August 9, 2020 – Year A
In today’s gospel, Jesus sends his disciples on a boat ahead of him. For the very first time in His ministry, they are without Him. They become trapped in a powerful, vicious storm. They are — understandably! — terrified! Does their fear show a lack of faith? Can we, too, choose not to fear and thus have a stronger faith?
Though some translations describe the body of water the disciples cross as a sea, we would probably think of it as a lake. The Sea of Galilee has an area just over sixty square miles — making it about three-quarters the size of Lake Hartwell, and less than one percent the size of the smallest Great Lake. Despite its relatively small size, the storm which came was serious and real, as was the danger and fear the disciples experienced. It would have been frightening enough to be on a simple, rickety boat in the dark on calm waters. Instead, the disciples were forced to brave the churning waters in the pitch black of a night storm.
Then, Jesus appears. It’s deeply reassuring — and yet, so strange they don’t at first realize what it is they’re seeing. Peter, the disciple known for acting before thinking, is the first to stand. He wanted tangible and immediate reassurance of Jesus’ power over the chaos which surrounded him.
I think this incident of Jesus walking on the water — and, more importantly, Peter’s response to Jesus in this context — gives us deeper insight into the meaning of faith in our age. To reach that deeper meaning, it helps to understand the layers of meaning happening in the story itself. Woven throughout the Bible are deep connections between water and chaos — chaos over which God always — always — has complete power. This belief is so foundational to our Judeo-Christian faith that it’s contained in the opening verses of the very first book of our Sacred Scripture:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness — endless, chaotic darkness — covered the face of the deep…
God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome, the first steps to bring the overwhelming chaos under control…
God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. And in so doing God, in His Mighty power, contained the chaos, making human life possible.
This is the first time the Almighty hand gives security to His beloved people. It certainly isn’t the last. At the edge of the Red Sea, the Egyptian Army in pursuit…
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night — the original Hebrew conveys that this wind was like God’s very breath — and this wind turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. God’s act made a secure path for his people to take the first steps into their future.
Jesus confirmed his divinity for his disciples when he calmed a similar storm in the eighth chapter of Matthew. Imagine how relieved the disciples feel when they see Jesus on this night, in the flesh — surely, he will bring an end to their distress. Before he can do so, Peter challenges Him. Peter wants to be closer to the security Jesus embodies. If Jesus were before you, wouldn’t you want the same?
So, does the fact that Peter sinks mean he has weak faith, faith which he should shore up by the power of his own will? Can we shore up our own faith by simple will power? I think the fact that Peter sinks into the churning waters doesn’t reflect the weakness of his faith but the nature of faith generally. We want concrete, tangible proof of Jesus’ presence in our lives. Unlike the disciples, the nature of our relationship is less concrete and more spiritual. At times we will stumble — just as the disciples did when they had Jesus physically with them. The mix of faith and doubt, fear and desire which Peter experiences on the turbulent waters is an experience all of us have had.
So…can we choose to hold back our fears and doubts, and in so doing make our faith stronger? That Peter’s experience of the chaos is so similar to our own offers reassurance when we, too, falter. God is still God, whose Mighty Hand separated and stilled the endless chaos at the beginning of time, whose Mighty Hand masters the chaos of our lives still. God is God amidst the doubts and fears of every age, present with us and loving us through every doubt, every fear, and every moment. The God of love calms the waters no matter where we find ourselves or how we’re feeling. The God of all time, the God who controls all chaos, is with us regardless of how strong our faith is or isn’t.
God will be with us through the storm. Regardless of everything, God is with us.