a St Peter moment. We need to reach out to offer our neighbors the strength to go on.
Real faith demands courage and community. Now is a time for courage, so we are able to perceive the miracles around us every day. Now is also a time for us to practice our community, to know companions on this long journey. When our fears and anxieties are rocking our boats, we need to hold hands (perhaps only virtually). What might we need to change so we can touch the hand of God which lifts all of us up out of the waves?
Reach out to your friends and neighbors. Things are not all right. And still, do not be afraid. God is with us. God is always with us. The God of Love has already won the battle.