After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. 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?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
As we look closely at today’s Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter of Matthew, we read that Jesus wanted to be alone. Following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus needed to restore his spiritual energy, so as our text said, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
His disciples went on ahead of him in a boat to get to the other side of that fresh water lake called the Sea of Galilee. They probably thought that Jesus would either catch a ride in another boat, or take his time and walk around.
It wasn’t a long voyage for the disciples, 5 miles at the most. If it remained calm, they could row across in under two hours; if the wind came up they could sail across in half the time; after all many of them were experienced fishermen and boatmen and they knew the waters well. What we assume began as a routine evening crossing, soon turned into a nightmare. Even today, Galilean fishermen fear the treacherous storms caused by cold winds blowing off the surrounding mountains. They create a sudden tempest in the warm air covering the low lying waters.
The storm that broke on the disciples so unexpectedly that evening came from the direction in which they were heading. Against such a head-wind it was nigh on impossible to make much progress. But the disciples knew that they dared not allow the boat to be driven back to the shore they had just left. The waves could dash their craft against the rocks, endangering it and everyone on board. Their only hope was to ply the oars as long as the storm continued, trying to remain a good distance from the rocks. You can almost hear them uttering what I like to call the “Please, Oh Please, Oh Please God Prayer: “Oh Please God, we gotta stay in deep water, gotta stay away from the rocks, gotta stay in deep water, Oh Please, Oh please, Oh please God!” Most of us know that prayer pretty well.
Our story is set in the “4th watch of the night.” The night in those days was divided into four equal parts or watches. So if there were 8 hours of darkness, each watch would be two hours in length. Assuming they had embarked before nightfall, they would have been in the boat at least six hours. They’ve been battling the storm and they are exhausted, soaked to the skin, cold and frightened. Small wonder, then, that they cry out in fear as they see a figure approaching across the wind-whipped waves. It is Jesus, coming to them walking on the water. “Take courage,” he calls out. “It is I; do not be afraid.”
Acting in his typically impetuous manner, Peter shouts back, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus replies. Peter’s willingness to do the unthinkable at the command of his Lord enables him to experience the impossible. He climbs out of the boat and starts to walk to Jesus across the storm tossed waves. “But when he saw how strong the wind was,” Matthew tells us, “he became frightened. And beginning to sink [and] he cried out, “Lord, save me.”
“Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him and said, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” They both got into the boat and the wind died down.” Those in the boat did our Lord homage, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Now to us, as far as we know, walking on water wasn’t something members of the early Church expected to do themselves. So we can assume that Matthew expected us, his readers, to hear this story in terms of our own journeys and our own times of doubt, especially when we have stepped out in faith.
We all know what it’s like to start something with confidence and then right in the middle things happens and down we go: maybe we were crossing a stream on a fallen log, stepping carefully on the mossy surface, doing just fine until we look at the rocks and rushing water below and fear takes a grip and balance is lost and we wobble or freeze, and we lose our balance, and down we go into the water, or if we catch ourselves, we sit down and scoot the rest of the way on our backsides.
Or maybe we we’ve been learning to ride a bicycle and we’ve gained enough speed that we’ve suddenly stopped wobbling and we’ve started flying and as the grin grows larger and the heart is rejoicing, a rock is hit, confidence gives way and we lose balance and crash into the neighbor’s hedge. We all know what this is like.
So, how many times have we asked ourselves “Why don’t I have more faith? Why can’t I trust God more? Why am I afraid to let go and let God take care of this? I believe I’m in God’s hands and that they are really good hands, but then I lose my job and can’t find another and as the interviews go on and on and our savings disappear, my faith seems to go with them and I begin to sink.
And we do have the hope of heaven and a bright future with all the Angels and Saints but then sickness sets in and no healing miracles occur and the doctor says six, maybe nine months and we all pray for a miracle and no miracle comes and the waves start to creep up our legs and we begin to sink.
Personally, I have no doubt that God is all powerful and lovingly present and active in this world, but as I look at the situation with Christians being driven out of Iraq and there is still the incredible barbarity of the those rogues who are trying to establish a pure Islamic state out of Syria and Iraq, or I look at those poor kids from central America who have gone through unspeakable hardships to flee from atrocities in their home countries, only to find such incredibly mixed messages once they arrive here in the United States; with all this I have to confront my own sinking doubt.
So why do we doubt? There are a bevy of reasons, but at the top of the list is cynicism which is usually a mask for fear, because the sea is so vast and we are so small, because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk—AND— because we do have a modicum of faith, we have at least some. Like St. Peter, we do have at least a little, and a little is a whole lot better than nothing, even though there are times when it does not seem to be enough to save.
Like Peter, we have faith and we doubt. We take a few shaky steps and then we sink.
So I ask you, “What if Peter had not sunk? What if he had jumped out of the boat with perfect confidence, landed with both feet on the water and strolled across the waves to Jesus without a moment’s hesitation? What if the other disciples had followed suit, piling out of the boat after him and all of them with perfect faith, sauntering toward Jesus on top of the water while the storm raged and the wind beat the sails of their little ship and the lightning split the dark night above their heads and the thunder cracked all about them?
Well, it would be a different story. It might even be a better story, but it would not be a story about us. The truth about us is more complicated. The truth about us is that we are both obedient and we fear; we walk and we sink; we believe and we doubt. It is not one or the other. Our faith and our doubt are not mutually exclusive, they both exist in us at the same time, one buoying us up and the other beating us down, giving us courage and feeding our fears, supporting our weight on the wild seas and sinking us like stones.
This is why we need Jesus.
This story assures us that when the storms of life rage and the night is the blackest, when we cannot see the way ahead, when we are bone weary and life’s struggles are beating us down and our hearts are failing because fear is emerging victorious, there is good news, Jesus is close. As Catholics, we know this—we really know this—after all, we are here gathered as his Body, eagerly anticipating receiving him fully, completely, unequivocally in the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. We don’t doubt that and that is enough to give us the hope of salvation, no matter how strong the storm.