This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 14:22–33:
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.”
If nothing else, Minnesotans know storms. We’ve lived here for almost twenty years now, having moved from the land of earthquakes, which also get a mention in today’s readings, and have grown a little more used to the severe thunderstorms that come with the warmer weather. It took us quite a while to stop going to the basement with every severe weather advisory that came along, but we never quite got over the feeling of awe and helplessness that accompanies their arrivals. At some level, one realizes that there’s nothing much to be done about each thunderstorm except to keep a watchful eye until it passes.
It’s easy to see why people came to see God in the thunderstorm, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, as Elijah is tempted to do in our first reading. They are so sudden, so out of our control, and so overwhelming that we are made to feel very small and insignificant. They remind us of our place in nature and the universe, a contrast to the control that we imagine we have over nature and our lives.
We sometimes see the Lord in this way, too — an omnipotent and omniscient Being against whom all of our plans and aspirations appear as dust blown in random directions. Ancient civilizations ascribed these tempests and furies to, well, the Furies and other supernatural beings because they appeared supernatural in nature and intentionally directed at people. Perhaps it was easier to deal with these as consequences of our own actions rather than random events driven by the physics of nature, a method of denial about our true place in the physical world. What we sometimes miss is the love of the Lord for us — caritas, self-sacrificing love, which tempers His power and judgment, and His calls to us to come to Him of our own volition and love.
Today, we get two different but related views of the nature of the Lord in nature and our relationship with Him. Elijah had been told the Lord would pass by Horeb and that Elijah should stand outside to meet him. However, Elijah knew better than to believe that the Lord was in the storm, the earthquake, or the fire, because Elijah understood that all of these were subordinate to God. When he heard the “still, small voice,” Elijah knew the Lord had come and went out to greet Him with his face covered in the cloak.
Why step out at that point? Of course, Elijah had been commanded to do so, but consider the trust that entailed. If Elijah knew that the Lord was not in the rain, the quake, and the fire because they were subordinate phenomena to God, then one could easily assume that His presence would create even more danger. Yet Elijah knew that the Lord is meek and gentle, putting aside His power to reach out to His people. The still, small voice was a sign of this meekness and love — not an overpowering and overbearing command, but a loving invitation to join Him.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus demonstrates the same relationship, but takes it one step farther, so to speak. The disciples are on the sea in the midst of the storm, trapped between two massive forces of nature, and terrified. Jesus appears in the storm, but apart from it, and unaffected by it. He calmly walks the waters to soothe them and relieve their fear, but at least at first the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost rather than realize who He is.
Even when Peter realizes that it’s Jesus, he does not yet comprehend Jesus’ power over nature. Jesus calls Peter out of the boat, and at first Peter trusts Him and is also able to defy the storm and the raging water. But then Peter gets distracted by his fear and awe of nature and becomes subject to the storm and the waters again. He cries out to Jesus, who rescues him while also asking Peter why his faith failed him. However, Jesus did not let Peter drown, and Peter — while doubting — still had faith in Jesus to save him in his distress.
In truth, we are surrounded in this world by forces more powerful than ourselves, and not just nature. We face all sorts of worldly powers that can easily overwhelm us and make us forget the power of the Lord. Some of those are external threats, such as tyrants and hostile cultures; more often, we become enmeshed in sin and rejection of the Lord’s commandments. Our response in many cases is to stay in our own little boats or to shrink back into our caves rather than trust that the Lord will keep us safe and see us through the tempests to salvation. We become too frightened of those forces to walk toward Jesus through the storms and the waves.
Today’s reading reminds us that the apostles were called to live this experience over and over again in order to build Christ’s church. After the Passion, they shrank back into their upper room and hid, but eventually left to begin preaching the Gospel, with the Holy Spirit that kept them from sinking. Most of the apostles left for foreign and hostile lands to spread the Good News, an extreme form of leaving the boat in service to Christ. They knew the storms would come their way, but they put their trust in Christ.
The apostles remained true to their mission, even while most of them were martyred for it. It cost them in other ways as well. In our second reading today, Paul laments to the Roman church that he had been cut off from his kindred, the Israelites, because of his faith in Christ. “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart,” Paul writes, “[f]or I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people.” It’s a heartbreaking testimony of homesickness for the people who never dared to step out of the boat, but yet Paul persevered for Christ to bring salvation to the Gentiles until his execution by Rome. His work continues two millennia later, more powerful than all of the tyrants and sin in the world, thanks to his decision to walk toward the Lord even with what it cost him to do so.
It takes an act of faith to step out of the boat, to step out of the cave, and walk toward the Lord. We leave behind a certain measure of safety and security when we do, or perhaps it’s better to say that we leave behind the illusions of safety and security against the random wrath of nature and sin and worldly powers, which neither know us or love us. When we walk to the Lord, we walk toward Him who both knows and loves us. Perhaps that knowledge will help us take those first steps of faith.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.