Is It Really You, Lord?

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A) –  Matthew 14:22-33

It’s a familiar scene from the Gospels.

The disciples are in a boat, struggling with wind and rough waters by night. Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. Peter cries out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. Jesus says, “Come”, and Peter comes. However, seeing the wind and waves, Peter loses heart. Beginning to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus does do, and then gently chides him for his ‘little faith’.

We usually see Peter’s ‘little faith’ as being his fear in the face of wind and wave. We often hear homilies extolling Peter’s willingness to leave the safety of the boat in faith, but then telling us how Peter took his eyes off Jesus and then sunk. But what if there was another way to understand this story? What it Peter’s lack of faith happened earlier, before he even left the boat? 

I’m going to explore an alternate interpretation of this passage, based on one that I found in the New Interpreter’s Bible. It’s not hugely different from the one we’re used to, but it puts this story in its context in very interesting ways, and also has something important to say to us now.

First, let’s look at the beginning of the account. Jesus has just fed a crowd of thousands with a few loaves and fishes – a gift that would be seen as a precursor of the Eucharist. The disciples have been taught by Jesus for some time now, and they have witnessed Jesus’ healing and acts of mercy. They have been fed by Jesus’ own Bread. They are now ready for a test.

Notice that Jesus “makes them get into a boat and precede him to the other side”. This is reminiscent of the Spirit “driving” Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism by John the Baptist, where Jesus will be tested by Satan. Notice also that Jesus is on the mountain, alone, and in prayer. It is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is portrayed as in prayer. He is, no doubt, praying for his disciples. They are about to be tested.

Here, the boat represents the Church, the community of believers. The disciples are sent out on mission within the community of believers. They soon find themselves challenged. They are being “tossed about” by the sea – literally, “tortured” by the sea and the wind. They are facing obstacles, temptations, opposition, persecution. Jesus appears to be absent, left behind on the shore. The disciples believe themselves to be alone as they face the wind and the waves. This is not unlike Jesus who is tested in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism.

Then, at the fourth watch of the night – the darkest part of the night – the disciples see Jesus coming toward them, “walking on the sea”. Don’t see this as merely a gravity-defying miracle of nature. This is a moment of revelation for the disciples. What is the sea? In the Old Testament, the sea symbolizes chaos, evil, death – all that is opposed to God. Part of the creation story in Genesis involves a taming and limiting of the sea. Only God can do such a thing. Only God can move upon the seas and master the chaos and evil they represent. Jesus comes to his disciples as the Son – he who is truly “God with us”, Emmanuel.

Here is the test for the disciples. Notice that they aren’t afraid as they confront the waves and the wind. They only cry out in fear when they see Jesus coming toward them on the water. Jesus then calls to them, saying (literally): “Take courage. I am. Do not be afraid”. In other words, “I am the promised one. I am ‘God with you’. Fear nothing.” Jesus uses the very “I am” that the Scriptures use for God.

It is Peter, as usual, who speaks for the disciples. “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. Here is Peter’s ‘little faith’. He cannot quite believe that it really is Jesus out there. He speaks to Jesus in words reminiscent of Satan in the desert, “If you are the Son of God…”.  This would not be the only time that Peter speaks like Satan does. Then, Peter wants some spectacular proof. Peter wants to do what only God can do. And, he wants to leave the boat – the Church – the community of believers – to do this. He wants to walk on the water, as Jesus does, just as Satan challenges Jesus to do some spectacular thing to prove his Sonship.

In one sense, what Peter says shows courage and faith. In another, it shows a misplaced faith. If he really believed, he would have had no reason to leave the boat. He would have, instead, strengthened the faith of those with him in the boat, assuring them that this was truly Jesus coming to them in their darkest hour. He would not have sought some spectacular gift for himself, outside the Church.

Jesus, interestingly enough, invites Peter to come to him. Peter has a lesson to learn, and this may be the only way he can learn it. Peter soon finds himself literally “over his head”. He may be the Rock, but he isn’t God. Jesus saves him, and then gently chides his lack of faith – the lack of faith that failed to see that Jesus was indeed “God with them”, and that they were safe as long as they trusted the boat – the Church – the usual way through which Jesus saves all who believe in him.

And what about us? When we find ourselves out on the sea, and storms come up, we may find the storms terrifying enough. We may be tempted to doubt that Jesus is truly with us. We may be tempted to doubt that our boat – the Church – the community of faith – will be enough to carry us through. We may feel tempted to want some more individual, more spectacular, proof that the Lord is truly with us. We may seek to leave the boat – the Church – in search of this other proof. We may want this in order to make ourselves look better, or holier, in the sight of others. Can we believe that the boat we have been given – as small and leaky as it may seem – will indeed carry us to safety? Can we believe that this boat is the primary means given to us by the Lord to save us? We are meant to be in communion with all other believers. We are all one body in Christ.

Or, perhaps the Lord has come to us in some unexpected yet powerful way, “walking on the sea” of our own troubles. It’s one thing to speak and think as if the Lord were always with us. It’s quite another to actually experience an unmistakable sign of his presence. As C.S. Lewis once said, it’s one thing to be children playing at cops and robbers. It’s quite another to hear a noise in the house and wonder if a real robber is present! To encounter the Lord in a direct and personal way can cause us to be fearful. Can we hear the Lord saying to us, “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.”? Can we have the faith to open our hearts to receive the Lord, in spite of our fears? Can we trust that the Lord comes to us for our own good, as well as for the good of many?

In our days, we have bene confronted again and again with the weaknesses and sins of people in the Church – especially of people in authority in the Church. Storms can come from within the Church just as easily as they can batter the Church from outside. We find ourselves to be, all too often, an uninspiring blend of wheat and weeds. This is as true for us as individuals as it is for us as Church. This makes it feel especially tempting to want to look elsewhere for some sign of the Lord’s presence, or for some other way to find salvation for ourselves. Nevertheless, we are challenged to have faith in the boat we have been given. We can certainly pray and work for the strengthening and purification of our little boat. But this boat, weak as it may seem, remains filled with the presence and love of the Lord. He comes to us in the dark of our night, and assures us to not be afraid. He is here. Emmanuel. God with us.